The Greatest Myths of Annual Appraisals (Part 3)

This is the third installment in a three-part series debunking common conventions about performance reviews.

Myth: Feedback Drives Improved Performance

If feedback is given brilliantly, it can improve performance. But as we know, the annual appraisal system is far from brilliant. Why doesn’t it work as a feedback mechanism?

Like Being Back at School

The first reason goes back to the parent–child dynamic so prevalent in HR. In a typical appraisal session, two adults sit together, but only one has the form to fill in and makes the judgements. When I ask people how they feel about being on the receiving end of this, they tell me it’s like being back at school. 

Research findings by Dr. David Brock of the NeuroLeadership Institute help explain why this happens: When we feel threatened, the part of our brain that solves problems, thinks laterally, and is open to feedback shuts down. So at the very moment when we want people to be most interested in how they can improve their performance, they throw up their defenses. All they’re thinking is, “What rating am I going to get at the end of this? What will they say about me? Will I like it or not?” This means instead of being happy to have an open conversation about how they could do better, they’re more likely to go into a sulky, defensive, and childlike mode.

The Recency Syndrome

The second part of this myth about feedback is what I call the recency syndrome. Most managers find it difficult to remember what someone’s performance has been over an entire year. So the feedback they give tends to relate to employees’ most recent behavior, whereas the appraisal is supposed to encompass a much longer time period than that.

What’s more, as Rock also says, we’re only really able to change one behavior at a time, and we need feedback about it at the moment that behavior is evidenced. It also needs to be consistently given over a pe- riod of around six weeks. 

What do we do in appraisals, though? We store up our feedback, expecting the employee to change seven or eight habits at once — habits that are out of context, as well. It’s impossible for any of us to improve our performance this way.

Myth: Appraisals Are Needed for Poor Performers

When I talk to HR directors about how we can do performance management in a more adult-to-adult and humane way, most of them get where I’m coming from pretty quickly. There’s one myth, however, they find it hard to stop believing in. 

“But Lucy,” they say, “we need an annual appraisal because how else do we identify and deal with the poor performers?”

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I’m always amazed by this, because what they seem to be saying is they’re happy to put 98% of their people through a process that demotivates them, doesn’t drive value, and doesn’t improve performance because they want to get to the 2% of people who behave badly. Doesn’t that seem absurd?

But even leaving that point to one side, the fact is that most managers find it incredibly difficult to record poor feedback on an appraisal form. They just don’t do it. 

In my workshops I’m often joined by a senior partner in an employment law firm; I ask him to stand up and state his experience in this area. It can be summed up in one powerful sentence: “You know, for 20 years I’ve been a senior partner in a law firm working on unfair dismissal tribunals, and in not one of them has an appraisal form ever helped an employer’s case.” 

This makes sense. How many times have you tried to help a manager who was sick of one of his staff letting him down, only to look at the employee’s appraisal form and find the person has been thanked for another great year?

So I’m afraid the idea that we need appraisals to deal with poor performance is just another myth.

Excerpted from HR Disrupted, 2nd Edition by Lucy Adams. Practical Inspiration Publishing. ©2021

Lucy Adams is a "recovering HR director." Having held board-level HR roles in major organizations, she is now on a mission to change outdated HR practices for good.

Lucy is also the author of HR Disrupted: It’s time for something different. As the ex-HRD at the BBC, Lucy brings her beliefs and practices into her work as CEO of Disruptive HR.

Published in January 2017, HR Disrupted is already a best-selling book on HR, topping the Amazon charts. Her book addresses some of the biggest challenges facing leaders and HR today and is packed with practical ways to innovate HR’s approach to leading people in a disrupted world.

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