Employee feedback is not a silver bullet


Stuart Hearn

Found & CEO

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In 2015, renowned HR industry analyst Josh Bersin described feedback as “The killer app”. He (rightly) predicted that tired and outdated HR processes such as the annual performance review and the annual engagement survey would be replaced with ‘always on’ approaches, centred around feedback.

There were good reasons for his prediction. Studies have shown that frequent feedback can boost employee performance and that employees want more of it. Employees also want more opportunities to give upwards feedback. So given that in most organisations, feedback has been too infrequent to make a difference to both performance and engagement levels, doubling down on feedback seems the obvious choice.

This is why digital tools that facilitate regular peer and upward feedback have exploded over the last few years. But the problem comes when organisations look to feedback as being the cure for all their performance and engagement ills. By itself, feedback is not and can never be the silver bullet.

Feedback in employee engagement

Pulse survey tools that regularly solicit upwards feedback are undoubtedly a significant improvement on the annual engagement survey. They achieve greater levels of participation and enable companies to get data faster. But to improve engagement levels, the organisation and its managers need to act on that feedback. And when people are giving feedback more regularly, they expect action to be taken more quickly.

One of the biggest areas of dissatisfaction highlighted by engagement survey tools is with line management and performance management. So when you invest in pulse survey technology, you need to be ready to look at your performance and people management processes.

Feedback for performance management

Feedback as a performance management tool is not really new. For years, many organisations have solicited 360-degree feedback as part of their annual performance review process. This makes sense in principle – feedback that comes from multiple people should give a more rounded picture of performance than feedback from the manager alone.

But there are many problems with the traditional 360-degree feedback exercise when used for performance management. Most significantly, studies have shown that it doesn’t actually improve performance. For example, research conducted by Silverman, Kerrin and Carter found that:

“The 360-degree feedback process had not been effective in changing behaviour or performance and there was some concern that it may even have caused more harm than good."

The problems stem from the fact that 360-degree feedback exercises are typically conducted only once a year, at a time determined by the organisation. And as the CEB points out, for performance management to be effective, feedback needs to ‘real-time and meaningful’, rather than being given ‘infrequently on a schedule’.

This is why organisations are rapidly replacing annual 360-degree feedback with frequent, ‘real-time’ 360 degree feedback, for performance management purposes.

Combine real-time feedback with Check-ins

But feedback in isolation won’t make a significant difference to performance. Individuals need to reflect on the feedback and take action on the back of it. The most effective traditional 360-degree feedback schemes include a coaching session with the individual after the feedback is collated to discuss themes and explore ideas for personal development.

So if we’re going to get value from real-time feedback in performance management, we need to replicate those reflection sessions. The most scalable way of doing this is through periodic ‘check-in’ meetings where recent feedback can be discussed with the manager and development goals agreed.

To get the most from these check-ins, managers need to be trained in basic coaching techniques so they feel confident and equipped to have those conversations. But it’s worth the investment - in a 2017 survey of nearly 1,800 global leaders, almost three quarters agreed that ongoing coaching and feedback conversations have a positive impact on individual performance.

Anonymous or not?

A common question about feedback is whether it should be anonymous or not, particularly when used as part of performance management. The argument for anonymous feedback is that the giver will be more confident in giving constructive, upwards feedback without fear of reprisal. But what frequently happens is that the recipient focuses so much on trying to work out who gave the feedback, that not enough attention is paid to the contents of the feedback.

By making feedback transparent, we have found that the giver thinks more carefully about how they word it. And in cultures where there is a fear of giving upwards feedback, make the feedback transparent by default, but allow the individual to anonymise it by exception.

The way forward

Feedback can be an incredibly powerful management tool when given regularly in real-time, and when followed up with proper reflection and action planning. Done right, it can indeed be the ‘killer app’ that Josh Bersin describes.

Just don’t get seduced by the allure of feedback being an ‘easy win’. Moving to a feedback culture is a journey and requires time and effort. But for those who are willing to make that investment, the returns can be huge.

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