Four steps to appraisals that inspire peak performance

Dr. Linda Henman

Direct reports – people who need direction and leadership – rely on their leaders to give them feedback and mentoring, not just management and evaluations. However, these people who most need their boss’s help frequently lack the guidance that would enable them to move to the next levels of success – theirs, their team’s and the company’s.

Too often leaders are not prepared or trained to conduct an appraisal that stretches performance and ensures their direct reports’ development. Instead, the appraisals become confrontational and judgmental; goals remain unclear; neither person is prepared; and the discussion occurs when it’s too late to do anything about the problem. Today’s organizations demand more from their leaders. Therefore, a well thought out performance appraisal system, clear expectations, reviews that inspire, and action plans are critical to the individual’s and organization’s success.


An effective performance appraisal system offers many advantages: better performance, improved relationships, coordination of personal goals and business objectives, identification of high potential individuals, and justification for monetary rewards. However, much depends on the efforts that go into crafting the system. The first step is to have clearly defined job descriptions that specify the tasks, functions, and responsibilities of each job. What does it take to do this job right? What are the success indicators? What are the derailers? Answers to these questions form the foundation for deciding behaviour-based competencies for the particular job, the area of the organization, or the company as a whole. Once decision makers decide how to measure performance, they are ready to identify specific behaviours that demonstrate competency in relevant areas and to choose the scale that makes sense for them.

Usually competencies relate to one of four areas: ability to get results, capacity to form relationships, decision making and leadership. Specifically defined competencies might also include business acumen, customer focus, coaching, integrity, vision, communication, teamwork, flexibility, technical skills, and innovation. Once the company decides on 8-10 competencies, the next step is to establish the rating scale.

The most basic scale is three points: exceeds expectations, meets expectations, or fails to meet expectations. However, a four-point scale gives more options for evaluation and forces the evaluator to avoid a middle of the road review.

Once decision makers have determined the criteria for evaluation, they need to set the timeline. In general, four meetings per year work well. The first is a goal setting meeting; the second addressees progress on the goals; the third surfaces any problems that might interfere with the end of the year appraisal; and the final one is a formality that ties the progress to rewards.

This sort of schedule avoids surprises and the “once a year” mentality that dooms most performance appraisal systems. Also, the periodic reviews give the employee a chance to take corrective action when there are still opportunities to make a difference.

This does not imply that ongoing feedback should not take place between meetings. On the contrary, the four meeting format is the minimum number of meetings the boss should have with the direct report. Even though bosses often resist adding to the number of formal meetings per year, they soon learn that the increase in productivity and morale among their direct reports more than compensates for the extra time they commit to the process.


The purpose of goal setting is to tie individual performance to the organization’s mission, vision, and values and to link short-term objectives to long-term targets. People most often commit to goals they’ve helped construct. SMART goals should be objectives that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely. When the boss and the direct report work together to clarify these goals, the direct report is more likely to commit to rather than comply with the efforts that will drive success. Well written goals serve a variety of purposes: they create opportunities for objective, fair dialogue; they define the “score card” that will be used to determine rewards; they energize and motivate; and they focus efforts.

Support from the boss is an inexpensive but effective way to improve performance and show a commitment to excellence. Research suggests, however, that bosses frequently do not support the efforts of their direct reports. Mentoring, giving feedback, and developing others are usually the boss’s lowest ratings, primarily because “getting the job done” seems more important. Therefore, in order for an appraisal system to succeed, companies need to recognize and reward efforts related to leading and managing others.


Scheduled conversations build trust and reduce anxiety. Feedback about performance should occur when it can do the most good – when it is immediate and focused. When a direct report makes a mistake, addressing the problem right away is the surest way to take corrective action. Similarly, when a person excels at a task, complimenting and praising the efforts immediately will show appreciation and encourage more of the same.

One of the reasons these critical discussions don’t occur is bosses feel uncomfortable, unprepared, or ineffective in such encounters. They avoid the very conversations that could help them build better relationships and increase productivity among the people who need their direction and support. One way for bosses to improve their coaching is to follow the GLAD feedback method, a step-by-step approach that can help bosses improve performance appraisals and inspire peak performance:

  • Get to the core of the performance issues
  • Listen to the other first
  • Add your own ideas
  • Develop an action plan


Getting to the core of the performance issue means focusing the discussion on actions or behaviours, things the person can control and change.

Listening to the other person first means obtaining the person’s ideas and opinions before offering your own. It also shows a willingness to consider new information, and if necessary, to change the nature of the review.

Before moving to the next step of the review, the boss should take advantage of the opportunity to address as many issues as possible with open questions. Asking the employees to talk about their perceptions of problem areas will reduce the defensive reaction that can accompany the boss giving a solution. For example, the boss can ask, “What things do you still need to do to improve?” or “What are some ideas for correcting that problem?” “What?” and “How?” are the magic words that open the discussion.

Another part of this step is paraphrasing what the other has said – summarize ideas and reflect emotions. Often a summary statement is more powerful when followed by another open question. For instance, the boss can restate the message by saying, “So you’re not worried because you think this will work if you give it enough time. How will you address the deadlines that are in place already?” A series of these kinds of statements and questions can frequently lead the direct reports to conclusions they had not previously considered.

Ideally the discussion to this point should have implied a course of action for the direct report. If, in spite of the boss’s best efforts that hasn’t happened, the third step – adding your own ideas – is the time to give that direction.

Clearly defining the specific behaviours that the direct report should address will help keep the discussion focused. If the boss disagrees with the employee’s assessment of the situation, if there has been a shift in priorities, or if the two disagree on action steps, this is the time for the boss to express ideas and concerns and to begin a discussion about how to resolve differences.

If personality issues or decision making capacities are interfering with the person’s performance, the problem may be an inability, rather than an unwillingness, to do the job. In that case, the boss needs to consider alternatives to either give the direct report additional help or move him or her to an area that is better suited for that person’s talents and strengths. People need to hear the things they are doing well so that they can leverage their strengths, but they also need to identify improvement areas. The direct report needs to have a clear understanding of what the boss expects; those things the employee needs to do more of, or less of, to improve. Employees report that they appreciate this level of candor when there’s still time to take corrective action.


Many companies discuss compensation, raises, and bonuses in one end of the year discussion – the same discussion that addresses goal setting, feedback, evaluation, and action planning. When all this is lumped together in one meeting, the meeting that happens is a type of post mortem. Even though it’s too late to do anything that will make a difference, employees are somehow supposed to be motivated and enthusiastic to charge into the upcoming year, more focused and productive. It doesn’t work that way. On the contrary, they are angry and resentful, especially if they have had no warning that their performance was sub-standard.

The first phase of action planning, therefore, should take place at the beginning of the year. The action plan is a fluid document that should change with new information, accomplishments, unexpected events and learning. Therefore, at the beginning of the year and at each subsequent meeting, the boss and direct report need to prioritize objectives to identify the current two most important goals. Even though the direct report might write several goals at the beginning of the year, ongoing discussions between the boss and direct report should reexamine the importance and relevance of each objective.

Timelines for goals help this process. Some people have the capacity to break large projects into manageable parts; others need direction from the boss to do so. The main payoff of an action plan is not the form or the document but the discussion. Once the employee and boss know what is needed and expected, and each has identified roadblocks and the timeline is clear, the action plan is apparent.

This does not imply that writing the action plan is optional. A written action plan is the tangible agreement among the stakeholders. It serves as a kind of report card for tracking results and re-directing efforts. Therefore, both the boss and the direct report should keep a copy of the original agreement and the subsequent notes and changes. When this happens, the end of the year evaluation brings no surprises.

CONCLUSIONMost performance appraisals and performance management systems are not what they could be, primarily because the system is flawed, and the participants are not prepared. Creating a coaching culture, one that is characterized by clear goals, ongoing feedback and mentoring, scheduled reviews, and focused action plans is also likely to create a more productive culture. Bosses need to realize that they can and should influence performance and they need to learn and practice the skills associated with performance management. Even though this all takes time and effort, the rewards are impressive and immediate.

Reprinted with permission from Linda Henman. For more than 30 years, Dr. Linda Henman has worked with executives and boards of directors to help them set strategy, plan succession, and develop talent. The author of The Magnetic Boss: How to Become the Boss No One Wants to Leave, she has worked with Fortune 500 companies, small businesses, and military organizations. www.henmanperformancegroup.com

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