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. Nikki Squire, facilitator and co-founder at Strevas, outlines some of the common concerns and how to overcome them.

Along with many other aspects of working life, the appraisal has evolved. The modern appraisal is a far cry from what it was like during my days as a junior lawyer at a Magic Circle law firm some decades ago, where one appraisal took place in the taxi en-route to a client meeting, and another took place in the lift!

Nowadays, 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.

Clarity needed

So what to do? When we are thwarted by the virtual environment, denied some of the non-verbal cues we would rely on in a physical setting, the need for clarity is enhanced.

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 setting. When 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.

Ahead of the meeting, think about the key message you want to convey. In the appraisal itself, appraisers should be adopting a coaching approach. Ask the appraisee for their thoughts first, using open questions like "how" and "what", and avoiding the potentially judgemental "why". Always start with the positives. Ask the appraisee what they think they have done well over the past months, before sharing your own thoughts.

Be specific

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.

Again, be specific with any developmental feedback. Making a generalised suggestion such as "you just need to be a bit more confident/strategic" is supremely unhelpful and only serves to discourage. 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. Emotions require energy. By slowing things down, some of the intensity of the emotion will dissipate. Offer the appraisee the opportunity to take a break from the conversation to give them a chance to process how they feel.

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.

Rather than ignore the potential deficiencies of the virtual setting, why not be upfront at the start of the appraisal and give both sides "permission" to ask more questions? Acknowledge that, because of the virtual environment, you may feel the need to check in a bit more about how something is landing and might require more verbal communication. Articulate your intention to make this as useful and productive for the appraisee as it can be, so that they leave feeling clear and motivated about the way forward. To achieve that this year, in a virtual context, may require a bit more digging. Trust that the appraisee will appreciate your candour and respond accordingly. As I say to my teenage children when they squirm under my well-intentioned enquiry, it's coming from a place of care.