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How to Improve the Effectiveness of Performance Management and Appraisal by Overcoming the Root Cause of the Problem

By Julie Freeman

This article explores why existing formal and informal approaches to employee performance management and appraisal (EPMA) tend to work well enough in theory, but fail to meet expectations in practice.

It is split into two parts. Part 1 identifies the root cause of the problem and presents a solution for how it can be eliminated, or at least minimized. Part 2 explains in more detail how this solution works. Various suggestions for how it can be applied to meet differing individual or corporate needs are also outlined.

Part 1: Cause and Solution

Current Situation

There is a huge amount of frustration and dissatisfaction with existing methods of formal employee performance management and appraisal (EPMA). Regardless of whether the approach is based on rating scales, competency assessments, objectives, key performance indicators, or other performance standards, rankings, 360-degree feedback, or the balanced scorecard, the problem appears to be the same. While they all appear to work well enough in theory, to a greater or lesser extent they all tend to fail in practice. They just don't seem to measure up to the expectations that managers, employees, and organizations alike have for them. This appears to be the case even when the implementation of a given method is well managed and accompanied by proper training on how it should be used

The problem is not limited to formal EPMA systems. Organizations encourage, even urge, their managers to talk informally with their employees about their performance on an ongoing basis. However, this rarely happens. Moreover, even if it does occur, the discussion itself and the results it achieves are often less than ideal. Despite our best efforts to date, managers still report that they are uncomfortable giving feedback and discussing performance with their employees, especially if poor performance is a factor. Consequently, they avoid the situation, or fudge the facts, whenever possible.

The reasoning behind formal or informal EPMA is laudable; however, the methods we currently use do not achieve the results we want. The bottom line is that "open and honest" communication (the Holy Grail of appraisal generally) remains elusive. The problem is real and pervasive and every organization seems to be struggling with it.

While it is difficult to quantify the negative effect that such a problem must have within an organization, we know (at least intuitively) that it is probably staggering. For example, my estimates indicate that, regardless of whether it is done formally or informally, only about 10 per cent of the managerial population have a natural ability to discuss performance with their employees in an effective way. Since it is likely that this population follows a normal statistical distribution it means that, for the remaining 90 per cent of managers, giving feedback and discussing performance with employees remains a task that is easier said than done. This appears to be the case regardless of whether or not they have previously received any training in how to do it properly.

Aside from the obvious negative consequences that a problem of this magnitude has on an organization's productivity, the costs on a human level in terms of low morale and demotivation may be equally devastating. While this cost is not necessarily quantifiable, it is definitely reflected in the bottom line. Not being 'open and honest' with employees about their performance, how they are perceived by management and what such a perception means for the future, raises some important moral and ethical questions around an organization's responsibility for, and often-stated commitment to, developing its employees.

For example, is it right for managers to give acceptable formal appraisals in order to avoid bringing up poor performance issues and then to subsequently deal with them by ignoring, sidelining, downsizing, 'promoting", or transferring, employees without telling them why? Is it fair to expect any employee (including managers) to resort to guesswork to find out how they are perceived and what this means for their career?

Ultimately, is it a smart (or even an acceptable) organizational strategy to leave employee success to chance? To expect employees to succeed not as a result of clear information about how well they are they are doing, but rather in spite of it?

Most books on management (including the recent bestseller, First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, 1999) advocate the importance and intrinsic value - at both an organizational and individual level - of helping employees to reach their full potential by assisting them to find their right 'fit' in (or out) of the organization. However, as these books point out, this is a managerial task, not an organizational one. Unfortunately, it is this basic inability of most managers to sit down and talk to employees honestly and effectively about their performance and potential that prevents them from following such advice. The process is stopped before it even starts.

Next page > Root cause of the problem

Julie Freeman is a training and development professional with over 15 years of experience in the corporate training environment and in consulting. Her primary area of expertise is in the design, development, and delivery of soft-skills training for managers and supervisors.

Julie has a BA in Psychology with a minor in Human Resources, a Graduate Diploma in Computer-Assisted Learning, and an MA in Educational Technology (the training and development degree).

She now specializes in showing corporations, managers, and supervisors how they can finally achieve the kind of "open and honest" communication with their employees about their performance that works in the way that we have always envisioned that it should.

Julie was born and raised in the UK, but has lived and worked in North America for most of her adult life.

Her website is at

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