Appraisees are not 'defendants'

John Harrison

I refer to your article "Staff assessment getting lost in forest of paperwork" (TES, November 28). I have spent many years in businesses large and small and in some independent schools, developing the interviewing skills of managers who have to conduct performance appraisals.

The words "appraisal" and "assessment" imply that this is an occasion when the manager's opinion of the person must be aired. As such, this is a recipe for potential conflict, stress, heartache and demotivation - often for both parties.

The interviewee is at once put in the position of "defendant". The meeting is always in danger of tipping over into contradiction, suppressed anger, or even a shouting match. The demotivating effects are seldom measured (they are often invisible) and almost never laid at the door of the incompetent boss interviewer.

The skill of turning a potentially unpleasant and negative "assessment" interview into a purposeful conversation between two adults about a topic of mutual interest lies in the manager not expressing an opinion, but seeking the interviewee's own self-assessment - by asking neutral but penetrating questions in a genuine bid to find out the reality of a situation - or at least to discover the reality of the interviewee's point of view.

The aim must be to reveal to both parties, as unambiguously as possible, whether the performance matched the expectations as agreed when plans and targets were originally set out. If it did, well and good; if not, the follow-up question must be: "If it didn't work the way we hoped, what will you do differently in future to try to make it work better next time?" This then becomes a new target for the future.

Managers using skilful questions such as these are often astonished at how self-critical the interviewees can be - to the point where they must be gently "massaged" back to a less damning view.

When it comes to systems, the best form to use is a blank sheet of paper on which agreed actions and targets may be noted.

The secret of performance development lies in skill, not systems.

John Harrison, Independent training consultant, East Sussex.

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