When Best Practice is actually Worst Practice!

Open mouthed_optGiven my experience of appraisal systems, it’s hardly surprising I generally view them with a huge dollop of scepticism.  In one organisation, I was rated on a scale of one to ten for my punctuality, attitude towards supervision and appearance (amongst other things).  This might be fair enough for an entry level job, but as Deputy Manager of the organisation, I felt there were more important things we should be focussing on.  Not that I hold onto grudges (much), but over twenty years later I still wonder what 7/10 for appearance actually meant – did I need a better quality suit or was my manager hinting that plastic surgery might be a good idea?

At other times, appraisals have followed the familiar route of being an annual paper-chasing exercise, often hideously complicated and time-consuming.  Objectives were set, only to be discussed again a year later when I’d be told that I should have done better; what ‘better’ might actually look like was unfortunately left unclear at both the setting stage and during the review.  Certainly I must take some of the responsibility for not clarifying expectations, but too often I felt I had no real ownership of the process – it was something that was done to me rather than something I participated in.

I’m not therefore surprised that many people groan when reminded that it’s appraisal time again.  It’s only thanks to one particularly inspirational manager that I have any faith that when taken seriously appraisals can be a useful experience.  Good managers regularly talk to their people anyway, without the need for a formal process.  They’ll discuss with their direct reports how they’re performing, how they fit into the bigger picture of what the organisation is trying to achieve, what specifically they need to do and whether they need any support or development to do this.  Bad managers on the other hand do not have these conversations, and giving them a form to complete will at best lead to a completed form.

The reason I’m thinking about appraisals at the moment is that I’ve been working with one of my clients to introduce a new system.  I believe my scepticism about appraisals is actually an advantage here, because I’ve had to think very carefully about what will work for this particular organisation, rather than just adopting a standard approach.

Looking around for ideas, I’ve come across many examples of processes that have apparently transformed the way companies work and have therefore taken on the status of best practice.  This is very seductive, as it suggests that if we follow a tried and tested formula, we too can achieve incredible results (which all sounds a bit like a miracle weight loss programme).  The problem is that what works in one context does not always translate well to another.  There are so many other factors that affect overall performance, and it is the unique combination of these that is causing the results.

One study of high performance work strategies undertaken by the UK’s Department or Trade and Industry (DTI) highlights 35 distinct practices that contribute to high performance.  These are grouped into three main bundles: high employee involvement practices, human resource practices (of which performance appraisal is just one) and reward and commitment practices.  Following best practice in one area that impacts on performance but totally ignoring more or less everything else is unlikely to achieve the desired results.

Instead of looking for a quick fix with the associated risk of becoming disillusioned, it is important to consider the bigger picture and develop a unique combination of approaches that suits the organisation’s specific culture.  Appraisals can indeed play an important part in improving performance, but it is unlikely they will do so in isolation.  The approach taken also needs to match the precise needs of the organisation rather than be a copy of what may have worked somewhere else.  As the DTI study suggests:

“High performing organisations tend to be leaders in their industries, creating best practice rather than following it”. 

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