Some powerful feedback on performance management

Our in-depth interviews with high performers outside the world of business confirmed what many leaders already experience every day: The old way of performance management isn’t working. By radically simplifying it – and making it a part of the everyday workflow – you can empower both givers and receivers of feedback to have more effective regular conversations that drive performance.

Our recent global survey of 900 clients revealed many organisations are still struggling with how to make sure managers and employees have better performance conversations.

So, where’s the roadblock?

To find out, we talked to 67 high performers around the world, leaders in diverse fields such as the arts, military, sport, medicine, and fine dining. With resounding clarity, they emphasised the importance of regular feedback. It is the foundation on which progress is made. Leaders in these fields are expected to dish out feedback. And receivers eagerly seek it, knowing they can’t improve without it.

The same is true in the world of business. It’s time to look beyond antiquated ‘close the door, have a seat’ quarterly or annual reviews when it comes to performance management. Instead, to drive performance, you need to ingrain a spirit of regular, fluid feedback across your organisation.


1. Create the right environment for feedback

Organisations need to develop an environment that promotes dynamic, two-way feedback. One way to do this is by creating a clear sense of purpose that’s shared across the entire group.

Time trialist Sean Carroll says his Harlequin cycling team is unified by its shared goal. “I think what really helps our feedback discussions is we all have a common simple goal – we’re all chasing the fastest time we can get. We’re all motivated in the same direction, and our discussions are brainstorming around how we could do things differently to achieve it.”

Another way to build this environment is by shifting feedback from ‘occasional’ to ‘always’ – making giving and receiving feedback as normal as logging into your email or having a coffee.

[bctt tweet="“Giving and receiving feedback should be as normal as logging into your email or having a coffee.”" username="Korn_Ferry"]

Finally, members of your organisation need to see feedback as a positive – not a scolding, but an opportunity to improve.

“It’s really about the willingness to learn, the humility that you don't actually know all the answers and having the willingness to act upon the feedback,” Carroll says. “It’s also about how you respond to adversity – if something goes wrong, you need to be able to accept you may have contributed to that and want to do something to remedy it.”

2. Get the timing right

If there’s data or insight that can help you perform better, don’t you want to see it as soon as you can? Hanging onto feedback that could directly improve your organisation because of an arbitrary date in your calendar no longer makes sense. You want your people operating at their best right now, and including regular feedback time in your workflow can help.

Australian Air Force weapon systems officer Jake Brenna says feedback from both his peers and his instructors is hugely important. After a session in the air, his team debriefs to assess performance.

“Everything that happens in the aircraft is recorded. In the moment it’s really hard to tell what has happened. So what we do is get back to the squadron and review the hub tapes. We go through it slowly, almost frame by frame. ‘What were you thinking at this time?’ ‘Did you look and see that the friendly was here?’”

What if Brenna’s team waited weeks or months to review its performance? Would he and his peers be able to recall and discuss every in-flight error they made? Probably not.

Carroll says his cycling team does something similar.

“After training or a race, we always make time to talk about how it went. It's really important because every time you do this you learn something – either about yourself, about other people or about the way the team operates. We also have data to enrich and reinforce our feedback conversations. Data can show us where each person had drops in speed and power and where heart rates are spiking too early in the race. This keeps the conversations factual – and most of the time reinforces what we knew already.”

By drawing on data in a timely manner, and normalising giving and accepting feedback, receivers can put those insights to work to improve their performance sooner.

3. Help leaders see the person

Leaders and managers also need to learn how to deliver feedback in the right way for each person.

After talking to our 67 high-achieving participants, we discovered five traits successful feedback givers share: courage, humility, credibility, empathy and honesty. These help leaders assess each person’s capacity, which is a combination of ability and energy. Honest, regular feedback about their capacity can help team members see what’s possible in terms of their performance.

Conductor of the Adelaide Orchestra Jessica Gethin says being able to change the way she gives feedback for different players – and understanding their capacity – is key for building a cohesive unit.

“It’s important to establish trust early on, so I’m very aware of the language I use when rehearsing. How I provide feedback depends on the country I’m working in. I have 75 different opinions of how a composition should go, so my job is to unify this vision and convince them why this interpretation or direction is appropriate for the performance,” she says.

“There is a difference between musicians not understanding feedback, or just not having the ability to respond to what has been asked of them. When your direction is beyond their capabilities, you need to use your experience to compromise in the moment with the least sacrifice to the product.”

4. Grow feedback-hungry individuals

Many of the high performers we spoke to discussed how consistent feedback was the only way to learn. That means developing your team into people who crave feedback.

Dr. Tong Yow Ng, Associate Professor at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Hong Kong, is developing the next generation of surgeons. He is always thinking of new ways to empower his pupils. By sharing a surgical disaster with them, he makes himself more relatable to his students. Asking a junior member of the operating team to lead pre-surgical checks also helps build an overall culture of feedback.

“He or she will be the lead in checking whether it’s the right patient and surgery and whether the right surgeons and instruments are there. It’s a good way to institutionalise feedback, get people to buy into it, and make sure the most junior person has a right to give it.”

Feedback has the power to positively drive performance across your organisation. But only if it’s communicated in a regular, timely fashion and looked at as an opportunity to get improve. To learn more about how to achieve this and hear insights from dozens of other high achievers in sport, the arts, medicine and more, our new report Performance Management: A bold new perspective on how individuals, teams and organisations excel.