How do you get everyone in your organization to perform competently - and safely? To improve our performance we need feedback, so the most obvious answer is behavior-based feedback. Another common technique to motivate behavior is the performance appraisal. But most performance appraisals are designed and delivered ineffectively. Let's briefly review ten rules for performance appraisals.

1) Don't use injury rates.

Competent performance calls for safe performance, making it critical to include a safety metric as a performance-appraisal index. But outcome measures that reflect injuries are not very useful. Not only are they reactive, but they are usually unreliable and might motivate the use of strategies - from heavy-handed memos to injury-based incentives - to stifle the reporting, discussion and analysis of personal injury.

Instead, use proactive safety process activities in your prominent evaluation criteria. These include the important things organizations do to prevent property damage and personal injury, and obviously vary widely.

2) Managers must be trained.

When is the last time your organization conducted education/training seminars on how to administer performance appraisals?

Managers need to know how to conduct the several steps of an effective appraisal and must believe they can do it right (recall my prior ISHN discussions of self-efficacy in May and June, 2001). Response-efficacy is also needed, meaning administrators must believe the tool will work to improve competence. This usually requires substantial education, since most managers have had years of prior experience with ineffective performance appraisals - both at the delivery and receiving end.

3) No one likes paperwork.

Yet for many managers "performance appraisal" means paperwork. At my university, for example, every faculty member is required to complete a nine-page standardized survey for each of our six secretaries.

4) Numbers imply ranking.

Dr. Edwards Deming urged us to stop ranking people, yet we continue to attach numbers to evaluations that position individuals among others in a kind of competence competition. Sometimes these numbers are used to determine salary or promotion - another characteristic of ineffective performance appraisals.

5) Ratings make us defensive.

Numbers that can be used for financial compensation naturally activate defensiveness and bias, including the perception that any less-than-desirable evaluation is unfair. This can only interfere with constructive learning and improving competence.

Performance appraisals should not include numbers employees can use to compare their competence with others. The link between the results of an appraisal and an employee's salary should be indirect at most. Financial compensation should not be discussed during any aspect of a performance appraisal, from developing evaluation criteria to reporting the results.

6) Everyone is unique.

But the typical performance appraisal form contains evaluation criteria defined years earlier by management that is presumably applicable to everyone in the workforce, or at least everyone with a particular job title.

7) Customize performance criteria.

It's not uncommon for forms to list such desirable attributes as "enthusiasm," "intrinsic motivation," "dependability," "loyalty" and "dedication," along with brief definitions of each criterion. Rating an individual on such personal dimensions requires subjective judgments essentially useless for increasing a person's skill at a particular job. How can knowing your score for enthusiasm, motivation, dedication or loyalty improve competence?

Effective performance appraisals include specific behavioral criteria (or objectives) customized per individual employee. And these evaluation objectives are defined by the individual employee, with advice and approval from the relevant manager or supervisor. My ISHN article next month will address how to develop and deliver individualized performance appraisals.

8) Once is not enough.

To be effective, a performance appraisal process must include periodic reviews of an individual's progress in achieving specific behavioral objectives. Optimally, such progress reviews occur bi-monthly, and might include revisions or additions to the list of objectives. Then the annual performance appraisal becomes only a summary or review of the progress reports and perhaps a discussion of potential performance objectives for the following year.

9) Communication must be open.

Performance appraisals are sometimes communicated solely by an impersonal written report, with no opportunity for the employee to enter an opinion. The faculty in my university department, for example, receive a confidential letter with rankings on four generic performance criteria by four to six members of the departmental executive committee. The department head includes his rankings and a one-page summary of his opinion of the faculty member's performance in teaching, research, community/professional service and outreach.

We are invited to make an appointment to review our evaluations, but these communications are generally one-way clarifications of the ranking process and total evaluation scores. Later we receive a confidential letter specifying our salary increase for the next academic year, presumably determined entirely by the performance appraisal process.

10) You want to elicit commitment.

Many of my colleagues don't make an appointment to discuss their performance appraisals. Why should they? They expect a one-way communication that merely classifies or justifies their evaluation. The communication won't change anything nor influence their next performance appraisal 12 months later.

In contrast, effective performance appraisals are two-way communications between employees who want to know specifically what they can do to improve their competence and supervisors who want to provide effective direction and motivation. As mentioned earlier, the end-of-the-year evaluation meeting is merely a summary of an employee's periodic progress reports, each of which solicited the employee's reactions.

It's beneficial to obtain an employee's written approval with each progress report, as well as the annual summary. Signing agreement with a summary account of one's progress can increase commitment to follow through with future plans. It also provides documented evidence that a particular evaluation was accomplished and understood. Next month I'll discuss procedures for making these two-way communications effective at cultivating commitment, confidence and competence.