Virtual appraisals: overcoming the common constraints

Appraisals can be daunting for both appraiser and appraisee, but they can be especially challenging in a virtual setting, when non-verbal cues cannot be read so easily.

There is a great deal of rigour attached to the appraisal process, usually with a fair degree of form filling. The danger is that it is reduced to a box ticking exercise, which can feel like a waste of time for everyone concerned.

For the past 12 months, organisations have been grappling with the additional challenges of running appraisals online. When your view of the other person is limited to their head and neck, how do you read their body language for those all-important non-verbal cues? Silence, potentially such a powerful response in a physical meeting demonstrating attentive listening and respect, may feel excruciatingly uncomfortable, insensitive or even rude in a virtual context – or it may be assumed to be the result of a poor connection.

Organisations can frame the appraisal process in advance to acknowledge that, in the face of an extraordinarily challenging year, it may have been impossible to meet the objectives set a year ago. Appraisees should be invited to focus on what they have nonetheless managed to achieve, which aligns with the organisation’s strategy or overall objectives. Many appraisees will have demonstrated desirable qualities during the pandemic, perhaps increased adaptability or resilience, which they can reflect on. Appraisers should encourage appraisees to come to the appraisal with a growth mindset and well-prepared ‘STAR’ stories – articulating their successes by way of a compellingly told story which illustrates the Situation, Task, Action and Result.

Preparation is key, especially in a virtual settingWhen collating feedback, appraisers should hold the ‘BOOST’ model in mind (namely that all feedback should be Balanced, Objective, Observed, Specific and Timely). If the feedback is not satisfying Boost, there is a real question over the validity of including that feedback.

 Vitally, remember to be specific. Telling someone they have done a “great job” is of limited value, unless you articulate precisely how they have done a great job, so that the praise feels more meaningful and the appraisee knows what behaviour to repeat. Again, invite the appraisee for their thoughts on their areas for development before you offer your thoughts. If the appraisee has come up with an area for development themselves, they are much more likely to action it, and a self-aware appraisee will obviate the need for you to raise an area for development yourself.

For feedback to be useful, appraisees must be able to action the feedback – tell them specifically what they do that gives you the impression that they aren’t sufficiently confident/strategic. Then ask them what support they need to implement a change.

One of the reasons why both appraisers and appraisees can feel apprehensive about appraisals is the possibility that emotions come into play. In those circumstances, slow down your pace and leave more space in the conversation.

Past performance is only one aspect of the appraisal. Almost half the appraisal should focus on future performance. At the wrap up, a key stage in the appraisal that shouldn’t be rushed, appraisers should be asking themselves whether they have conveyed their key message. Does the appraisee seem motivated? Are they clear and confident about next steps? You might also ask your appraisees to reflect back the key messages they are taking away. Many appraisees leave an appraisal consumed with the one piece of developmental feedback and ignoring the overwhelming positive feedback. You want to make sure they are leaving with an appropriately balanced view.

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