2013 - New Year but same old staff appraisal??

Happy New year to my blog followers! A couple of months ago I listened to a speaker called Andy Lippok, a hugely experienced HR professional, talk about ‘systems thinking’ during a CIPD event held in Edinburgh. During this very fascinating talk, Andy talked about practices we do in business which don’t work...but we persist with them none the less. One of the subjects he covered was the good old staff appraisal. I listened to this and I thought “he’s right”!! Ok I can’t claim to be quite as long in the tooth - sorry experienced - as Andy, but in my experience to date, I have yet to see an appraisal/performance management type system actually work.
In fact there are two appraisal systems I have been involved in which cost considerable amounts of money and time, yet I didn’t see any evidence that they improved the organisation. In fact with one of them at least, I think it actively hurt the organisation. Yet we persisted with them none the less. We revised them, we called them fancy names, used fancy technology and expensive consultants, but at the end of the day, they just didn’t do what they said they would i.e. improve performance, empowerment and by definition staff engagement and motivation. I’m not the only one with this experience though. I’ve spoken to many other people in various jobs in various companies and their feelings range from indifference through to complete disdain.
All of this has bothered me, but I’ve never been sure of the solution. It’s almost like we’ve all become so used to the employee appraisal that there doesn’t seem to be another way. On the advice of Andy, I recently purchased a book called Abolishing Performance Appraisals by Tom Coens and Mary Jenkins. I haven’t finished it yet but it’s a revelation. It also coincides with other reading I’ve been doing around leadership in a Volatile Uncertain Complex Ambiguous world (VUCA) which I’ll come onto.
I think most appraisal systems are well intentioned. Well most. Or at least they start out well intentioned but they often become about control. Increasingly I notice that many are there just in case something goes wrong. That is something going wrong from a legal point of view and this irks me. I guess it’s a faith thing but my starting point is most people want to do well in life and to do well at their job. I therefore have issue when companies run their organisations on the basis that a minority of people may or may not do something bad. Furthermore, I don’t think it’s necessary from a legal point of view. An appraisal system doesn’t mean you will always win a tribunal – often far from it. And if someone isn’t performing you do something about it at that time and I mean at that time. Appraisal systems don’t substitute good management although I sometimes think that is what many HR Directors must think.
However whether well intentioned or not, my belief is that appraisals fundamentally fail and I think this is because they are a hangover from yester year. Once upon a time ago we had formal hierarchies and people went cap in hand to their boss for their pay. As I’ve touched on in my previous blog posts, this just doesn’t happen anymore or if it does it’s in the minority. It’s far less likely to happen in the future too. We’ve already seen a growth in so called portfolio working i.e. where by people have more than one job. This has perhaps been as a consequence of the recession but it might well be here to stay. The lessons from VUCA seem to be around working in partnership with your employees is going to be much more important. As the world gets ever more competitive and customers demand ever higher levels of service, we need motivated people who can meet those requirements. We need people who are able to change and younger generations in particular will be looking for empowerment and a chance to do fulfilling work. I’ll clarify this. Talented younger people will. The ones you want and so do your competitors.
All of this is not to say that management or in particular leadership is not important. It remains as important as ever. In fact I think appraisal type systems can have their place but the devil is in the detail. Although in saying that, by all accounts some businesses don’t have them at all and do just fine. I expect however that whether it’s a system or no system at all, it won’t mean there is no management of staff.  It just means that it needs to happen all of the time in a common sense, every day way. Meanwhile, if any appraisal system is imposed by HR or senior management, involves grading people and is about assessing people over a given time period, (I mean come on, how often do tasks change within those time frames!), I just don’t think they’ll work. I’d be seriously interested to hear from people who think otherwise?

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