To gain new insights and perspectives into the art of employee performance management, we recently conducted a series of in-depth interviews with 67 top-flight performers in fields ranging from theatre, film and TV to medicine and emergency services.
Through our research conversations, we have become convinced that conventional approaches to performance management are no longer fit for purpose. A new blueprint is needed. Less formal. Not so process-driven. The focus, instead, should be on enabling everyone in the organization to give and receive personalized feedback in the moment.
This kind of approach to performance management puts considerable onus on the individual. Feedback givers — and receivers — throughout the organization need to cultivate a specific set of capabilities, skills and mindsets, including self-awareness, empathy, honesty and courage.
But it is not just about the individuals themselves. It is also, crucially, about the environment they operate in. Here are some key steps we think organizations can take to create the conditions needed for regular and effective feedback and performance conversations.
We already know that companies driven by purpose are more successful (Korn Ferry research shows that they post compounded annual growth rates of 9.85% compared to 2.4% for the S&P 500 overall). Through our research, we have identified that shared performance purpose is also critical to building an environment where feedback can thrive.
A great example of the value of a shared purpose is sports squads. Squad members have to compete against each other to gain and retain their places. At the same time, everyone needs to work together as a team. This is only possible because they are united around a common performance purpose, which is the collective success of the group. And this purpose, in turn, gives the feedback meaning — it is offered, received and acted upon in order to bring the squad closer to their collective goal. Resulting in more meaningful performance conversations.
“It is critical to create a common point of purpose… to help drive the right conditions for feedback in the moment.” - Andy Kistler, former Chef d’Equipe of the Swiss elite national showjumping team
If purpose gives the team a clear direction for performance, then culture and values are what keeps them on track, particularly when it comes to engaging in self- and team-analysis.
This, again, is especially true for sports teams, where it is important to encourage individuals who are in competition with each other to engage in selfless, “team-first” decision-making. It also helps to prevent complacency. When your team keeps winning, poor habits will often kick in. Culture and values help everybody in the team to recognize complacency and understand the standards they, as a group, need to be hitting to achieve their collective goal.
The benefit of having a strong feedback culture is that it breaks down traditional linear channels. Instead, feedback becomes just “what we do around here,” and is given and received across the peer group.
“In sport, the most important aspects for me were culture and values. They created a framework for the free flow of independent feedback, allowing it to move from a traditional, hierarchical system to one enabling the most respected and credible people to deliver the most feedback.” -Gordon D’Arcy, former rugby professional for Leinster, Ireland and British & Irish Lions
In his book, The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation, Dr. Timothy Clark defines psychological safety as, “…a condition in which one feels (a) included, (b) safe to learn, (c) safe to contribute, and (d) safe to challenge the status quo, without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized or punished in some way.
Conditions similar to that outlined by Dr. Clark were described by many of the elite performers we spoke to. Again and again, they emphasized the importance of working in an environment where people know they won’t be punished for making a mistake.
For teams and individuals to perform at the highest levels, organizations need to focus on creating an inclusive climate of psychological safety where employee performance feedback is positive, safe and readily sought, and where any perception of threat or fear related to feedback has been removed.
“The thing that is universal… is creating safety. I don’t think creativity works well in an environment of fear. For me, where people don’t feel free and safe they don’t do their best work.” - Charlie Walker-Wise, Director and Actor, RADA
How often do your employees get feedback on their performance? Once a week? Once a month? Once a year? Ever?
When we told the elite performers we spoke to that it was common for organizations to store up feedback for quarterly or even annual performance reviews, the news was met with a mix of shock, pity and bewilderment. The purpose of performance management is to guide effective and positive change through constructive feedback. In their world, it is seen as imperative that feedback should be given immediately or as soon as possible after the event. Only then will the feedback giver be able to provide a reliable and accurate description of the performance they observed. Only then will the feedback receiver recognize and trust the observation being shared. And only then will they be able to act on the feedback in a way that measurably improves future performance.
For all these reasons, we think that sorting the timing of feedback is one of the most important steps to increasing the impact of performance management. Organizations can do this by replacing backwards-looking annual reviews with cycles linked to the rhythms of each individual’s work, whether they are project-based, goal-based or time-based. At the end of each performance “cycle” there should be time for a dedicated reflection point. And feedback moments should also be baked into the daily cycle of work, for example at the start or end of every meeting.
“Most of the time when I was receiving feedback as a young man, the biggest challenge was that it was too late. I remember people saying things like, ‘I saw this, but I didn’t say anything at the time.’ But I needed that feedback right then and there so I could act upon it.” - Shawn Dunstan, Captain, City of Fairfax Fire Department
Our research has shown us the potential for a new and better world of performance management, one where feedback flows freely throughout the organization.
But regular, effective performance conversations do not just happen by chance.
Organizations need to develop a shared performance purpose for teams and individuals, supported by a strong cultural and values framework, and an inclusive climate of psychological safety. It is also critical that they sort the timing of feedback, by doing away with annual performance reviews and replacing them with moments and reflection points that are baked into the daily cycle of work.
Download the full performance management whitepaper to learn more about creating the right environment for feedback and the key steps organizations can take to create a performance management culture that enables individuals and teams to excel.