When it comes to performance, the question “How are you doing?” can start a very rich discussion. Do you really want to know? Do we really have a good way to gauge it (except by historical occurrences or lack thereof)? In typical business education fashion, let’s say it depends.
Feedback fills a really nice space in an working context, and any survey of employees will say that it is much sought after information. Hopefully the yearly performance evaluation as the sole source of feedback is a thing of the past that left with the move toward “flat” organizational structures and non-linear career development. There is an important difference between “evaluative feedback” and “developmental feedback.” I argue that they are best kept separate in order for feedback to work for both individuals and for contributing to the performance culture of organization.
Feedback for evaluation
In the evaluation sphere, the guiding question for feedback seems to be, “I am doing awesome, right?” or “Your not going to fire me, are you?” The receiver is primed for positive reinforcement or for some piece of mind that there job is not in jeopardy. This can be driven by a number of things, but ego is probably front and centre. Routinely research will find that much more than 50% of a group will think that they are above average. This creates an unworkable situation in many workplaces where we are striving for performance “excellence,” but those delivering “average” think they are going above an beyond the call. If the tick boxes are “meeting” and “exceeding” expectations, most of those you evaluate will be disappointed with the former even though logic dictates in a performance culture the expectations are high. To further complicate things, the Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that those who are furthest away from “excellence” will think themselves closest to it.
I encounter this in classroom evaluations in the MBA program within which I teach. There is conundrum created by the university expectation for a B to B+ class average and the reality that the large majority of students think that they should be getting As. This drives a reluctance to accept critical feedback without having to defend and justify the position (presumably because accepting criticism would be setting the stage for accepting a lower or “average” evaluation.)
If this is the kind of tension that manifests itself in the workplace, it is no wonder that managers find providing feedback a challenge. Who wants to get into a debate about someone’s performance? It becomes so much easier to provide positive feedback or at least put a bigger emphasis on the positive elements, even if those are not the most relevant. (e.g. Don’t worry about the sales results, you had a lot of really good meetings with some very key people.) One of the knock-on effects for an organization is that the standards get relaxed (e.g. the President’s club gets expanded) and there can be a general inflation of any quantified evaluation (e.g. you see more 5 out 5s or 100% ratings). This expands and dilutes your group of top performers. This does not have to be a problem and in many organizations there is a lot of resignation that this is the way it is.
On the other end of the bell curve, a similar conflation can happen in that unsatisfactory performance can get bumped up to “satisfactory” or better (which is actually much worse). If you are after high performance, this situation could not be worse. Your very high performers will be group in with the “average,” and the “below average” are convinced that they are doing their job.
Feedback for development
The nuanced difference with this kind of feedback is that everyone can improve: good enough is never good enough. There is a an apocryphal anecdote about Prince and his back-up band the Revolution. When working on a new number, the band members were encouraged to let Prince know if they mastered their part during the rehearsal period. He would be ready with an extra guitar lick, a percussion part, a dance move, a vocal harmonization, etc., to keep them occupied while the rest of the band worked on their parts. The message being, don’t hide the fact that you can handle more.
With evaluation in place, too often people direct effort based on the location of the goal line. This is why those who are being evaluated complain when we “move the goal posts.” With an evaluative set-up, your most capable performers (especially those who understand the system), know exactly how much effort to expend to meet the given bar and not make the next one any higher. I worked with a sales manager, who was surgical about meeting budgets almost to the penny (nickle?) and mysteriously having a bunch of business “just come in” in the early weeks fo the new quarter. The fear of having the goal posts moved based on an extraordinary result is a function of the evaluative context. The risking of falling short is enough of an incentive to launch very elaborate gaming of the system.
For lower-level performers, you get the opposite behaviour where people will sacrifice “next quarter” in order to drive short-term results. Picture the account manager who is pushing a major client to close business to meet the end of their quarter, and goes as far as to extend an exploding offer in the flavour of “If I can’t get your commitment on the renewal before next week, I am not sure that we can extend the same offer.” Picture also the predictable response from the major client saying: “We will make our decisions based on our financial year, not yours. Thanks very much and we will talk to you in about 6 weeks and will be expecting at least as good a deal as you just described.” It is hard to say whether such an exchange would actually hurt next years’ arrangement, but I suspect there would be some future blow back.
With a developmental mindset, we can entertain stretch goals without worrying about people feeling that they “failed” by achieving 89% of a really challenging goal. The “evaluated outcome” is immaterial; the direction (e.g. forward) is the only thing that matters (so it is crucial to have a shared understanding of what “forward” looks like). The focus is simply what went well and what could be better next time.
Analogy from the world of sport: “Hey, Jason Day, I know that you are number one in the world and just won in a blow out. Your approach shots are phenomenal, but can we talk about your course management off the tee. Twice you were between clubs and better distance control could get you relying a bit less on feel for those shots.”
In the world of work, this will equate to drawing attention to something that had to “give” to meet a deadline, achieve a client outcome, etc. In the “developmental world,” this won’t be seen as “Great job, but…” There will be a thirst and expectation for some reflection on how could this be even better, or more sustainable, or less contentious, or… some other desirable—even aspirational—attribute. This is the drummer for the revolution keeping great rhythm, nailing the drum solo, and working on a juggling move for next time.
When you try to do both…
The flavours of feedback have very different intent: evaluative feedback seeks to differentiate performance, (e.g. separating the wheat from the chaff), while developmental performance doesn’t care how you stack up, (e.g. how could you improve?).
Here are the very predictable outcomes you can expect from not distinguishing between these types of feedback.
The effect on top performers can happen in at least three ways:
- Just-enoughing: As mentioned above, giving exactly enough effort to attain the prescribed “goal.” A friend of mine joked about the grading at our alma mater, McGill University, saying there are only two grades you should get: 85%, which was the minimum to getting an “A” (this was the highest grade, so any effort beyond this had no impact), and 56%, which was the minimum to get your credit. The thinking being, you certainly don’t want to fail, but unless you are getting an “A,” the grade doesn’t matter.
- Sandbagging: In setting the original goal, you can count on active negotiation to establish a bar that they are certain they can attain, but they convince you that it is a stretch goal. In client-facing activities, this is called managing expectations. This may be avoided by splitting up the types of feedback.
- Skinner-boxing: When attempts motivate involve evaluation and reward, you can create a stimulus-response dynamic where you feel that the only way to maintain performance is to continue offering tangible rewards. Peak performance has to include some intrinsic drive. Any theory of human motivation takes us beyond the gun-for-hire, will-work-for-rewards mindset.
The effect on “average” performers may be that the category ceases to exist. With a reluctance to acknowledge that one is average, the evaluators can be stuck evaluating everyone as “high performing.” JK Simmons in the movie Whiplash has a nice little soliloquy about performance that finishes with: “there are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.”
Under performers are always an interesting group. Jack Welch had an answer for this group (identified as being in the bottom 10%): Fire them. As cold-hearted as that seems, the compassionate view is that the situation is not working for either party. There is something about the context that is not working. You will find a context that is a better fit for you. It’s not you… it’s us (and you). When you are able to separate the results from the development, you can get a cleaner look at what is not working. If it can’t be fixed, maybe the “exit” is best for all involved.
What exactly to keep separate
For the developmental conversation, there is no differentiating. Everyone is tagged for improvement. The evaluation decisions you make have a huge impact on the culture of the organization because you will get the behaviour that you reinforce. Bringing performance out in the open will create pressure to align with existing systems and practices.
The mindset when approaching a top-performer has to be around tapping into intrinsic areas to maintain motivation. What can we do to help you be even better? What can we do to help you develop in ways that you want to?
The approach for the “average” employee should balance the possibility that the person could be performing at a higher level, but chooses not to. As an organization, are we OK with someone phoning it in and delivering adequate results? There will also be those who work really hard for adequate results. Can those two archetypes co-exist?
If performance and accountability are part of the fabric of your organization, healthy churn on the lower end of performance will mitigate churn at the top end because results do matter. Many organizations (but not all) will want to keep a compassion and understanding about underperformance because every industry has external factors. If sales are down because no one is buying, do we really judge by results only? Again, curiosity should be the driving force toward those who are not delivering to the level they should be. Did we not do a good job of assessing potential at onboarding? Has the work environment changed such that your best effort is no longer good enough?
The conversation about the “change in fit” is not limited to under-performers. You may find that churn can be healthy across different levels of the performance spectrum. A former colleague of mine, who was a very long-standing top-performer, talked about diplomatically broaching the subject of a “new horizon” next step in a performance review. Apparently, this had been an elephant in the room and both parties seemed to appreciate the overt acknowledgement. A CEO client routinely states, “No one is working here forever, including me.” These discussions are clearly in the “development” realm and can very quickly tie into the clichés that “everyone can be replaced” and “if you love something, set it free.”
The way in which an organization handles performance has a huge impact on the culture. This is a complex collision of scientific evaluation, individual motivation and the art of collaboration. Drawing a clear divide between the development and the evaluation will give you a better chance at getting and sustaining the desired performance.