Futility in Infrequent Feedback

July 16, 2015

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/[email protected]/1752089487″>Success is ours!! :-)</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a>

The Value of 360-Degree Feedback

August 4, 2010

Like most employee evaluation programs, the 360-degree feedback process can be effective or ineffective depending on the guidelines, training and implementation accompanying it.

Feedback in this process is typically provided by subordinates, peers and supervisors. It also includes a self-assessment and may include feedback from customers, suppliers and other stakeholders.

Results can be effectively used by the person receiving the feedback to seek training and development for improvement if necessary.

However, there is some controversy regarding whether 360-degree feedback improves employee performance, and it has even been suggested that it may actually decrease shareholder value.

A 2001 Watson Wyatt study found that 360-degree feedback was one of the factors associated with a 10.6 percent decrease in market value of an organization. The study notes that while nothing is inherently wrong with these practices, many organizations implement them in misguided ways.

And a study on the patterns of 360-degree feedback rater accuracy shows that the length of time the rater has known the person being rated has the most significant effect on the accuracy of a 360-degree review. According to the study, the most accurate ratings come from knowing the person long enough to get past first impressions (one to three years), but not so long as to begin to generalize favorably (more than five years).

Organizations having success with 360-degree feedback processes report:

  • Organizational climate fosters individual growth
  • Criticisms are seen as opportunities for improvement
  • Assurance that feedback will be kept confidential
  • Development of feedback tool based on organizational goals and values
  • Feedback tool includes area for comments
  • Brief workers, evaluators and supervisors about purpose, uses of data and methods of survey prior to distribution of tool
  • Train workers in appropriate methods to give and receive feedback
  • Support feedback with back-up services or customized coaching

Organizations using 360-degree feedback without first providing the foundation for success can have negative consequences such as:

  • Feedback too often tied to merit pay or promotions
  • Comments are traced to individuals causing resentment between workers
  • Feedback not linked to organizational goals or values
  • Use of the feedback tool as a stand alone without follow-up
  • Poor implementation of tool negatively affects motivation
  • Excessive number of surveys mean raters provide few tangible results

When a 360-degree feedback process is not properly implemented it can seriously derail its effectiveness. Like any training or development program, this process requires guidelines and oversight to ensure it is implemented properly and fairly throughout the organization.

Since 360-degree feedback processes are typically anonymous, people receiving feedback have no recourse if they want to further understand the feedback. They have no one to ask for clarification of unclear comments or more information about particular ratings and their basis.

Too often the 360-degree feedback process is problem-focused rather than solution-focused. By focusing on the employee’s weaknesses there is less of an opportunity to build on the employee’s strengths. And great leaders are those who build upon employee strengths rather than on their weaknesses.

The best 360-degree feedback provides insight about the skills and behaviors desired to meet the mission, vision and goals of the organization. It enables each individual to understand how his or her effectiveness as an employee is viewed by others. The feedback is based on behaviors that other employees can see. And the process includes a follow-up plan or coaching in order to improve.

As with any performance feedback process, it can be a profoundly supportive, organization-affirming method for promoting employee growth and development. Or the process can reduce morale and motivation, and make things much worse for the individual and the entire organization.