"The Pocket Idiot's Guide to Performance Appraisal Phrases," by Peter Gray and John H. Carroll

Pros: Helpful; flexible; balanced
Cons: Mild typos and some tiny contradictions
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

First published 4/4/2006
Review copy courtesy of Alpha Books.

As a writer and student of psychology, the concept of communicating a critique of someone’s performance without causing undue stress is something that fascinates me. When you think about it, critiquing someone’s writing has a lot in common with your common everyday performance appraisal that so many supervisors and managers must engage in. If you simply come down on someone like a ton of bricks you’re unlikely to convince them to improve; you’re more likely to make them angry or defensive, or to send them scurrying away in fear (literally or figuratively). Whereas if you avoid telling them what they’re doing wrong for fear of offending them, then they have no basis on which to improve. The challenge is to communicate what they’re doing right–and what they’re doing wrong–in such a way that they’re inspired to do better.

Peter Gray and John H. Carroll’s “Pocket Idiot’s Guide to Performance Appraisal Phrases” is much more than you might expect from the title. It isn’t just a listing of phrases, although it certainly includes quite a few of those. It includes information on understanding what the root of a performance problem is. For instance, if an employee is failing at a task because you didn’t give him enough information to figure out exactly what you wanted, or enough resources to achieve the task, then berating him for failing isn’t going to result in much improvement. The book provides a very balanced look at figuring out where a breakdown in communications might lie, or how to make the best use of a given employee.

The authors also include plenty of information on planning and holding your meeting–from scheduling it to planning the length to setting it up in order to achieve the effect you want. Included is some particularly helpful information on figuring out the major communication styles of your employees, and using this information to decide how best to tell them what you want them to know.

Someone can be very busy and get a lot done; if the work isn’t useful and relevant, however, it isn’t productive.

The Phrases

The phrases themselves are more than empty lists. They’re listed alphabetically by trait (things like Communication–Oral, Giving and Receiving Feedback, Problem-Solving, etc.), with a list of both positive and negative phrases accompanying each, as well as a description of the relevant skill. A wide variety of phrases are included so that they can apply to an equally wide variety of personality types, situations, and jobs. For instance, there are phrases to apply to everything from assembly-line factory jobs to management positions. Skills addressed include “soft” skills such as relationship-building, as well as sensitive issues such as personal hygiene. If you’re new to management there’s some information to help you figure out what to look for, as well as information to help you customize the process to your own job and company’s needs.

The phrases are meant to be examples, not a definitive list of things to write on a performance appraisal. The authors do a good job of semi-regularly reminding the reader to use examples from the employee’s work history and to customize and adapt phrases as necessary.

Format Details

The end of the book includes a set of word lists and instructions on using them to customize the appraisal phrases. This will help you to make sure that your appraisals are as accurate and objective as possible.

There are a few minor inconsistencies in details. For example, the “trainability” phrase section says, “Trainability doesn’t have to do with one’s willingness to learn…” but some of the phrases listed seem to apply directly to willingness. There are also more typos than I’m accustomed to seeing in a Complete Idiot’s Guide, but not so many that it affects the readability of the book.

The pocket format makes this particularly useful as a reference. I highly recommend this book to anyone who needs to do any sort of evaluation of others, particularly to their face. This could help you to communicate your thoughts better and in a less threatening manner. The phrases and word lists will be useful as a reference tool for a long time to come; the rest of the information is of particular value to new managers and to those who feel that their performance appraisals aren’t going as well as they’d like.

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