Appraisal of researchers

Appraisal is the formal process that requires each staff member to review their performance and discuss their development needs with an appropriate colleague or manager on a regular (usually annual) basis.

It can appear in different institutions under different titles, including 'Performance and Development Review' or 'Staff Review' or, as used here, simply 'Appraisal'. At the heart of the process is the appraisal meeting where past performance and future goals can be discussed in a supportive setting. The meeting, however, should not be viewed as the entire process; for both appraiser and appraisee the preparation before the meeting and actions afterwards can be equally as important in ensuring that appraisal is a worthwhile activity.

Appraisal is nearly always an institutional requirement. Your institution is likely to have clear regulations and procedures as to how and when your researchers will need to be appraised. Even if someone else is managing the formal appraisal process, it will still be in your interest for you to make sure that your research staff are fully aware of what to expect and what their responsibilities may be.

The UK Concordat to support the career development of researchers expects that:

Researchers should be empowered by having a realistic understanding of, and information about, their own career development and career direction options as well as taking personal responsibility for their choices at the appropriate times. Employers should introduce appraisal systems for all researchers for assessing their professional performance on a regular basis and in a transparent manner. It is important that researchers have access to honest and transparent advice on their prospects for success in their preferred career. (Section C. 10)

Who appraises?

Who takes the role of appraiser or how they are chosen will vary between institutions. Some regulations will specify who is expected to fulfil that role, others will delegate that decision to a head of department or school and some institutions will allow the researcher to choose for themselves. However, even when the decision is taken by someone other than the researcher there is usually room for negotiation to ensure that the appraisal is conducted by a person with whom the appraisee feels comfortable.

As their research manager, the PI is likely to have a role to play here. You may be asked to advise on or approve the choice of appraiser but you may also find that you are expected or invited to carry out the appraisal yourself. There are many reasons why you may be the best person for the job:

  • it is likely that they will feel comfortable talking to you and respect your opinion
  • you will have a good insight into their working environment
  • the details of their research and the wider discipline will be familiar to you
  • you will be often best-placed to respond to any concerns they may have about their work.

If you have never taken on this role before, your institution will be able to offer support and may require that you undertake training before acting as an appraiser.

The Johari Window

The Johari Window is a simple model, developed by Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham, to illustrate and help develop understanding between individuals. It can be helpful for understanding the underlying purpose of appraisal, among other processes. 

The window is divided into four quadrants designed to classify information about a person (feelings, motivations, ambitions, characteristics, etc.). The four windows show:

  • what is known by a person about themselves and also known to others
  • what is unknown by a person about themselves but known to others
  • what is known by a person about themselves but unknown to others
  • what is unknown by a person about themselves and also unknown to others.

How much  information is in which window will depend on what area of a person's life or work is being considered.

The area that is of most use to a group or to individuals is the ‘Open area'. It is here that communication can occur free from misunderstanding or confusion. Having information about a person in the open area is key to being able to help an individual develop and fulfil their potential. The aim of an effective manager is to increase the amount of information that is in this area through dialogue, feedback and developing a trusting relationship with their staff.

What you are trying to do, through giving feedback and encouraging reflection, is to reduce the size of someone's ‘Blind area'. It can often make it easier for your appraisee if you can model the process by revealing something about yourself.

You may also be interested in pages on the appraisal process and the benefits of appraisal to researchers.