Staff meetings that work - the cure for performance appraisal phobia!

People hate performance appraisals. Okay, maybe that's a generalisation - there might be 1% of people out there that get excited about sitting down for that typically 6 monthly or 12 monthly review of their performance with their manager. And there's probably 1% of managers who also look forward to conducting performance appraisals with their team members. But performance appraisals are one of those 'must do' activities that both managers and team members tend to dislike.

To counteract this, we often focus on the performance appraisal process and content. Making sure we look not just at results ('what' they achieve), but also 'how' the person approaches their work and interacts with customers and colleagues. We might try to gather feedback from multiple sources. We might try to balance discussions about the year past with time to think about the year ahead. But we still tend to run into these pitfalls:

  • The appraisal is a high stakes 'event' which tends to add pressure to both the manager and team member
  • The manager and team member haven't built a strong relationship, which tends to reduce the quality of feedback and the likelihood of acceptance
  • There's a lack of focus and unclear goals around the job - by the time we discover this during the appraisal it's too late to do anything about the year that has gone by
  • It's a one-way conversation with too much pressure placed on one person - typically (but not always) the manager - to drive the process
  • Feedback isn't balanced - we either focus too much on the positives or on constructive/corrective feedback
I think the answer is actually pretty simple. It's about having 1:1 meeting structures that make performance discussions a more frequent occurrence, and that address the issues above. 

I recommend having monthly 1:1 meetings with team members, along with monthly team meetings as a group (more on the team meetings another time). I scheduled these meetings in our calendars and they took priority over the other day-to-day issues that might come up.

The structure for 1:1 meetings below is what I've found to work with people and teams that I've managed. You might want to vary this structure, but hopefully it will provide some ideas for you to think about.

1:1 Meeting Agenda

  • What you're currently doing well
  • What you think you need to work on

Training and development


Action items
  • Review previous month
  • Any new items

The expectation with this monthly 1:1 meeting format is that both the manager and the team member come to the meeting prepared. Both will think about performance - what's going well, and where the person might need to focus more attention. The meeting provides a chance to discuss these areas. We can also focus on the priorities that we see for the coming month. This often helps to clarify differing expectations. Sometimes the team member might highlight a priority the manager wasn't aware of. Sometimes the manager might be able to clarify a priority that the team member isn't placing enough emphasis on. Each month we can look at training and development - not just formal training, but opportunities to be exposed to new parts of the business or to shadow another team member in their work. 'Other' really covers anything else the manager or team member want to discuss. It might include frustrations or challenges the team member is facing that the manager can help to 'unblock'. It might include updates needed to the position description to reflect changes in the accountabilities of the role. We then discuss any action items noted from the last meeting, or add any new items that the manager or team member need to follow up. 

After each meeting I then typed up some brief notes under each of these areas and shared these with the team member in a document. This document grew across the year, with each meeting as a new page. This document formed the main input into the formal performance appraisal. By doing this, the annual performance appraisal became little more than a confirmation of what had been discussed through the year. Any areas that weren't clear had already been discussed. It reduced the pressure on both me and my team members, and helped us to explore career and development opportunities on a more frequent basis.

I found these monthly 1:1 meetings something to look forward to. They were a great chance to better understand my team members that I relied upon to produce results. I hope you find these ideas helpful in improving your ability to manager performance of your team members across the year.

The best thing about working here? It's the people...

I've been working with employee surveys for nearly 20 years now. If you've been in the workforce for a while, it might feel like you've spent a similar amount of time filling out employee surveys! Thankfully using a more focused approach and better analysis techniques means employee surveys can be a lot shorter than they used to be. One thing that hasn't changed is that most employee surveys include an open-ended question that goes something like this - "What do you see as the best thing about working here?"  

People write about all sorts of things when they are asked to consider that single best thing about working for their organisation. Some say "my manager". Some say "flexibility". It's pretty rare for people to mention "the office layout", "pay" or "meetings". In fact, one of the most frequent answers is "the people". And to be honest that used to frustrate me. After all the effort leaders put in to planning, rewarding, communicating and managing, the best thing you can think of is "the people"?!? I used to think “What can a leader possibly do about that?  Is the takeaway for leaders that they just need to hire nice people?"

But over time I've started to appreciate the business lesson for leaders that sits beneath this response. That perhaps the best thing about working at your organisation being "the people" does serve a purpose, and is something that you as a leader can influence. 

When you talk to employees about why "the people" matter so much, they often talk about the importance of working with "nice" people. People who are friendly and accepting of others. And people who will go out of their way to help you, even when it's not in their job description. In contrast, people will leave an otherwise great organisation where people aren't "nice" - where bad behaviour is tolerated and an individualistic "win at all costs" attitude prevails. 

When you speak to leaders about diversity, everyone knows that the textbook "correct" answer is "the more diversity, the better". Diversity has a lot of benefits for organisations - it helps your organisation to think in new ways, to be able to relate more effectively to a broader range of customers or clients, to be more nimble in responding to change - in short, to produce better results. But, if we're honest, a diverse workforce is much harder to manage than a non-diverse workforce (I'd say "homogeneous" instead of "non-diverse", but it still sounds to me like something you do to milk). 

The key to capitalising on diversity is actually "inclusion" - to what extent does your organisation (and you can substitute "your organisation" with "your people") accept others who are different? You can recruit a diverse workforce, but without inclusion it's a recipe for conflict, distraction and reduced performance. If your organisation and it's people aren't inclusive, you'd likely be better off avoiding diversity at all costs. And "inclusion" isn't a policy or document - it IS your people. It's also not how quickly we can force new people to become like us - it's how quickly the organisation can accept difference and build on the new resources a diverse workforce brings. 

Why is the response of "the people" so important? Why is it the best thing about working here for so many people? It's because the people are supportive and inclusive. They make you feel like you belong. They make you feel like this is a place where you can contribute and make a difference. The benefit for the organisation is actually collaboration. Inclusion and support breaks down the silos in your organisation. It helps to deliver results that the sum of individuals never could.  At our core we are social animals, and the connections we make at work have the potential to motivate us in a way that yet another meeting or presentation never could. 

As a leader there are a few things you might consider:

  • To what extent do we have an inclusive culture? Do we put up with people who don't "play nicely with others" (as a client once described it)? Or is that kind of bad behaviour something that our culture rejects even when the person in question is hitting all their targets?
  • As a leader, what can I do to build a supportive and inclusive culture? What's something practical I can do to model this to my team, and to recognise and reward it in others?
  • Do we really appreciate diversity? If not, what might be the preconceptions and biases amongst our otherwise well-meaning people that are getting in the way?
Recognise that many of your employees will see the best thing about working for your organisation as "the people". Sometimes that means overlooking the slightly longer lunch break, or the bit-too-loud conversation in the kitchen. It might mean considering an idea that initially seems to be too “out there” to be practical. It might even mean dragging yourself along to sing happy birthday around a cake when all you want to do is finish off some work. "The people" matter. Support and inclusion matter. They're not just "nice to haves" - they're core business.  

Retaining Generation Y? Help Build their CV.

Leaders are struggling to retain talented younger employees. Many leaders are quick to decry what they see as Generation Y’s lack of loyalty and commitment. As I’ve noted elsewhere though, generational differences are often overstated and don’t necessarily help in predicting or explaining individual preferences. However it’s easy to see how the corporate downsizing that has impacted family and friends has taught this generation that employee loyalty may not be reciprocated by employers. Add to this Generation Y's high levels of education and mobility, and you have a recipe for high turnover.

So is it all about bean bags, bright colours and free food? Well, making offices more ‘cool’ only goes so far. Some organisations try to take these surface elements (from organisations that are known for their ability to attract and retain Gen Y’s) and inject them into their own offices. Like all transplants though, they’re often rejected. Cool offices are an outworking of the culture of organisations – they’re not the driver of the culture. Likewise pay doesn't guarantee longer tenure – you can read more about why here.

There is a practical way to help retain Generation Y employees. While it sounds counterintuitive, helping workers to grow and build their CV can make them more likely to stay with your organisation. 'Mastery', or developing additional skills and experience, is a major source of workplace motivation (see more here). As a manager, you can consciously help your people to develop skills and experience that matter to them. In addition, you can help employees to recognise the development and progress that they are making.

During your regular meetings with your people, make sure you set aside some time to identify what further development is of interest. Also spend time looking back at the previous month or quarter to identify the new skills and experience that they have gained. Help them to summarise this experience in a way that will fit into a CV or LinkedIn profile.

By highlighting and increasing their employability, you will be able to demonstrate the value staying with the organisation will have on their development. And the approach also works across all employees. For example, as people approach retirement, providing them with skills that will help them to pick up part time roles (if that's what they want) will also be attractive.

Achieving this at an organisational level requires managers who can have skilled discussions with employees. This is likely to involve some investment in skill development for managers as well. But, as we’ve seen, this development may also help to retain your managers.

Best Practice? Here's a Brochure...

So you're thinking about 'best practice' for your organisation, and start looking around. It won't be long before you stumble across brochures from all sorts of consulting firms highlighting their version of 'best practice' and what it could deliver. When thinking about implementing 'best practice' in your organisation (and indeed whether it will be 'best practice' for you), it's helpful to explore the different roles of consultants and academics. It also helps to appreciate that 'best practice' for your organisation is unlikely to be found in a brochure.

Consultants, and the firms they work for, are primarily driven by the pursuit of 'practical benefit' (oh - and money). They therefore invest in developing approaches that help organisations to produce better results - and that's a good thing. Without this investment, a lot of what we know about organisations and how they operate wouldn't exist. These approaches provide practical guidance to leaders in how to achieve results. In order to protect the advantage their approaches provide, consulting firms hide them from competitors and from organisations who aren't willing to pay to use the approach. And, because of the significant investment it takes to come up with a new approach and all the supporting materials, they will only change their approach if they really have to - even maintaining an approach in the face of contrary evidence. And they're also unable to build on the good work that a competitor may have produced.

Academics are driven by pursuit of 'the truth' (oh - and being published, which leads to money). They want to know what best 'explains' or 'predicts' things we can observe in organisations. This approach means that what they develop must be open to scrutiny and to be built on by others. It also means they tend to focus on quite specific issues or questions - something where there can be a clear 'answer'. Academic ideas about 'best practice' will change over time - that's an important part of explaining and predicting. Academics also tend to only tell you when something 'works', but it is possible for others to demonstrate that it doesn't work, or that the idea can be improved. The researchers themselves are inclined to improve their ideas to make sure they're 'correct'. The problem with this level of detail and focus is that it's, well, boring. You can read an article and think 'so what' due to the lack of immediate practical application. The research is still important though, as it may be building towards something that does actually matter in practice, or perhaps it contributes to part of a bigger picture.

So that's great - you want your organisation to improve, and one way to do that is to apply the best thinking to your organisation and its leaders. How can you practically do that without buying into 'fads' and without scaring people off with 'theory'?

Armstrong and Miller give us an insight into this dilemma of explaining and applying scientific theory in this comedy sketch:

Here are some tips for applying 'theory' to your organisation:
  • Start with business priorities first - Is this theory relevant to our business priorities?
  • Ensure there's a demonstrable practical benefit - Will applying this approach actually help?
  • Ensure there's relevance to your people and their work - Will this help address the needs of the 'end users'?
  • Examine other perspectives - What do others think?
  • Create, or build on, a common language - Does this help us to understand and communicate with each other more effectively?
  • Balance 'ours' versus 'best practice' - Are we better to customise this to our organisation, or keep the approach unchanged?
  • Involve leaders early - How can we ensure implementing the change is 'done with' instead of 'done to' leaders?
  • Have the approach 'sold' by leaders who have experienced it - How can our leaders champion the new approach?
So what are the main priorities for leaders in your organisation? What have you read, seen or heard recently that you could apply to help leaders meet this priority?