Appraising your staff appraisals – are your meetings successful or stressful?

When it’s time for you to conduct staff appraisal meetings in your organisation, how does it make you feel?

Does your heart sing, anticipating meaningful, productive discussions with your employees? Or are you filled with dread at the thought of awkward silences, stony indifference, or draining arguments?

From what my clients tell me, most people would identify with option two!  

And if this is true of you, it is time you did something about it. You need to re-appraise your staff appraisal meetings.

Appraisals can be an extremely useful tool – they have the potential to offer great quality performance conversations, which work for both you and your staff.  

This blog will provide you with three key areas of focus to ensure that your next appraisal meeting has the desired outcome. Lets start by reviewing some of the reasons why many legal managers and law firm owners find appraisals such a challenge.

The difficulties with appraisals

Unfortunately, legal managers and partners are rarely trained on how to undertake appraisals. This has many consequences, but it often means that they don’t know how to give feedback to staff in a way that will motivate change rather than create resentment or hostility.

I can personally attest to this. The first time I conducted an appraisal meeting was a disaster. With too much of a ‘blunt Yorkshire approach’ and far too little training, I ended up reducing the poor young woman I was appraising to tears! It was a horrendous experience for both of us; and I vowed never to undertake another appraisal without appropriate training.

Fortunately, training can make all the difference. From this inauspicious start, I went on to conduct hundreds of successful appraisals during my legal career; and now deliver practical training on this vital management tool. It is never too late to start making appraisals work for you and your lawyers.

Further my disastrous first one highlights another challenging aspect of appraisals – the effect they can have on your relationship with your staff. Legal business owners of smaller, expanding firms don’t want to jeopardise these relationships (by becoming the ‘ogre’ who handles appraisals!). Yet, all of a sudden, they may find it necessary to hold staff appraisals without having any training on how to do so. This is especially true where there are competency or behavioural challenges they want to address with their team. Practising untested appraisal techniques on staff is not a great way to motivate them!

Then there is the dreaded paperwork. Whether you are working with the SRA Competencies, your firm’s own variation of them, or with none at all, documenting your appraisals with effective paperwork is a key part of the process. In my workshop, we explore documentation best practices for you and your staff to ‘Document their Brilliance’™ and keep them engaged.

3 key areas of focus for appraisal meetings

All too often, the importance of an appraisal meeting can get lost in the process and paperwork. By keeping these 3 key questions in mind, legal managers and partners can recast the appraisal as an effective business tool to motivate:

  1. What is the outcome you want? The outcome you want from the appraisal should always inform your preparation and communication in the meeting. Slavish reliance on paperwork can lead to a meeting in which you just tell your employee ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ of their conduct. This ‘telling approach’ is not appropriate for everyone as it can be highly de-motivating. By keeping the outcome you want from the meeting at the front of your mind you have a much greater chance of achieving it. For example, your intention might be to encourage your employee to build their strengths and/or improve in identified areas. If so, then spending time before the meeting thinking about what communication techniques would work with this employee to achieve this will be time well spent.
  2. How do you want the employee to be feeling when they leave the meeting?  Perhaps you want them to feel like they have been listened to.  If so you should ensure that the ‘air time’ in the meeting is split roughly 75/25 in their favour. So ask lots of supporting questions. The focus in appraisals is praise so make sure that you really encourage them to share their successes and build on those. Obviously, their input on how they are tackling their challenges may also be required. The SRA Competency framework supports this approach as it uses self-reflective learning to promote ownership of the continual learning required for today’s lawyers. Remember: give your staff the opportunity to shine in their appraisal meeting.
  3. What commitments do you want from your employee before they leave the meeting? Normally, these meetings will involve producing and agreeing an action plan for the future. However, it is important to remember that agreement is not the same as commitment. It is a common fallacy that where an employee agrees to future conduct or activities it means they are committed. The difference is like saying ‘reasonable endeavours’ instead of ‘best endeavours’ in a contract. As such, you should explore their reasons and motivation to an agreed action plan to find out what is feasible and what is aspirational.

These three key questions are aimed at keeping the meetings conversational and motivational, even if the paperwork is not.

If you would like to get appraisals working for you as quickly as possible, I offer 2-hour lunchtime workshops on ‘How to conduct Motivational Appraisal Meetings’, which I can deliver at your office. This workshop covers best tips in preparation, motivating communication techniques for use during the meeting as well as the next steps to take after to follow up. Telephone me for a friendly, no-pressure chat on 07921540039.

YCFL delivers strategic coaching, leadership, management and interpersonal skills training for the legal profession. Since 2003 Ann has trained nearly 7000 lawyers in leadership, management and interpersonal skills. She has also trained with the Coaching Academy and holds a H.N.L.P. certificate in coaching as well as being an N.L.P. Master Practitioner. She is a member of the Professional Speaking Association and Professional Speakers Academy.