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Performance feedback really isn’t as hard as we think

Performance feedback

I’ve written about feedback and performance feedback enough times to gag an entire farm of horses, but here goes one more time.

As with many things at work, we tend to very much so over-complicate the idea of performance feedback.

We couch it in once-a-year reviews, 360 evaluations, other elements of the tech stack — or we just outright remove the idea entirely.

Regardless, most of the approaches we take to feedback at work end up being the wrong approaches to take.

This is less than stellar, because human beings are inherently social and worried to an extent about their upward mobility, so they want to know how things are going. They want feedback. Time and time again, that’s been proven on studies.

Now, do we need daily feedback? No. Look at this, which appeared in Harvard Business Review maybe two years ago:

Performance feedback chart 1

We’re actually good with quarterly feedback, so this isn’t even super hard for managers! Four times/year or so? No sweat, right? (OK, 4-12 or so, but you can probably eliminate August and December as “totally checked out months,” so call the range 4-10.)

How could we simplify the idea of performance feedback, though?

Simplification 1: It’s all about listening

Pretty amazing how “listening” is even now a corporate buzzword, but I’ll still use it here. It’s important.

Kim Scott, probably known to some as “the radical candor lady,” has a new post on Harvard Business Review. There’s a lot of good stuff in it, but this one small part pops out to me:

When I left a job I’d once loved, I explained why: “It’s too frustrating to watch a company spend so much time hiring great people, and then refuse, steadfastly, to listen to a single word they say. It’s humiliating, like getting paid to sit down and shut up.” In that case, the problem was that my boss’s boss didn’t listen. His inability to listen rendered thousands of conversations that were happening under him pointless.

This is kind of interesting — Paul Graham, the founder of Y Combinator, has said similar things.

Think about the power of what Scott said there, though. Let’s say a senior VP has six direct reports. They all have 10. Some of those 10 have direct reports too. Now there are conversations happening across 70-100 people or more, OK? And because this one SVP doesn’t listen, those conversations are essentially meaningless. Listen. It’s important.

Simplification 2: Try to fix the behavior and not the outcome

This has been backed up both by research and the coaching style of John Wooden, who won more NCAA basketball titles than anyone.

Simplification 3: It’s more about career conversations

Average North American job tenure right now is about 3.6-4.2 years in a role, so the whole notion of a “performance review” is a bit of a farce. You can review someone’s performance all you want. In 12-15 quarters, they may be out the door. If all you did was review performance, neither side gained much when that employee walks. You could try and shift the focus to career conversations instead. The manager then gets some intrinsic “I helped another soul” deal (if he cares) and the employee gets guidance, which is what we really want from feedback.

Simplification 4: Don’t make it so much about real-time

Real-time feedback is actually somewhat of a terrible idea, largely because it turns performance feedback into a drive-by as opposed to a conversation. The best answer is the 1-on-1 meeting, maybe buffered with some 90-day reviews, but unfortunately these concepts terrify a lot of managers. This brings us to a final simplification.

Simplification 5: Do NOT hide behind tech

We do live in a platform economy, yes. Platforms are good for moving work along, assigning tasks, and coordinating projects. When the deal needs to be human-to-human (H2H! Buzzword alert!), platforms are less good. It’s really hard to couch reviews and feedback in tech solutions, because it obliterates the connection and context that would come from manager-employee conversation. Can’t we do one thing face-to-face anymore? It’s actually pretty effective!

Tough conversations are hard for people. Managers are people. Oftentimes, feedback will be a tough conversation. I get it. It’s not easy. But despite all these issues, we need to try harder on performance feedback. What say you?

Ted Bauer

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