Article (August-2016)


Art of Performance Feedback

Dr. Aquil Busrai

Designation : -   CEO

Organization : -   Aquil Busrai Consulting, Gurgaon


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With increasing globalization, high focus on productivity enhancement, coupled with declining margins makes it critical for organizations in today's business environment, to maximize the value of each employee. It is, therefore, imperative to calibrate, set goals in an objective manner and provide real-time feedback for continual improvement. 

Performance at individual level is about talent, skill and motivation level whereas at the organization level; it is about providing the right ambience for employees to succeed. High performing organizations therefore focus sharply on ensuring that the performance management systems does, in fact, encourage behaviours that lead to achievement of strategic business goals.

Working without feedback is similar to driving on a highway without milestones. One may have a sense of movement but not necessarily on plan. When employees receive little or no feedback, they tend to either be overly self-critical or self-congratulatory. This is because they are relying upon their self-perception of events rather than specific feedback to measure their performance and impact. 

Feedback is information about past behaviour with the hope of influencing future behaviour. It is about reinforcing effective and strong contribution and about identifying areas of potential improvement. The ideal outcome of the feedback process should be for an employee to emerge more engaged, energised and motivated to strive for better performance. However, does it happen like this?  Most often, it does not. And the plausible reason is that in spite of best intentions to discuss past performance and plan the future; managers find themselves delivering an annual report card or being judgmental punitive parent. Whether the feedback is positive or constructive - focus should be on helping individual's development, not judging them. Individuals need to change from inside. Successful feedback, therefore, describes actions or behaviours that the individual can assimilate and act upon. 

Many managers struggle with how to provide constructive criticism. They tend to avoid it, assuming that the conversation may end up in an argument or the employee may reject the feedback. However, the discomfort can be avoided provided the manager is prepared to use facts, data and information as against labeling an employee, which conveys a judgement rather than an objective evaluation. On the other hand, withholding feedback has long-term adverse consequences. It lowers productivity level, impacts morale and damages relationships. Feedback that objectively describes behaviour and explains impact can improve both results and relationships. 

Feedback need not be always top-down. Many progressive organizations are using upward feedback and 360 degree form of feedback to create an atmosphere of all-round calibration. However, it is important to use these processes only for developmental purposes rather than evaluation for reward or performance rating. 

Dr. Marshall Goldsmith refers to the concept of 'Feed Forward' - focusing on the promise of the future rather than the mistakes of the past. Feedback usually concentrates on past events rather than on the infinite possibilities of the future and therefore, it is limited and static. In the 'Feed Forward' process, employees are encouraged to change one or two behaviours that could make a positive difference in their lives. A manager for instance, could suggest to an employee "Here are four ideas for the future. Please accept these in the positive spirit that they are given. If you can only use two of the ideas, you are still two ahead. You may ignore what doesn't make sense for you."  This approach has good potential as it makes an employee participate in shaping his or her own future through a changed behaviour. It is obvious that this will not replace feedback mechanism but will only supplement it. 

The core objective of any performance feedback is to initiate a positive change, to make an individual more conscious of his or her effectiveness and provide a guideline to improve. It is therefore imperative that employees also take responsibility for an accurate assessment of their current skills, performance and behaviour. They need not rely only on their manager to assess their contribution and developmental needs. It is as much up to the individual to take control of this process by seeking coaching, asking for very specific feedback, and being receptive to input from a wide variety of people at various levels. When this is done on continual basis - the cycle of performance improvement would have been set in motion.