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Almost nobody we speak to in the corporate world seems satisfied with their performance management processes — and absolutely nobody knows what to do about it. We’ve all tried making tweaks. We’ve revisited, revised and relaunched. But no organization has managed to crack the age-old problem of how to cultivate feedback conversations that consistently drive improvements in performance.
To get a fresh and highly informed perspective on the subject, we asked 67 top-flight performers in fields ranging from theatre, film and TV to medicine and emergency services to tell us about their experiences of performance management. What they described to us was an approach, understanding and mindset that are unlike anything we are used to in the corporate sphere.
In their world, feedback is built into the day-to-day rhythm of work, not stored up to be shared in annual performance reviews.
In their world, those giving feedback are masters in human behavior, so they do not have to fall back on fixed performance management plan of action but can instead provide personalized and highly effective input whenever and wherever it is needed.
In their world, performance management is seen as a collaborative process, where feedback givers share “notes” rather than opinions, and work with feedback receivers to co-create improvement ideas.
In their world, people become accustomed to receiving feedback very early on in their careers and see input from others as critical to driving performance.
The point is that their world works. Ours doesn’t. So, we say it’s time for us to rip up the rulebook of performance management and create a new blueprint for driving individual and team performance across the corporate world.
In the corporate world, we tend to discuss performance management in terms of ratings, structure, process and other formal procedures and techniques. But for the elite performers we spoke to, feedback is the key to shaping growth, improvement and course correction — not formal performance management plans or interventions. What’s more, feedback is viewed as a fundamental part of everyday life. Everyone expects it. Everyone is hungry for it. As British Olympian, Alex Partridge, put it:
“Feedback is the only way to improve in rowing. You come off the water and analyze immediately. This feedback loop — three times a day — ensures you constantly do what is needed.”
Learning from our research participants, we believe it is time to redefine feedback conversations and their role in how we think about performance management. Feedback should not be seen as a nice-to-have. It has to become a natural and regular part of the corporate workplace.
Effective performance conversations do not just happen by chance. It is critical to develop, embed and sustain the right conditions to enable free-flowing feedback between managers and employees to thrive within an organization. We have identified three key pieces of “scaffolding” you need to have in place to create a more impactful performance management environment.
First is a shared performance purpose. This gives people reason to seek out, accept and understand feedback — because, in doing so, they are helping the team achieve a common goal.
Second: culture and values. The aim should be to create an environment where feedback becomes just “what we do around here,” and is given and received across the peer group.
Third is a climate of psychological safety. This means an environment in which people do not feel threatened by feedback, and where they know they won’t be punished for making a mistake. As Ted Brandsen, Director of the Netherlands National Ballet, explains:
“I think they’ve got to be in a place where they feel comfortable and in control, not threatened. It’s not being called into the headmaster’s office. A bit more casual, I think, would be best.”
The elite performers we spoke to were shocked to learn how long feedback is routinely “stored up” in the corporate world before being shared. In their minds, feedback is something to be given in the moment, circumstances permitting. The idea that performance management plans arrange for feedback to be given on an annual, quarterly or even monthly basis is completely alien to them.
The arguments in favor of regular, spontaneous feedback are many. For one thing, people’s memories are extremely unreliable. The longer feedback is delayed, the less recognizable it becomes and the less impact it has on the receiver. For another thing, the shorter work cycles of today’s business environment are not suited to a formal process of annual or quarterly reviews. It is much better to have a performance management process where individuals can set a personal rhythm for feedback directly linked to the cycle of their work.
Achieving a constant flow of feedback between managers and employees is difficult — but doable. Organizations could start by baking “feedback moments” into the daily cycle of work (for example by starting every meeting with a quick note on what feedback attendees might want at the end) and ensuring there is time for a dedicated reflection point at the end of each performance cycle.
Providing nuanced and actionable feedback is not easy. Organizations have tried to help feedback givers meet the challenge by providing them with conversation models, scripts, rules and formulas. But the truth is that no amount of formal support mechanisms or stringent performance management plans will ever be enough. Delivering personalized feedback in the moment requires leaders who have both a deep understanding of human behavior and a significant level of self-awareness, as well.
Our research participants have helped us identify five key traits that define a successful feedback giver: courage, humility, credibility, empathy and honesty. Through our discussions, we have also managed to define the thought process that effective feedback givers go through before delivering any feedback. It looks something like this:
“What is it specifically I see going on?
“What am I hearing? Am I totally present?”
“What is the impact of what I am seeing and hearing?”
“Will the feedback I want to give shift performance?”
“Is this the right moment for the feedback to be received?”
The final piece of the puzzle for effective feedback-giving is the concept of “notes”. It’s a concept we came across many times in our interviews with participants in fields as wide-ranging as the military and the arts. It describes an approach to collecting and summarizing observations on a performance, with the aim of making the performance better — and thus, your performance management efforts more meaningful. Most critically, the process of taking and delivering notes is a part of how the work gets done. It’s not treated as a separate activity (as feedback in industry often is).
Feedback is a two-way process. So, if we really want to boost performance — and make sure our performance management efforts do not fall on deaf ears — we need to look beyond feedback givers to consider what makes a good feedback receiver, as well.
The good news is that effective feedback receivers — like feedback givers — are made, not born. It demands a set of skills that can be acquired through practice. And the earlier you start building those skills, the bigger impact it will have on your long-term performance and career.
One critical area for individuals to work on is self-awareness. Not only does this make you more receptive to feedback from others, but it also promotes a mechanism for more objective self-assessment.
Another critical area is resilience. Why? Because feedback, however constructive, is a form of adversity. The more resilient you are, the better equipped you will be to handle — and benefit from — regular, honest feedback.
Our research tells us there are some key enablers of successful performance management transformation in terms of the culture and work environment, the process fundamentals, the traits and thought processes of feedback givers, and the resilience and self-awareness of feedback receivers. Get all these interdependent elements right and you will have gone a long way to driving individual and leader accountability for great feedback conversations.
We’ll leave the last words to one of our participants, Patsy Rodenburg OBE, Head of Voice at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, who provided us with a perfect description of the kind of performance management interaction we should all be aiming for:
“You can’t say, ‘Come into my office and you sit on that chair and I’ll sit here.’ You have to have a tremendous amount of respect for the person. There’s got to be a humanity in that moment when two people are present together.”
Download the full performance management whitepaper for more a detailed breakdown of our research and to discover the key steps organizations can take to create a performance management process and culture that enables individuals and teams excel.