The Unchanging Appraisal: Learning to Accentuate the Positives and Disregard the Negatives


Do you have the same appraisal every year? I did.

Do you get the same set of gently positive observations about your core strengths, skills and achievements; the same slightly irritating list of shortcomings, flaws and failings; the same sense of disappointment that another year has passed and seemingly little or no progress has been made? I did.

Do you mainly pass over the positives and obsess about the negatives? Do you resent the criticism, take it as a personal slight, endeavour to establish who exactly made those comments?... I did.

In the first ten years of my career I emerged from my annual appraisal worrying about my unchanging defects and deficiencies: a sluggishness with spreadsheets and Harvard Graphics, a lack of commercial rigour in my arguments, a failure to make eye contact in meetings. Like a diligent student, over the months that followed I would concentrate on addressing these weaknesses. I’d enlist on IT training courses, read dusty textbooks about data and behavioural science, make a special effort to be effervescent and outgoing.

But, however hard I tried, with every passing year my appraisal changed very little. And I never did win that IPA Effectiveness Award.

One day I decided that I would completely ignore the negative feedback; that it was a waste of my time and energy. I was stuck with who I was, for better for worse, for richer for poorer. I’d be better off trying to enhance my core talents.

It was a liberating decision.

I think there comes a point in everyone’s career when we give up addressing the faults we cannot correct, the blemishes we cannot wipe clean. The point in one’s career when one focuses on building on strengths and virtues, accentuating the positives rather than eliminating the negatives. And I think that’s the point that one’s career really takes off.

Wise employers do not seek staff who are broadly average on all areas of performance. They look for people who can deliver the exceptional on just a few dimensions. And then they build a team of diverse, complementary skills around them: a confederacy of excellence. 

So next time you walk out of your appraisal feeling downhearted and depressed about your long list of faults and frailties, don't worry. Just ignore them. Don’t spend your time trying to reinvent yourself. Few of us can fundamentally change who we are. Focus on doing what you do well even better.

As Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters almost sang:

You’ve gotta accentuate the positive,
Disregard the negative,
Latch on to the affirmative.
Don’t mess with Mister In-between.’

Based on ‘Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive’ by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer

(You can read more career advice from a variety of authors in the 'How To Get On' series on the Guest Editor section of the APG website.)

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