Appraisal Systems: are they a not-very-intelligent form of Artificial Intelligence in the workplace?
There’s a lot of debate around the value of workplace appraisals and whether they are a waste of time. Arguments in favour include the ones that assert it is necessary to do a rain check once a year to see whether employees are on track and on song. Then there’s the argument that businesses need formal means of capturing individual performance data. And perhaps most cogent of all, is the argument that without appraisals it’s hard to hold people to account for their performance or failure to perform.
I spent my early professional years peddling this stuff. I believed in the value of formal appraisals and worked with companies to implement and improve them. But, I now realise, I was essentially seeing them as a way of compensating for poor management engagement with staff.
Too many appraisal systems are a tacit admission that managers need a procedural reason (or nudge) for ‘touching base’ with employees at least once a year. Most appraisal systems have subsequently become a vast over-compensation which far from creating engagement invariably create resentment, frustration, stress, and a lot of work for a lot of people.
We’ve continued to make an industry out of appraisals, but it’s a low productivity industry and the ROI is probably in the red.
It’s as if Appraisals have become the Artificial Intelligence (AI) equivalent of a manager. A robotic, unsubtle, non-empathetic, procedural and largely pointless ‘conversation’ between two people who don’t know each other very well and probably don’t like each other very much (if they had any feelings for each other whatsoever), but are blindly following a algorithmic formula and desperately trying to rationalise their opinions to justify any subsequent pay settlement.
Appraising, giving feedback, showing interest, setting and reviewing objectives, engaging, conversing, sharing, supporting, and discussing challenges and aspirations: all of these are good ‘human’ things. But, they need to be happening daily, weekly, monthly and yearly between managers and their staff, formally and informally, casually, naturally and occasionally with documentary evidence. It is surely foolhardy to assume that substituting all of this with one Annual ‘systematic’ Appraisal could ever be a viable or valuable replacement.
An experienced manager once shared with me an early managerial experience when he was obliged to appraise one of his staff. Opening the conversation, he asked his colleague, “So, how do you think you’ve done this year?” To his amazement, his colleague boldly announced that as far as he was concerned he was a straight A’s employee. The manager was momentarily lost for words, eventually recovering enough to suggest that his own opinion differed somewhat. The reply he got from his direct report was a sobering one: “I’ve naturally assumed I must deserve straight A’s because you’ve never told me otherwise.” Under such circumstances the manager felt compelled to sign him off as an A employee on the appraisal form, and vowed never to find himself in the same compromising situation again.
If we talk to our people and engage with them sincerely and routinely, the Appraisal ‘System’ can be largely consigned to history. Isn’t that a more intelligently human approach?