Feedback begins at an early age and is omnipresent throughout our lives. Feedback helps us understand more about ourselves and is important for our growth and success. Without feedback from friends, family, coworkers, or perhaps supervisors, we may believe we are good at something when in fact we could use a little improvement. An example of this might be participating in a popular national televised singing show when we clearly do not know how to sing. Where was the feedback? Yet, feedback is a difficult process on both the giving and receiving end. In your personal life you probably understand the difficulty in giving or receiving feedback, especially when it is negative. The workplace is no different and in some cases many would prefer having a permanent tooth removed (no offense intended towards dentists) than giving or receiving negative or developmental feedback.
We have heard from many colleagues over the years that their performance management system is broken, employees do not like receiving performance appraisals, managers don’t want to do them, and the human resources department is spending time reviewing the open-ended comments that look like the Marx brothers filled them out. Some have even called for the complete elimination of the performance management system (Culbert, 2010). Daniel Pink writes that performance reviews are rarely authentic conversations and more often like the Westerner’s form of Kabuki Theater where people recite predictable lines in a formulaic way and hope the experience ends soon. Many employees report that their performance management systems fail to provide useful feedback and establish clear expectations, thus many organizations continue to revamp, revise, or incorporate the newest performance measurement fads only to find themselves in the same spot, with a smaller bank account.
Our contention is that it is not the performance management system that is broken. If you think about performance management, it is all about giving and receiving feedback. You can have the greatest form and the most efficient process that are available, but it still comes down to a human factor of giving and receiving feedback. More importantly, many still rely on the one time administration of the annual performance review to recap approximately 2000 hours of work time when many cannot remember what they had for lunch on the previous day. We have to get back to the basics (beyond the annual performance review) and manage the process through which feedback is given and received on an ongoing basis. We call this the feedback environment.
Feedback environment refers to the nature of the ongoing feedback between a supervisor and subordinate or among coworkers. The feedback environment is favorable when sources of job performance feedback are trustworthy, credible, and available; constructive job performance feedback is provided with consideration and empathy; both positive and negative feedback that are useful and actionable are provided as appropriate; and employees feel comfortable asking each other for feedback in general. The feedback environment provides a framework for addressing how and why performance management systems fail. Addressing specific elements of the feedback environment will improve supervisor-employee communication and relationships and ultimately enhance performance management. The fundamental notion behind the feedback environment is that when the workplace supports the use of feedback, feedback will be more palatable, both to employees and the supervisor.
Every year thousands of people make New Year’s resolutions to lose weight or to improve their golf game. They hire a personal trainer or golf pro to tell them what they are doing wrong, in other words tell them how to improve their performance. That’s right; we pay those people to give us unfavorable feedback. In an organizational setting, our goal should be to help employees and supervisors view performance management feedback, specifically developmental feedback, simply as a tool that will get them into shape or improve their golf swing. If we can improve the feedback environment, feedback will be viewed as a way to get better and not an evaluative event. This could reduce feedback-related anxiety and help build trusting relationships.
So what’s a good feedback environment look like? A good feedback environment is one where individuals feel less emotional and less anxious about receiving feedback and therefore actively engage in feedback seeking. Quality feedback becomes part of the day-to-day communication. Employees are proactive and take responsibility for their own performance and careers. They openly share information with each other. Lastly, managers see the importance of the review process, are not moaning about it, and perhaps will complete them on time.
So why should we spend the time to work on the feedback environment? Applied research suggests there is a positive relationship between a favorable feedback environment and increased job performance, lower turnover, and better job attitudes, just to name a few. Therefore, we recommend that you shift your performance management focus from an administrative emphasis to more of an emphasis on an ongoing performance dialogue. The unbridled implementation of performance management systems is misguided and should cease; be weary of the consultant who is trying to push a new performance management system, for you may find yourself getting the same “stuff” in a different bag at the end of the day.
Understanding your current feedback environment is the first step in improving it. This can be accomplished either formally through a feedback environment assessment or through informal observations or questions that you ask yourself. For example, do your managers groan around performance review time? Do employees suddenly seem more on top of their jobs right before their performance review? Basically if the performance review process increases stress and anxiety levels for all involved, there is a chance that your feedback environment may have some areas in need of improvement.
One approach is to integrate the feedback strategies associated with a favorable feedback environment into coaching and training programs throughout the organization. This will create a feedback-oriented organizational culture, which will encourage employees to provide constructive feedback to each other, and actively seek and utilize feedback to improve their own performance. Feedback solutions may include such interventions as setting the expectations for giving and receiving feedback, training managers how to give feedback, and providing training to all employees on the aspects of the feedback environment.
In summary, the feedback environment has important organizational outcomes and as such deserves more attention. As Ken Blanchard quips, “Feedback is the breakfast of Champions.” Organizations should strive to create an environment that supports and encourages feedback (continuously) and those organizations that do may become Champions themselves.
So next time you are considering taking that stage to sing in front of millions of people, ask yourself one question: are the people around me giving me the quality feedback I deserve?