The appraisal interview reappraised.
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The appraisal interview is one of the most ubiquitous features of life in organisations. It is also one of the most ridiculed. Evidence mounts each year to the effect that most such interviews are poorly managed, fail to improve organisational performance, demoralise employees and subject the managers who administer them to intolerable levels of stress. No wonder that one researcher, unkindly but accurately, has described them as ‘the annual fiasco’ (Pickett, 2003, p.237). It is typical of the data that a conference of human resources professionals found over 90% of those present declaring that, if given the chance, they would modify, revise or even eliminate the performance appraisal system currently used in their organisations (HR Focus, 2000). Thus, appraisal interviews are governed by some seemingly impregnable assumptions that research nevertheless suggests may be invalid – e.g. that organisations are rational entities, administrative systems are highly reliable, and most people can be trained to be unbiased and candid in their assessments of others (McCauley, 1997). Some have even argued that traditional appraisals are so inherently dysfunctional that they need to be abolished altogether (e.g. Coens and Jenkins, 2000). Their ongoing popularity represents another instance of hope triumphing over experience. This chapter therefore offers a different perspective to that often found in the literature, particularly practitioner guides that instruct on ‘how to’. Firstly, I define what appraisal interviews are and outline the range of roles they are expected to perform. Flowing from this, the voluminous evidence that indicates why appraisals generally fail to work is reviewed. It would be tempting to outline a series of steps and skills that appear to avoid these problems, as many texts do (e.g. Bacal, 2003; Sandler and Keefe, 2003). However, the conclusion offered here is that such piecemeal perspectives are more likely to compound the problem than resolve it. In particular, it is argued that most people are inherently poor at receiving criticism. We are so sensitive to it that even if critical feedback forms only a small part of the appraisal process it is likely to be regarded by the recipient as representative of the entire interview. The evidence clearly suggests that when such perceptions arise they derail the main intended point of the appraisal interview – which is to improve performance. But we are also poor at giving accurate criticism or feedback more generally. For example, managers are inclined to exaggerate the personal contribution that people make to negative outcomes and under-estimate the role of systems in producing poor performance (Gray, 2002). There is no compelling reason to believe that training or any other intervention will so improve the attitude of most people to either giving or receiving critical feedback that appraisal interviews will become effective for most people in most organisations in the near future. This chapter therefore outlines a framework to move organisations beyond appraisal interviews, and in the direction of both self appraisal and counselling interviews that, with sufficient support, are more likely to create a regular celebration of positive performance rather than the annual fiasco mostly endured today.