Performance appraisals are generally uncomfortable events.
Not just when its my performance that is being reviewed, but also when I’m doing the reviewing. Having said that, I recognise it as an integral part of people management, and without such evaluations it would be impossible to help people develop and move forward in their careers.
Facilitating great business outcomes while enabling people to do interesting, meaningful and challenging work is essentially is what people management is about. If you can focus the conversation on how to progress someone’s career rather than what they’ve done well or otherwise, you actually have a shot at engaging them.
Engagement – one of the ultimate management goals – leads to discretionary effort.
Discretionary effort is what people choose to put into an activity, above and beyond what they are required to.
So how does one go about making performance appraisals a more comfortable event, which can in turn bring about more engagement? Here are some ways that I find helpful.
Not an annual event.
For starters, make the frequency contingent on how much support your staff need to get where they and you want to get to. Some people need lots of discussion and help, some just need little nudges. Figure out where they’re at, agree to a cadence, and stick to it.
Even if you catch up with them once a quarter, it feels a lot less burdensome than a massive career chat once a year.
Also important to note is this is only the committed schedule. If you or they feel like they are going through a challenging situation or are undertaking a stretch assignment, make time to give them extra attention.
Remove the formality.
Make the conversation as informal as you can. A performance appraisal should be a two-way conversation – meaning both parties need to be relaxed and comfortable speaking their minds for it to be effective. Generally this can’t happen in a rigidly formal setting.
If you can do it outside your office, great! If you can do it over coffee, even better. It breaks the ice and turns it into a friendly chat rather than an assessment.
If you need to sit in your office behind your desk in an authoritative position to feel confident, then perhaps you should re-think your career in people management.
Focus on them.
The best way to engage anyone is to answer the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?) question for them. Most people I review don’t ever explicitly ask it, and its obvious some have never actually even thought about it. It is however quite helpful to frame the conversation around this so it becomes about them, their career path and their growth rather than a box-checking exercise.
Obviously, all of this has to occur within the context of your business operating environment and your team’s long and short term goals. There’s not much value dwelling on someone’s aspirations to become a world class, full time acrobat in a travelling circus if their primary role at work is project manager.
Use failures as lessons learned.
As I mentioned earlier, the best way to deal with failures and setbacks is to learn from them. A lack of failures and setbacks means someone isn’t really trying to push themselves out of their comfort zone.
Within reason and accepted thresholds, accept and appreciate risk-taking and failures, and provide a safe environment for people to do so. Really interesting and innovative ideas start to surface when people’s constraints are removed and they feel that their manager has their back.
Use weaknesses as opportunities.
Pointing out someone’s weaknesses – even if they are aware of and acknowledge them – isn’t very motivating. Instead, use the issue to have a conversation about the importance of addressing the weaknesses, what potential obstacles may be causing or exacerbating them, and what the path to improvement could be.
Framing the issue this way enables you to change the conversation from one where someone has to defend themselves to one where they are interested in exploring how to get better.
Be honest and transparent.
This goes without saying, but as the old proverb goes, “honesty is the best policy”. If you use lies and deception to extract performance out of people, you will eventually get found out, and the resulting disengagement and resentment will come back to bite you.
If career progression opportunities exist, are real, and are achievable, then that’s great. If they don’t, then do the right thing and let people know.
There are, of course, sensitive matters that you may not be able to fully disclose. Barring those, the more information you can provide to people, the better decisions they (and you) can make. Sometimes those decisions will result in them leaving, but that’s usually a good outcome for everyone involved.
Ask for feedback.
There’s not much point trying to get better at something without getting feedback about it. Apply the same principle to yourself, and get feedback about how the appraisal process feels and works (or doesn’t) for everyone else.
If you’ve made the effort to genuinely help others, given them time and attention, and acted honestly and transparently, most people will trust you and reciprocate with real feedback to improve the process – and your skill at implementing it.
So there it is. Certainly not a comprehensive list, but some of the ways I’ve found to make the conversation more meaningful and effective. Done the right way, performance appraisals can actually be something you and your staff can look forward to.
What are your strategies to making the performance appraisal process better?
Caught up with my friend Ben Issa over lunch today, and the conversation turned to the choices we make while we traverse our career paths.
While we discussed what we had done over the years, the people we had worked with and the successes (and disappointments) we had faced, I mentioned that there were some things I regretted doing in hindsight. Things I had said, decisions I had made, choices I had implemented. Some had a small, almost inconsequential impact at the time but I still remember them as subtly shaping my life, while others looked catastrophic but in the long run eventuated to nothing.
Ben, however, reminded me of a better perspective:
“Don’t regret anything. Just learn from it and move on.”
Regret is a negative emotion. It just holds you back, pulls you down and makes you wallow in the past.
Learning means accepting your mistakes, acknowledging your shortcomings, and internalising the wisdom to not repeat them.
This is, in fact, also what Stephen Covey advocates:
“Stop wasting time regretting what you did a year ago. Start doing what you have to do now, so that in a year’s time you won’t regret what you did today.”
When we’re in the grind, we often lose sight of the most basic principles of success, and rather than learn from our mistakes, we only dwell on them. Sometimes it just takes a meaningful chat with a friend to recalibrate our compass.
Thanks Ben. Always a pleasure talking to you.
While it’s great to approach your profession as a craft and adopt a general model of craftsmanship, the next level of rigour requires adding some frameworks to ensure measurability and progress assessment. Again, this is great at a personal level, but also adds immense value from a team management perspective.
To enable the introduction of a framework, lets take the general model introduced earlier and collapse it into a column vector:
At this level of abstraction you can see the inherent flexibility in this framework – you can pretty much extend it to add as much or as little complexity as you want or your environment warrants. Here’s an example:
If you wanted to (or had to), you could even overlay this on something like the Australian Public Service Commission’s Integrated Leadership System:
Note that’s only at the top level of the ILS. You can keep drilling down and add more detail as required. Having said that, the ILS is seriously well developed and documented (as one would expect from a Government Department), so I wouldn’t necessarily do it at any detailed level if I worked at an Agency using it. Just pointing out that the framework can be used even where a complex performance management model already exists.
If you were to use it personally, you can just sit down and fill the matrix to map out what you needed to do to get to the next level. For a team, either the manager or the team could build this out, with clear expectations around what operating at each level means and an easy representation for discussion.
In any case, there you have it: how to use the craftsperson model with a formalised framework to introduce metrics and measureability. Enjoy.
If you choose to approach each stage of your career as a craft, it is useful to overlay a framework on the idea to make it more manageable. The title of this post, as the diligent software developers out there will know, is a play on the title of the timeless book about software engineering – The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master. The book is a truly excellent guide to explaining the idea of viewing software development as a craft (among other things).
Beyond software development, however, the title of the book alludes to the traditional career path of craftspeople, which I’ve drawn up in the following diagram:
Before defining each of the stages, it’s important to note three things about this visualisation.
First, this is a model. By definition, models are abstractions and simplifications of the real world to hide some the complexity inherent in real life and make it easier to analyse a point of view. The model only goes so far and only explains so much. Don’t try to cram too much or read too much into it. If it doesn’t fit, find another model. This advice generally applies to all models. Sometimes even the fashion ones.
Second, understand that the path is a sequence of stages, each being a pre-requisite for the next. You can’t skip stages. You can try, but invariably people who do so end up being posers with no real knowledge, expertise or depth. They are perennially insecure about their roles and stage in the path, and have to resort to tactics like information hoarding and management-speak to cover up their incompetence. Definitely not a good long-term career strategy. Don’t be that person. Follow the path.
Third, see that label on the horizontal axis? There’s a reason it’s there. The path to mastery and up-skilling is a function of time. You can accelerate some of it, but lots of mastery is based on immersion and learning by mistakes, all of which takes time. It can be somewhat shortened by pure talent and devotion to your craft in your personal time outside work, but you have to pay your dues. Otherwise, you end up in the same situation as someone who skips a stage.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about the stages themselves:
Novice: This stage normally means that you’re a complete beginner. In most instances, I include fresh University graduates in this category as well. While they have potential and aptitude, novices have at most a theoretical, academic understanding of the discipline, require lots of hand-holding and lots of studying. Typically, one is an apprentice for the first year or two of entering a discipline.
Apprentice: Most people are apprentices for two to three years after moving up from a novice. This timeframe can be shortened as you progress through your career and your ability to apply learning pattern improves, but for those early in their career, this is definitely time well spent learning the basics and the meta-skills: communication, problem solving, troubleshooting, conflict resolution, etc. Apprentices don’t need as much attention as novices, and can work with minimal supervision, but need regular check-ins with more experienced professionals and validation of their work. In traditional crafts, apprentices were bound to individual masters who closely supervised their work.
Journeyman: Back in the day, when one reached the journeyman stage of their career, they typically went off to find and train under a specialist master, who would help them refine and perfect their craft and pass on self-developed or generationally bequeathed techniques. In the current era, being a journeyman means being fairly self-reliant and self-managing, able to solve large, complex problem on your own, managing your time and other allocated resources well, and being able to supervise and give guidance to novices and apprentices.
Master: This is when you’re at the top of your game, and usually recognised as such by others in your discipline. You’re a true thought-leader, you push the boundaries of your field and your problem solving ability spans multiple disciplines. You represent your discipline, and inspire and attract others to it. Great masters have proficiency over more than one discipline.
What I really like about this Craftsperson Model for Career Management is that it is as simple or complex as you want to make it, but grounded in years of traditional learning. You can use it personally, as well as formalise it within your professional environment as I have with my teams. It is easy to explain, and enables you to inject a sense professionalism using the imagery conjured by the career stage labels.
I know there’s a growing movement in software development circles to embrace this idea (such as the Manifesto for Software Craftsmanship) but I’m Interested in hearing if / how others are using this concept.
I can’t remember his name, but I remember the lesson well. I was in Year 7 at school, and it was the first day of woodshop class. After introductions, the first thing our teacher did was define and talk about craftsmanship.
I’m not sure how much of that lesson he expected us to absorb, and I’m pretty sure that most of us kids just wanted to get to the power saws and drills. But something about the idea stuck with me, and has influenced me both personally and professionally.
So what is craftsmanship and how does it apply to IT?
First of all, it requires acknowledging that what you do is a craft – a fusion of art (based on creativity and talent) and science (based on knowledge and method). This is something that I’ve adopted throughout each stage of my career, which makes me view each role and what I do in it as more than just a job. And while the classic view of craftsmen was largely made redundant by the industrial age and mass, machine-based production, a new view is possible with the emergence of the knowledge worker and economy.
This view then allows us to inject the idea of craftsmanship into our current roles and work. Various formal definitions of craftsmanship can be found elsewhere, but for me, it includes:
- Taking pride in what you do, and therefore making the effort to do something to the best of your ability (whatever level it is at).
- Knowing that your work may be a reflection of not only you, but also your discipline collectively.
- Doing something the right way, even when you know that no one else will ever know about it. This means not cutting corners, dotting your I’s and crossing your T’s.
- Always striving to get better, always learning, practicing and refining. Being consumed by it.
- Advancing your discipline, and giving back by sharing and teaching others.
This can manifest in many ways. For example, when I was a software developer, I always made sure my code was well-documented (back when in-code documentation wasn’t considered a smell). Or, I ensured that change history of code was always updated, initially in the comments at the beginning of each file, or later in the check-in comments as I (and the systems I worked with) matured. When I moved into architecture, this approach continued. I ensured that all diagrams were well aligned, and the semantic meanings of lines and shapes were always consistent and clear.
The thing to understand about craftsmanship is that it is a means – not an end unto itself. The end is whatever goal you’re trying to achieve, and craftsmanship is an approach – a mindset – that you apply while you’re ploughing along on your merry way. It needs to be complemented and balanced with a healthy dose of pragmatism. It requires knowing what is important and when.
Why are we talking about craftsmanship anyway?
Well, I wanted to share some of the career management ideas, tools and frameworks that I have used, both personally, as well as to help other people that I manage or mentor. All part of giving back to one of my current crafts – People Management. Stay tuned for more.