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Telegraphing Feedback: The stuff of yesteryear

Harvey Mackay
From an International Speaker, Author, Columnist and Consultant Perspective

Issue 78: December 2008
Page: 1 of 1 Author's Profile | Send to a Friend | Printer Version

When Jack Canfield, author of The Success Principles, gives a training session on feedback, he'll recruit a volunteer from the audience. The job? Steer Jack, who is blindfolded, to walk up to the volunteer's spot in the auditorium.
Step after every step, the volunteer utters up just two words: "On course" or "Off course." The audience notices two things: Had Jack been told he was "off course" more often, he would have reached his goal faster. But, even so, Jack always gets to the right spot because he's "continually taking action and constantly adjusting to the feedback."

For half a century, the annual performance review has been one of the most elaborate rituals in business. Weeks are spent in preparation. Employees haul in reams of documentation. Managers orchestrate scripts to telegraph messages. Is a warning notice or firing in the offing? The personnel department blesses every comma.

Not exactly snappy, constant or fast-acting feedback.

The tradition of the annual performance review is under siege. Not extinct, the annual review has become a confirmation, not a revelation.

The Wall Street Journal recently ran a piece on how youthful Generation Y employees are revamping reviews. Gen Yers, born after 1980, thrive on lots of red-hot feedback.

Such formality can be as crippling as it is cautious. Twelve months is just too long a stretch, especially when someone's on the ropes. To paraphrase a Web joke making the rounds these days: "Last year, you reached rock bottom. Well, this year, you've started to dig."

"In a recent survey, 65 percent of 'Generation Y' workers at Ernst & Young said 'providing detailed guidance in daily work' was moderately or extremely important, compared with 39 percent of Baby Boomers," reports the Journal. "An overwhelming 85 percent of Gen Y employees said their age-group peers want 'frequent and candid performance feedback,' while only half of Boomers agreed."

* Even when the input is not positive, younger employees would rather get bad news fast than no news at all. In an instant information world, it's often possible to give feedback a lot faster.
* Surprises in annual reviews are increasingly likely to result in bad morale. A Business Week article cites the wisdom that "a good manager is one who, in an annual review of an employee, doesn't say anything for the first time. In other words, the boss should have conveyed the most important feedback in real time, throughout the year."
* Some Gen-Yers naïvely assume bosses will dish out praise. An expert in the Journal says they grew up in a world "where everyone gets a trophy."
* Trophy awards can easily get out of hand, as with the outbreak in "title inflation." A recent New York Times article commented: "If an employer limits how many people can hold a given title, and if people with that title don't move up or retire, more-junior employees may become frustrated and leave for other jobs." While titles may seem cheaper than raises during a slowdown, hyped titles can bankrupt a company's structure long-term.
* Don't tell subordinates they are or they aren't something in absolutes. A Conference Board article recommends "behavioral-frequency" evaluation. Point to specific cases when employees were a "true master" in certain skills.
* Some judgments need time. A meaningful appraisal includes measuring an employee's staying power over time. Persistence, response to setbacks, and other key traits can't be rated in a day.

The One Minute Manager, by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson, is the all-time classic on giving feedback. They term feedback "breakfast of champions." The reason weaker managers avoid regular feedback is so they can play "gotcha!" when an employee stumbles. It makes insecure bosses look better.

Businesses with antique review practices often suffer from planning paralysis. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg once wrote about his company, Bloomberg L.P.: "While our competitors are still sucking their thumbs trying to make the design perfect, we're already on prototype version #5. . . . It gets back to planning versus acting: We act from day one; others plan how to plan—for months."

Mackay's Moral: Too rigid a feedback loop can prove a noose around your neck.

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