What does Excellent look like? Improving Performance Appraisals

What does Excellent look like?  I have been doing performance appraisals over the past few weeks for my IT team at  the American University of Sharjah.   In the past, there was no guidance or standards for how to evaluate our team members’ performance consistently.   Previous appraisals were done more to make people feel good about themselves that to help them develop their careers.

Here are some quotes from my one to one performance appraisal meetings with our team members:

I always get Excellent but it really doesn’t mean much to me because it doesn’t translate into more money, better job titles or more responsibility.

I have been doing this role for many years and getting Meets Expectations is insulting.

This process really has no impact on my work. I see it as a formality only.

When people give 50% they get Meets Expectations, if they do 75% then that is Exceeds Expectations and when the do 100% that is Excellent.

What do these comments tell us?  

  • No one has ever linked the performance appraisal process to career development.
  • There is a cultural perception that if you work in a role for a period of time, you must be doing well and therefore should get high ratings
  • The employee sees no benefit even from excellent ratings because they are token gestures that are not accompanied by a positive change in their work environment.
  • We have set the bar so low on what excellent looks like that “grade inflation” has biased our team’s perceptions of what excellent really is

I see this as an opportunity to address these issues.   I want to help our team get a realistic assessment of their work and also provide them with guidance on how to improve their performance. We absolutely need to raise the bar on what excellent looks like.

I believe that a performance appraisal can be a powerful tool to help a person understand their current performance levels and to help them aspire to better performance.   Combining a performance appraisal with a personal learning plan leads to a positive and motivating way to develop your team members.  See my post on Intrinsic Motivation for High Tech Workers if you want to get more details about the value of Personal Learning Plans.

Two things need to happen to make this a successful exercise. The first is if we, as the assessors, have the courage to be honest and set a high standard for performance.  The second is that the person being assessed is mature enough to take the feedback as an opportunity to advance their performance.

Here is a quote from Dick Grote from the Forward of Donald L. Kirkpatrick’s book, Improving Employee Performance Through Appraisals and Coaching, 2nd Edition

Performance appraisal is too often seen exclusively the manager’s responsibility, with the employee being merely the target or the victim of the process.

Both the manager and the individual have responsibilites.  When the need for the need for performance improvement arises, the manager has the responsibility to spell out not just what needs to change but also what the manager will do to help the subordinate improve.

These are the guidelines that I used to guide our annual performance appraisal rating process.

Guidance for Determining Performance Ratings

  1. The categories are as follows:  Excellent, Exceeds Expectations, Meets Expectations, Needs Improvement and Unsatisfactory
  2. If you come to work every day and fully meet your responsibilities, you will get a Meets Expectations rating.  This is a good rating and reflects that you are doing what is expected of your role.
  3. If you consistently achieve something above your daily duties, you will get an Exceeds Expectations rating.  This rating indicates that you are regularly looking to advance the areas you are responsible for.  This is a very good rating and reflects you doing more than what is expected of your role.
  4. If you achieved something extraordinary above continuous improvement, you will get an Excellent rating.  This is an exceptionally good rating and will be very difficult to achieve on a consistent basis.
  5. If you come to work every day and are not fully meeting your responsibilities, you will get a Needs Improvement rating.  If this is the case, we will be in a performance management situation.  This rating indicates that we (you, your Team Leader and IT Director) will need to create an action plan to help you improve your performance and that you will be getting a mid-year review to determine if you are improving.
  6. If you are not meeting your responsibilities, you will get an Unsatisfactory rating.  This rating indicates that you are having significant problems meeting your responsibilities.  If this is the case, we will be in a serious performance management situation.  This rating indicates that we will need to meet to determine if this is a role you can perform or not.  You will be meeting with the IT Director who will determine next steps.

After completing 27 performance appraisals, I found that there is much I will need to do to educate our team that Meets Expectations is a good rating.  The challenge and resistance comes from the linkage of merit increases to performance appraisal ratings.  Unfortunately, the strong pull of monetary compensation impacts how people expect to be rated.  This becomes more difficult when managers in the same organization apply different standards to their performance appraisal ratings.  It is very difficult for one manager to raise the bar when others give their staff all excellent ratings.

I am looking at how to change the focus away from the short term gains of a merit increase.   The real goal here is to advance a person’s career and capabilities.  As with other long term plans, it is difficult to show a clear value proposition without some empirical data.  More research required here.

The real challenge is how do we quantify what each rating level is.  We also need to find a way to describe how to move from one level to the next higher level.

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2 thoughts on “What does Excellent look like? Improving Performance Appraisals”

  1. “I am looking at how to change the focus away from the short term gains of a merit increase. The real goal here is to advance a person’s career and capabilities. As with other long term plans, it is difficult to show a clear value proposition without some empirical data. ”

    short term = monetary benefit, stay where you are
    long term = you improve, prove your potential and reach new heights

    1. Thanks for your comment Sonia. I agree with your assessment. In the end, the person stays or leaves because they have their needs met and money is not the first thing on the list of intrinsic motivators. Thanks for reading my blog!

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