Performance management and appraisals - common pitfalls and how to do it successfully

The good news is performance management works

‘A hospital that appraises around 20% more staff and trains about 20% more appraisers is likely to have 1,090 fewer deaths per 100,000 admissions.’[i] Many other studies have also found this strong relationship between performance management, appraisals and organisational performance. How come then, it is a disliked process in so many organizations? It’s hard to do well


Performance Management is hard to do well. Some common difficulties identified in research include

Ø  Poor quality performance discussions between managers and staff members

Ø  Standardised, jargon filled, prescriptive and overly detailed paperwork

Ø  Line managers lacking competence and commitment to the process

Ø  Employees having a poor understanding of the goals or point of the process

Ø  Rating and pay agendas dominating the discussion, driving out time for performance feedback and development planning

Ø  Lack of follow up or practical action between formal reviews


Many of these problems arise because of a failure to recognise that it’s a social process.

Too often it is seen as a human resources owned and driven technical process. Understanding performance management as a social process helps us to realise that the important and key components are the quality of the relationship and the communication. From this perspective the paperwork trail becomes a supporting mechanism rather than the driving mechanism.

As one of the managers in the Institute for Employment Studies said ‘its about having communications and good one-to-one conversations.’[ii]


What does this mean for managers? What helps?

1. Recognize, and use, the power of positivity

Feeling good accesses many useful personal and organisational qualities – creativity, complex thinking, sociability, resilience and so on. Appraisal conversations are a good opportunity to create some positivity. To do this they need to contain a ratio of at least 3:1 positive to negative experiences for both parties. This means time should be spend genuinely seeking out and paying attention to things that have gone well, successes and achievements over the last time period. At the same time it’s an opportunity for employees to express their appreciation of their manager’s support and guidance over the period.

2. Use positive psychology based appraisal processes

Increasingly practitioners are creating positive appraisal processes for the regular review meetings. For example the enthusiasm story that asks a manager prior to the meeting to think about when they are most enthusiastic about this employee, when they have seen them at their best. The best self-reflection encourages the appraise to understand their strengths and attributes as seen by others. The feed-forward interview encourages the appraiser and the appraisee to focus on building forward from the best of the past.

3. Recognize performance appraisal as an ongoing activity

 In addition, managers should be praising good work as it happens, not waiting until the formal ‘appraisal event’. The diamond feedback process is effective here. In the same way, of course, they should be dealing with problems in performance as they arise. In this way the ‘formal’ appraisal becomes a punctuation point in an ongoing discussion that pulls everything together that has been happening over the last period, and links it to future activities. Formal appraisals really shouldn’t contain any surprises.

4.Learn about success from studying success

One way to help develop a more positive feel to appraisal activity is to spend at least some time focussing on learning from success. There is a common misconception that one can only learn from mistakes and failure. It is true they are important sources of learning – about how to avoid failure. They don’t necessarily teach about success. Studying success tells us about what success looks like and how it is achieved.

5. In building relationships it’s quality not quantity that counts.

Research shows that the quality of our connections and interactions with others vary enormously. What people really value are the high quality connections where they feel something important is happening in the moment of the conversation. In general these are two-way conversations where each is able to build on the other’s contributions to create something new (as opposed to experiencing a one way downloading of information for example). Each party is left feeling refreshed, energised, valued and recognised. They can be fleeting moments. Over time they build to a resilient relationship that can withstand strain, such as the strain of having to give feedback on poor performance. Use your micro-moments of interaction well.

6. It’s a culture not an event

Performance management needs to be seen as a cultural process. The organization needs to create a culture where reviewing group and individual performance after events becomes an unexceptional habit. As each meeting, project or presentation finishes quickly ask how it was for people and if there was anything different they would like to see next time. After a sales pitch review with colleagues how it went. As it becomes part of normal organisational life for everyone to review their own and, when invited, colleagues performance, so the ‘appraisal’ meeting will become less of a ‘dead’ event.

7. Link it to the mission

Make it clear to everyone how these conversations relate back to the organisational purpose so people can see performance management has a bigger purpose than just ‘improving’ them personally.

8. Use the three top tips

Keep it simple

Equip the managers

Avoid forced distribution curves


More on these and related topics can be found in Sarah’s book Positive Psychology at Work.

See more articles from the Knowledge Warehouse on this topic here.


Appreciating Change is skilled and experienced at supporting leaders in working in this challenging, exciting and productive way with their organizations. Find out more about how we can help you with this and other aspects of Leadership.

For further information on these alternative approaches to change, please contact us or phone 07973 782 715



[i] Songs of Appraisal Michael West