The Fear of Feedback

We live in a world of feedback. We get it and give it most of our lives. We got it at kindergarten, at grade school, at university and then again at work. With all this experience at giving and getting feedback, the reality is that these are rarely comfortable conversations for us. At a base level we know that we need to have our efforts appreciated, we need coaching to bring out our best and we need to know where we stand against the expectations of those observing us. Ideally, feedback should reassure us and elevate our sense of security but it can leave us fearful, hurt, resentful and disillusioned. Let’s examine one feedback activity that has become a fixture in most workplaces…the annual performance review.

I read that from recent surveys quoted by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen in their recent book, “Thanks for the Feedback”, that:

  • 25 percent of employees dread their performance review more than anything else in their working lives
  • 50 percent of employees found their review to be unfair or inaccurate
  • 63 percent of executives feel that their biggest challenge to effective performance management is that their managers lack the courage to have difficult performance discussions.

It appears that some expectations are not yet being met. In our data-driven culture, where most organizations boast that “employees are our most important asset” let’s ponder the question: What are we really trying to get out of this exercise that  consumes 825 million work hours across the globe every year?

From my perspective, a review that aligns and energizes both employee and leader should:

  • Identify employee strengths
  • Uncover areas for improvement
  • Peg individual performance relative to peers
  • Ensure ‘fair’ compensation
  • Promote job satisfaction
  • Increase accountability for achieving organizational goals
  • Advance the culture where everyone willingly gives their very best

(Anything else you’d add to this list? Should classification of employee into categories like ‘meets expectations’ be added?)

My next question for leaders charged with leading this exercise is: What do you want from the performance review exercise?  Beyond getting the reviews completed on time and all the associated organizational paperwork done what else is important?  Let me challenge you with this statement from Stone and Heen that resonated with me:

“Feedback isn’t just about the quality of the advice or the accuracy of the assessments. It’s about the quality of the relationship, your willingness to show that you don’t have it all figured out, to bring your whole self- flaws, uncertainties and all- into the relationship.”

This statement rightly suggests that the annual performance review is part of an ongoing relationship between the employee and leader. The employee recognizes that they are in charge of their own development and the leader sees themselves uniquely positioned to partner in this growth.

Here’s another question I’d like to ask leaders to consider: What are some of the ways that you make the review process more valuable for the employee and enrich the employee-leader relationship?

  •  Don’t make this your only engagement of the year. Hold “regular” conversations where feedback is given and requested. Plan these as valuable dialogues not a leader monologue.
  • When giving an evaluation, ensure that is the known and exclusive purpose. Don’t confuse by drifting into coaching. Leave that opportunity for another time.
  • Involve employees in the data gathering. For example in the assessment include the opinions of people who employees feel can competently assess their work and whose input they trust. Also solicit from employees any themes that they’d find helpful for you to explore on their behalf. Please keep in mind that this exercise is only successful if employees deem it so. It is their review.
  • Make the delivery of the assessment results your highest priority. Select a time and place conducive to meaningful conversation where there are no interruptions.
  • Don’t feel compelled to deliver all the data that you have. Stick to the main themes and resist passing along data that’s marginal and could be perceived as malicious and hurtful.

As autumn approaches many more work hours will be consumed in this annual ritual. What do you think you can do to make this year’s review worth the climb? From your experiences how could the review be more valuable?


About Alex Pollock

Alex Pollock has been studying leadership effectiveness for more than 30 years. A former leader in environment, health and safety, and public affairs at The Dow Chemical Co., he learned that we all have leadership roles to play. He enjoys discussing new ideas and sharing practical ways we can all become better leaders.

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1 Comment
  1. Bruce Klafter

    August 25, 2014

    I think one of the biggest shortcomings in the workplace today is the lack of mentoring and guidance for employees. Managers and executives lack the time (or interest) and employees often mistake the intent as micromanagement. I suspect so many employees feel their reviews are inaccurate because they mistake dedication and hard work for performance. Too many employees spend their time on the wrong projects or tasks and fail to deliver sufficient value to the enterprise. That’s where some focused mentoring could come into play, to direct employees’ energies in the right places.

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