Futility in Infrequent Feedback

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Most annual reviews are dreaded both by those giving and those receiving them, yet they are a mainstay in the corporate world. This is because annual reviews can help people stay on track to meet individual, workgroup and corporate goals.

One of the problems is that annual reviews often feel contrived. Typically too much is riding on them because the feedback is focused on past failures, shortcomings and mistakes rather than corrective actions, training opportunities and future success.

As a result, it’s difficult to deliver constructive feedback on performance without the recipient taking it personally.

In many cases, an annual review is the only communication between a supervisor and an employee specifically related to performance. There in lies the problem. Communication about performance should be given much more often, and it should be given in ways that are supportive and instructive.

Feedback in the form of a 360 report can be helpful as it provides a more balanced perspective that includes the boss but other leaders, peers, direct reports and sometimes clients or customers. The sum of this report can make it easier to receive feedback because it represents how you show up in the workplace.

The great leadership coach and best-selling author Marshall Goldsmith in his book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There suggests getting four commitments from those providing feedback for a 360 report. These four commitments are:

  1. Let go of the past
  2. Tell the truth
  3. Be supportive and helpful—not cynical or negative
  4. Pick something to improve yourself—so everyone is focused more on “improving” than “judging”

When these commitments are kept, 360 results provide an accurate and objective perspective of the individual from which he or she can use as a guide to confidently continue doing what they do well and initiate behavioral change where necessary.

The biggest problem with feedback, however, is that it focuses on the past and rarely on the present or future.

In addition to feedback, we should also provide feedforward to encourage a more positive and dynamic focus on performance improvement. Feedforward is different from feedback in the following ways:

Feedback                                                      Feedforward
Past                                                                Future
Revisit failure                                                Envision success
Who you are (or were)                                 Who you can become
Can be difficult to give                                 Easier and satisfying to offer
Often taken personally                                 Received as supportive and instructive

Goldsmith offered many leaders the opportunity to participate in feedforward sessions where they were asked to play two roles: one who provides feedforward and one who receives feedforward. This was an experiential exercise where the participants did not even need to know each other because it was based on specific behaviors all of us can relate to.

Here’s how his Feedforward Sessions work:

  • Pick one behavior you would like to change, a change that will make a significant and positive difference in your life.
  • Describe the behavior to a fellow participant. This is done face-to-face. Example: “I want to become a better listener.”
  • Ask the participant for feedforward. Specifically, two ideas to help you achieve the change you seek in your behavior. (If participant knows you, he or she should not give any feedback about the past. It should be focused entirely on the future.)
  • Your job is to then listen attentively and take notes. Do not comment on, critique or even praise the suggestions in any way. Just pay attention.
  • Thank the participant no matter how good, bad, redundant or unhelpful the suggestions may be.
  • Ask the other participant what he or she would like to change. Repeat the process with you now providing feedforward suggestions.
  • Repeat this process with as many others as possible.

Participants report this exercise to be very positive and even fun. What’s truly great about it is that people feel as if everyone is in service of helping everyone else. It is not competitive, but truly collaborative. Goldsmith describes feedforward and the value of it in this article.

A similar idea is in clearness committees from the Quaker tradition, which provide a process of discernment whereby members assist one who has a difficult concern or dilemma by simply asking honest and open-ended questions. These questions are not leading questions or meant to challenge assumptions, but simply to help the individual find clarity in his or her own answers from within.

It can be difficult to ask such simple questions because we are wired to focus on offering advice and solutions. However, what we often need is simply someone to truly listen and help us in finding our own answers.

Feedforward sessions like clearness committees offer the opportunity for active listening and truly supportive attention. They provide a safe and helpful setting in which people can often gain insight into what they want to change or answer.

Regardless of the process, don’t wait for an annual review to best manage your direct reports. While feedback can be helpful, be mindful of the fact that focusing on the past and on failures or mistakes can only go so far. And don’t save it all up for a once a year opportunity.

Don’t let the futility of infrequent feedback undermine your ability to help your employees improve their performance.

Instead, help them achieve performance goals by being more proactive: take corrective action in the moment, catch them doing things well and acknowledge it, support them as they take on new challenges, and regularly communicate with them to ensure there are no surprises at the annual review.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/13657368@N00/1752089487″>Success is ours!! :-)</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

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