The Characteristics of Effective Performance Feedback

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Do you have performance reviews only once per year?  You know what it’s like.  You spend hours and hours digging up information about each of your team members to give them a full, comprehensive review of their performance over the last 365+ days.  Or, more likely, you ask them to fill out their form and tweak it here and there.  It’s crazy, the amount of work that goes into these things.

What’s that about?

It’s a painful exercise for pretty much everybody involved that comes from the best of intentions.  Yes, really.  If you dig deep enough, you will find the roots of good intentions underneath the bureaucracy and agitation.  Let’s remember what performance feedback is all about.

The purpose of performance feedback.

It’s about providing the people on your team the information they need to help them perform really well in their role. This is so that individual and your team, collectively, can all do their part in executing the business’ strategy.  It’s not just that, either, it’s also about boosting performance in the role as it is likely to evolve.  The purpose of performance feedback is to foster near-term performance and longer-term performance.

A backward-looking process with a forward-looking purpose. 

A performance review is a look-back over a pretty lengthy time period.  Humans aren’t designed to make real-time assessments of performance based on a fair and equitable measure of all performance-related information across a long period of time.  We’re designed to make snapshot assessments based on how confident we feel today, in the moment, in this person’s ability to serve our needs and motives.  All humans are subject to cognitive biases.

The recency effect as a barrier to great feedback.

One of the most prominent errors we make when providing feedback through an annual review system is the recency effect.

The recency effect, in psychology, is a cognitive bias that results from disproportionate salience of recent stimuli or observations. For example, if a driver sees an equal total number of red cars as blue cars during a long journey, but there happens to be a glut of red cars at the end of the journey, he or she is likely to conclude that there were more red cars than blue cars throughout the drive. (source: wikipedia)

You do this.  I do this.  We all do this.  Just imagine how hard it is to do an annual review well if we’re all doing this.  Even more importantly, imagine how difficult it is to positively impact the performance of your team member with that kind of process.  It’s neither timely, nor frequent.  It’s anchored to history rather than the future. It could be better.

What are the characteristics of feedback that help performance?

Let’s set aside the annual review system for a moment and think about what feedback characteristics are best at moving the on-the-ground performance needle.  These are all based on how people think and work.

  • Timeliness and Frequency. Prompt feedback helps the receiver best connect it to the behavior it relates to.  Doing this regularly multiplies the effect. Video game developers know this and make highly motivating games people spend money on to ‘win’ by having immediate performance feedback throughout game play. What if you could get a little of the same effect with your feedback?
  • Anchored to Desired Future Outcomes. Feedback that is consistently linked to the purpose of the role, the purpose of the team, and the purpose of the business holds more weight than feedback that could be interpreted as arbitrary or personal.  Purposeful feedback works better.
  • Customized to the Individual. We’re all wired a little differently in terms of what motivates us and what we care most about.  Feedback that leverages what the receiver cares about connects best and makes the biggest impact, compared to feedback delivered like a formulaic one-size-fits-all blunt object.  When you get the match right, it’s like connecting with a baseball on the sweet spot of the bat, instead of the hand-stinging experience of hitting the ball with the handle or fouling off from the bat tip.  Hit a home run with feedback that is catered to the unique needs of the recipient.
  • Both Affirmative and Corrective. Some leaders put more emphasis on corrective feedback and fail to recognize positive behavior. This systematically reduces initiative and creativity.  Some leaders avoid corrective feedback and focus on affirming their team members.  This approach results in negative behaviors dragging on unchecked and sending a message of low-accountability to the rest of the team. Both affirmative and corrective feedback are important.  Relying only one or the other always generates dysfunction.  You don’t want that.

How to do performance feedback better.

Imagine if you had an easy-to-use method for providing feedback that’s timely, frequent, goal-anchored, personalized, and balanced between positive and constructive.  If you could give continuous feedback that relates directly to goal progress and achievement. If you could provide recognition that both celebrates achievement and demonstrates relevant skill development.  If providing ratings of culture-aligned behavior was easy to do.

At All Elements, we think these things are important too, so we designed these capabilities into our strategy execution platform.  To us, it’s all about transforming people performance into business performance.  If you want a way to do performance feedback better, contact us to get a quick demo.

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