Frequent Performance Feedback: What’s the Point?

A client called to discuss an employee’s poor performance.  Although the basic work was getting done, there were behaviors the manager (and others) wanted to see improved. It seems the employee would often disappear. The department employees being available (or reachable) always was essential to serve colleagues (internal customers) who often had urgent questions. These questions need to be answered or internal projects would screech to a halt and cost the organization significant loss of revenue and productivity. My client was uncomfortable and was asking for guidance.

The client asked me, “How do I get my employee to be at his desk when he is needed?” The typical manager would likely make specific demands and/or make threats such as insist on frequent meetings to assure compliance with the demands. Or, he/she might threaten to possibly hold a negative performance review rating. What’s the point of these? Control? Control techniques are often outdated and ineffective in our knowledge economy. Employees can always find ways around the arbitrary rules. My client knew this and thus the reason for his call.

Many, if not most of the firms transforming their performance management processes are recommending more frequent and informal feedback in place of formal performance review meetings. PwC, a major consulting firm, found that up to 60% of employees (especially millennials) want feedback either weekly or daily. Virtually all performance management consulting companies recommend more frequent feedback now (in place of annual reviews) because they claim it improves employee engagement.

This all sounds seductive but what’s the point? Managers are not very skilled at delivering feedback and they claim to have no time to deliver feedback more frequently. These are barriers, but the bigger reason to be cautious before jumping on the “more frequent” bandwagon is the dysfunction caused by a flawed context. If organizations shifted their context from control to self-management it would make an enormous positive difference in performance while requiring less time for managers.

Delivering feedback more frequently, and less formally, in a dysfunctional context will not make things better. In a control context, the typical manager will make specific demands and then attempt to catch the employee either doing something right or doing it wrong. This strategy creates a context of mistrust and sends this message to the employee, “You are incapable of managing your own performance without me watching you.”

I recommended a different approach to my client: facilitate a set of agreements with the employee. An agreement is a specific, measurable, and time sensitive task that is delivered with a predictable process. I recommended my client facilitate agreements around being available. I suggested he reinforce the importance of being available. He then asked the employee, “What agreement(s) are you willing to make to be sure you are available always for our internal customers?”

Instead of making demands to follow a process that the manager created, the manager shifted the responsibility for creating a process to the employee to keep his agreement. This shift (in context) allows more effective feedback without the demand for forced frequency. If the employee can be more available, the process the employee created worked. There is no need for feedback from the manager. If it doesn’t work, then feedback is appropriate. The feedback will be either about the process needing improvement about the broken agreement. Either way, the feedback is needed and can be immediate.

In this context, the purpose (the point) of feedback is to discuss when and if agreements are broken or when a process must be improved. In this context feedback is not dependent upon a calendar. Instead, it is delivered when everyone can learn something. Either we learn how to better keep our agreements and/or we learn how to improve a process.

Forcing more frequent feedback without a good context (the point), will not deliver the desired results. Managers and employees will likely get tired of meeting so frequently. The arbitrary calendar demand to give frequent feedback will likely not deliver enough learning. By asking, “What agreement(s) are you willing to make to self-manage?”  the context changes to self-management and away from manager dependency. This puts the responsibility where it really belongs, on the employee and not on the manager. Frequency is great but what’s the point? Learning is the point.

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