Poor Performance: Why Appraisals Don’t Work, Pt 1

For decades, appraisals have been the tool of choice for recording the evaluation of performance over some past length of time - usually a year.

No one likes them, most put up with them, and nearly everyone has to endure them.

Few people ever stop to consider discarding them altogether because, although they’re unpopular, an alternative hasn’t been found; at least not one that is widely accepted.

And let’s face it.

No one wants to be the first one to try something new and have it fail.



Beginning with this article, we’re going to look at appraisals: how they’re conducted, the assumptions that people make about them and, most of all - their weaknesses.

We’re going to think about the damage that they do to organizational productivity and quality.

We’re also going to think about the cost that organizations incur by using them, and then we’ll consider a more effective way to reward good performance and correct that which is bad.


What is an appraisal?

If you’re a wordsmith, then you will have noticed that the root word is appraise.

That word actually means, “to give praise”.

Keep that in mind.

When you appraise something, what do you do?

You estimate its worth.

How do you do that?

You imagine what its value would be if it was perfect, reduce it according to its flaws, and what you’re left with is its net worth.


Have you ever watched the Antiques Roadshow?

Have you ever attended one of their events or had one of your little treasures examined by them?

We only see the items that have some real monetary or historical value, or are of particular interest.

Countless thousands of items are worth-less, or worthless.

Now employee appraisals are conducted in exactly the same way.

Past employee performance is assessed, we hope against some criteria, areas of improvement are identified, and then some judgement is made about the performance on balance.

The worth is then monetized in the form of a bonus, pay rise, promotion, or some other method that has meaning to a greater or lesser extent.
On the face of it, this all seems logical.

A minus B = C.

People, however, are more than variables in a mathematical equation.

And fundamentally, that’s why appraisals don’t work.


Let’s look at some details.


Open secret

It’s an open secret that appraisals don’t work.

Those who already do good work aren’t motivated by them to keep doing what they’re doing or to do better.

Motivation is largely intrinsic, though it can be dampened or even destroyed by stultifying organisational policies.

And those who are struggling aren’t motivated by them to improve either.

Part of the problem is that appraisals are used for everything that you can imagine.

It’s as if every organizational problem was a nail, and the appraisal a hammer.

In one study, 97% of those surveyed used appraisals to evaluate past performance; but almost as many used them to identify training needs and because they hoped that people would be motivated by them.

Half also used them to determine salaries and bonuses.

However, of those who intended to motivate staff by their use, not a single one felt that they did anything of the kind.

Does this sound like your organisation?

Are you using them like this?



How much time do you spend conducting these things?

On average, supervisors spend two hours on each one.

How many employees are in your organization?

One hundred and ten appraisals equals a year of employee time devoted solely to giving and receiving them.

And all for what exactly?

Something that fails to deliver what is intended?

How much does that cost your organization?

How much do you spend on salaries and wages to conduct them?

And how much productivity is lost while two people sit in a meeting that no one likes?


A typical appraisal

So, what usually happens in a typical performance appraisal meeting?

There’s probably a bit of small talk at the beginning.

That’s because neither party really wants to be there, and it seems a little cold to just dive in, especially if the conversation is expected to go downhill from there.

After that comes the awkward introduction.

“Well. You probably know why I’ve asked you to come to my office”.

(Cue music from the 1960s American cop show Dragnet.)

Actually, many people know when their appraisal will be, either generally or specifically.

We’ll think about the run up to them in another article.


So now you’re having your appraisal.

The conversation gets even more awkward.

Few people are very good at this sort of thing, especially if the news is bad.

They hem and haw.

Maybe they try the old “sandwich technique”. Put the bad news in-between two pieces of relatively good news and hope that no one will notice.

That sounds like this: “You did okay on X, need a bit (British understatement. Actually, means it was a catastrophic nightmare.) of improvement here, and showed some promise in Y. And even though this evaluation period covers the 220 days that you worked last year, I’m going to sum up all of that in under 90 minutes. You get rating ___, which puts you in Band ___. Looks like you just missed (that means you weren’t even close) the minimum for a bonus. Better luck next year. Do you have any questions? No? Good. I should tell five more people today the same thing. Have a nice day”.



No doubt you can see several things that are wrong with this meeting.


Remember the definition of the word?

What part of the meeting didn’t quite sound like you were giving praise?

You should be able to see right away at least one very good reason why appraisals fail to deliver the results that managers hope they will.


In case you missed it, here it is: The meeting has failed to make recipients feel good about themselves.

If you don’t feel good about yourself, you won’t be motivated.


You can pace up and down in front of a mirror every day for a year while enthusiastically spouting out affirmations about how good you feel or how much value you’re contributing, or whatever; but when you’ve tried your best and your boss doesn’t recognise the good that you believe in your heart that you have given, it demoralises you.

Demoralised people are demotivated people.

They’re people who lose hope.

And those who lose hope, even if there’s a regime change, don’t it back overnight.

We’ll look at this in more detail in another article, but if you want to motivate people then first and foremost, you have to do the things that make people want to come to work every day.

You have to create an environment that makes it so that they can’t wait to get to their desks.

You’ve read on this blog before that a high percentage of people in your organisation are bored out of their skulls by the work you pay them to do.

One way to make them want to come to work is to give them activities that aren’t boring.

Some jobs lend themselves to this more easily than others; but if you’re the manager, then it’s up to you to get to know what people can do, to talk to them about what pushes their buttons, and then to do all that you can to give them the freedom to do those things; because that’s what gets people excited.

That’s what fulfills them.

That’s what makes them want to come to work, and that’s what gives them meaning on the job.

Performance appraisals won’t do it, were never intended to do it, and its insanity to expect them to.


To sum up

To sum up, performance appraisals are fraught with problems.

No matter how much you want them to motivate people, they won’t because anything short of “You walked on water and are being promoted to the next level effective last week with back pay” will have the opposite effect.

That’s because if, in their hearts, they believe they have done their best, then they expect you to agree with them.

And if you don’t, then they’ll feel let down.


Follow this series of articles on appraisals.

There are many more earth-shaking revelations coming your way.



If you would like to improve performance and performance management for your team – please email me here to start a conversation.


365 days minus 52 weekends = 256 days; 256 minus 8 public holidays (NY, GF, EM, May Day, Spring BH, Summer BH, Christmas, Boxing Day) = 248; 248 minus 28 days holiday = 220 working days in a year.

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