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As far back as World War I, WD Scott was credited with coming up with performance appraisal. Formal Performance Appraisal systems were well established by the mid 1950s, with personality-based systems being widely used. McGregor (1957) illustrated the unease surrounding the use of personality-based ratings and advocated a more participative approach and performance-based approach, including an element of self-appraisal. This process looked forward (to what the individual might be able to achieve in the future) more than it looked backward (i.e. the 'personality' that they had inherited).

In the 1960s, the influence of the management by objectives movement meant that performance appraisal developed a greater emphasis on goal-setting and the assessment of performance-related abilities. In the 1970s, appraisal practices became more open to scrutiny and, as a result, a number of legal cases were brought. One outcome of this was an increase in research into rating scales and their use: we discuss this research at some length later in this unit.

The use of psychometrics as part of the appraisal process emerged as a trend in the 1970s and gained momentum over the next two decades. The relative objectivity of psychometrics made them more acceptable in the new litigious environment. This was particularly pertinent in assessing potential, where the use of subjective methods to assess promotability became less acceptable.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, the concept of performance management came into vogue, and this, according to Williams (1998), provided a more holistic approach to generating motivation, improving performance and managing human resources.
For example, in the UK school system, performance management is central to efforts to improve standards in teaching (both locally and nationally).

Therefore, when reading about appraisal it should quickly become clear that our focus is not just on accurate measurement. We are also interested in issues such as:

  • What influences the quality of performance appraisal data?
  • How do employees perceive the appraisal process?
  • How might the appraisal process be used to motivate and develop staff?

Whereas, traditionally, job related tasks may have been perceived as the key elements in appraisal, appraisal now tackles a broader set of issues. Briscoe and Hall (1999) propose that employee development is underpinned by a set of 'metacompetencies' including qualities such as accurate self-awareness, feedback seeking, and openness to a range of ideas and concepts etc. Other factors such as communication and teamwork skills, stress and conflict reduction, handling of emotion and conscientiousness are now often seen as important concepts to be measured and managed through performance appraisal and management processes.

More recent developments, including the reduced hierarchical nature of many organisations, have led to the increased use of multi-source, multi-rater feedback methods, more commonly known as 360-degree feedback. The kinds of changes that have overtaken organisations have affected the nature of work itself, and the continuing rate of change means that the definition of what a job is, and what good performance is, are less stable concepts.

It is also worth remembering that the majority of research on performance appraisal is drawn from a UK / US context. However, as Fletcher (2008) points out, national culture is likely to have a major influence on the way appraisals are conducted. Fletcher (2008) argues that in Western (high individualism) cultures where being assertive and ambitious is valued, appraisal is generally focused on the individual and what they do; in Asian cultures (strong collectivism) the "sense of hierarchy and acceptance of authority, the focus on 'Western' performance appraisal practices on individual performance, accountability and open confrontation are unlikely to be seen as appropriate" (p. 175). Therefore, it is not always possible to assume that the findings from a piece of performance appraisal research will generalise across all national and organisational cultures.