by Russell T. Westcott
Performance feedback includes:
- Communicating expectations and requirements to workers
- Correcting improper work performance and work behavior
- Providing positive reinforcement for work done well
- Initiating disciplinary action
- Conducting scheduled performance appraisals
Principles of effective performance feedback include:
- Ensuring the worker knows and understands: What exactly she or he is expected to do or not do; What regulations and their content (work standards, work rules, procedures, and instructions) apply to the work; What the positive and negative consequences are for the worker’s actions or lack of actions; Why the worker is expected to follow applicable directives and good work practices
- Ensuring the worker receives timely and objective feedback that: Compares the worker’s performance with the pertinent requirements; Is given in a constructive manner (“Let’s see what we can do to help you do better.”); Is combined with positive reinforcement for any part of the work done well; Contains no commentary that could cause the worker to feel devalued
- Applying consequences for unacceptable work behavior in a way that the worker: Clearly understands why the performance and/or work behavior was unacceptable (the applicable regulations, standards, rules, procedures, and consequences for noncompliance that apply); Clearly understands what needs to done to correct the unacceptable performance/behavior to prevent recurrence and its consequences
- Applying proper steps for taking disciplinary action so that the worker: Clearly knows and understands why disciplinary action is warranted; Understands what the consequences are and how they will be applied; Understands how to change his or her performance and/or behavior to comply with the applicable regulations, standards, rules, and procedures to ultimately be released from the disciplinary action process; Understands what will be recorded in the worker’s personnel file and how the record may affect future opportunities within the organization.
In many organizations that use a formal performance appraisal process both the giver and the receiver of the appraisal tend to dislike the process. The reasons may include:
- Judgment is subjective and people don’t appreciate being judged.
- Appraisal focus is almost always on what a worker did wrong or poorly, and not on what he or she did well.
- The judgment process inhibits innovation and creativity. It also lowers trust and suppresses communication.
- Fear is created.
- Distinguishing between an individual’s performance and situational factors is difficult, if not impossible.
- Depending on the period of time between appraisals and how sparse the records are, the appraisal often fails to reflect a balanced view of the worker’s performance and behavior throughout the appraisal time period.
- Training of the supervisor to prepare and deliver appraisals is frequently overlooked or inadequate.
- The supervisor’s responsibility to prepare and deliver performance appraisals isn’t covered in his or her job position’s description or as a measurable objective. The task is perceived as “busy” work.
- Too often the performance appraisal process is directly linked to supporting a pending compensation decision. This coupling of the appraisal with the compensation decision can cause at least two problems: The worker receiving the appraisal most likely will focus on the probable effect of the appraisal on his or her pay—this can create undue anxiety or anger and miss the point of the appraisal; The proximity of the appraisal to the compensation decision leaves little opportunity for the worker to improve her or his performance or behavior to affect a positive effect on pay—when appraisals are on a yearly cycle, a six-month period between appraisal and the compensation decision can be more effective.
- The appraisal process should involve feedback from peers, subordinates, and even internal and external customers. Further, there should be an opportunity for the worker to appraise her or his supervisor as to how the supervisor can better help the worker succeed in achieving the agreed-upon objectives.
- Instead of a scheduled performance/behavior appraisal being the only significant feedback to the worker, it should be a summary of countless other recalled and/or recorded interim feedbacks coupled with the revisiting of the improvement objectives discussed during the last appraisal and what has been achieved in working on those objectives. The evidence presented, pro and con, should be fact-based.
- The appraisal discussion should work out what both the supervisor and the worker can do together to further improve the worker’s performance/behavior and reiterate positive reinforcement for work done well.
Edwards Deming’s book Out of the Crisis (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1982), discusses many problems with evaluation of performance, merit rating, or annual review, including:
- They nourish short-term performance and annihilate long-term planning.
- They are destructive to the individual being reviewed and detrimental to teamwork.
- They focus on the end product instead of leadership.
- They don’t reward attempts to improve the system or take a risk.
- Measures are used to evaluate performances, and subordinates are pressured to use numbers to count something. Promotion must be defended with numbers. The measures discourage quality.
- Despite apparent variation in performance, factors outside an employee’s control may account for the differences in performance.
When empowerment is encouraged as an organizational modus operandi, making the supervisor the driver of improvement and collector of feedback rather than the worker defeats the intention.
Sarah Boehle, in her article “Keeping Forced Ranking Out of Court,” (Training magazine, June 2008) she quoted Dick Grote, a former General Electric executive who said: “In today’s world, forced ranking, as a term acquired such a stigma that no one uses it. Companies still do it, but now they call it something else, such as a ‘talent management process’ or a ‘leadership assessment process.’” This kind of a plan assigns points for clearly defined performance and behavior. It divides the population of a company or work unit into three percentage categories: the top 20 percent, the middle 70 percent, and bottom 10 percent. It emphasizes nurturing the 20 percent, encourages the 70 percent to move up into the top group, and gives bottom 10 percent an opportunity to improve or be fired. However, when you recruit, train, and manage a unit of high-performing workers, as I have, it’s nearly impossible to objectively defend who is ranked above another, and that’s just the top and middle categories. Who are you going to banish to the bottom and on what logical and fair basis?
I once interviewed top executives in several of the largest employers in the United States and inquired about the effectiveness of their performance appraisal processes and their perception of the process used. The firms’ executives included:
- Treasurer, AT&T
- Vice president of information systems, C.I.T. Financial
- Vice president of construction, Consolidated Edison of New York
- Division head of finance, General Electric
- Vice president for marketing, General Foods
- Vice president for human resources, IBM
- Vice president of personnel, TRW Systems Group
These and other executives in the group universally agreed that their organizations didn’t have an ideal performance appraisal process. They confirmed that their processes were difficult to administer and tended to create an adversarial relationship between supervisors and workers. Some went so far as to say that if they could find something better they would do away with the present process.
Questions to ask in auditing the effectiveness of the performance feedback process
- Does the organization’s culture and predominant management style support open and frequent performance/behavior feedback, including positive reinforcement for work done well?
- Is performance/behavior feedback linked through training and ongoing practice with the realization of the organization’s products and services, relative to its: overall strategy, mission, and values; strategic objectives; customer satisfaction; quality of products and services; productivity; effective use of resources, including financial resources; environment conservation; employee relations; community relations; ethics; profitability
- When workers transition to a supervisory role are they adequately trained to provide effective performance/behavior feedback? Do supervisors: understand the organizational, legal, confidentiality, and ethical boundaries applicable to appraising, coaching, counseling, and mentoring workers; understand and are they able to effectively use positive reinforcement; understand motivation theory, i.e., develop a work environment which allows a worker’s natural motivation to surface; seek worker’s feedback on the supervisor’s feedback, e.g., method, adequacy, content, frequency; consistently model the methods taught in the training sessions?
- Are both performance results and behavior discussed in the feedback process?
- How are workers informed of what management expects of them (goals, objectives, laws, regulations, standards, customer requirements, plans, work practices, rules, ethical behavior)? Through training and frequent refresher training? Through appropriate communication media (oral, documentation, alerts)? Through pay-for-performance concepts and practices?
- Do workers clearly understand the consequences of not meeting management’s expectations, and all requirements of the job?
- Do workers clearly understand the compensation system and the relationship between compensation and their performance?
- Are the expectations, requirements, and consequences continually reinforced by being stated as the pertinent focus of the feedback, with emphasis on “why” it is expected or required?
- Are the workers being asked to express their understanding of the expectation or requirements?
- Are the expectations restated, as necessary, by the supervisor in language understandable to the worker?
- Is it ensured that the consequences for both conformance and nonconformance to expectations and requirements are applied and discussed?
- Are workers encouraged to push their supervisors for feedback, without negative retribution?
- Are workers encouraged to self-evaluate their own performance/behavior continually, and at the formal appraisal time prepare their own self-appraisal and proposed improvement actions?
- How is performance/behavior appraisal handled in a matrix or project-oriented organization where workers are working on more than one project simultaneously? It’s important that the worker receive performance/behavior feedback from all managers to whom he or she reports. Often a functional manager collects the feedback for appraisal use and conducts the appraisal. Individual project managers are expected to provide ongoing performance/behavior feedback to their assigned workers throughout the project’s life.
- Is performance/behavior feedback built into routine meetings? Is feedback given for all significant performance/behavior observed? Is there an established method for providing feedback (process, media used, data collected, etc.)?
- Are supervisors/managers recognized and rewarded for providing frequent feedback?
Performance feedback: Conclusion
Giving performance feedback and behavior feedback isn’t about:
- Power and controlling people
- Punishing deficiencies (That’s the function of the disciplinary process.)
- Harassing, embarrassing, or degrading people
- Establishing fear as a primary motivating factor
- Delving deeply into a worker’s personal life, such as: beliefs (religious, political, etc.); personality traits that adversely affect harmony in the workplace (poor body care, health and dress habits, disruptive tendencies, bad temper, uncommunicative, etc.); attitude about how work is to be done and ability to get along with co-workers; strong negative opinions openly expressed about the organization, management, co-workers, workplace, customers, supplier, and/or product or service being produced; a physical and/or mental disability that restricts the worker from being able to fully meet the job requirements without assistance from co-workers
When the above types of situations arise as part a worker’s performance evaluation, consider referring him or her to a professional who can address the issue within the ethical and legal boundaries constraining an employer.
Effective performance/behavior feedback is essential for building and sustaining efforts to:
- Produce and deliver quality products and services.
- Attain and retain a motivated work force.
- Build and maintain exemplary customer satisfaction (internal and external).
- Promote continual improvement in all organizational activities.
- Drive out fear within the organization.
- Encourage innovation and creativity.
- Enhance the organization’s image.
- Improve profitability.
Auditing the organization’s worker feedback process and effectiveness should be integrated with every QMS audit.
Sidebar: Performance feedback
Examples of effective and ineffective performance feedback
For a task done well (positive performance feedback):
“Alice, I want to personally commend you on how you handled the call with XYZ’s account representative yesterday. I was monitoring the call. You used the rep’s name several times. You gave direct answers to the rep’s inquiries. When the rep expressed continued concern for our approach, you clearly explained our policy and where the rep could find it in writing. Your attitude and language was supportive and you showed appropriate empathy for the rep’s concerns. You concluded with a positive offer to address any future questions. I think you impressed the rep and left the rep with a positive image of our customer service. Good job. You followed your training and the company guidelines perfectly. Thanks for your good work.”
For a task done well (inadequate performance feedback)
“Hi Alice, nice job yesterday.”
For performance of a task that should have been done better (good performance feedback)
“John, I was observing your work this morning. There were several things I noticed that you may not be aware of, let me mention them and then we’ll discuss what we can do to help you improve.
“First, let’s see if we have a clear, mutual understanding of the requirements and why they are important.” (Requirements are discussed, including the rationale, and any questions are answered.)
“Second, let’s see if we can work out a plan to help you better meet the job requirements.” (Present performance and work behaviors are compared with requirements and expectations. Clarification and other inquiries are discussed. A plan for improvement is jointly worked out, documented, and mutually agreed to. The plan includes the time frame for full remediation, how feedback of progress will be handled, and the consequences for compliance and for noncompliance.)
“Third, let’s go over the performance and behavior that leads to or fully meets the requirements.” (Observations of work performance and behavior that is moving toward or is at required conformance levels is discussed and positive reinforcement is given. Emphasis is on building on the work done well until full conformance to requirements are met or exceeded.)
For a task done poorly (bad performance feedback)
“John, if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, you will be fired.”
For a response to an emergency situation (appropriate performance feedback)
“Harry, shut the power off now, quickly.” (After the machine is shut off, the reason for the authoritative command is discussed [dangerous overload condition, safety threat, violation of operating instructions, material waste, or cost]. The worker’s understanding of proper work behavior and performance is discussed and clarified, as well as the consequences that did/could have occurred.)
Agreement as to the proper action is reached and the consequences for failure to comply are reviewed and any warnings given are documented.
Task in which serious injury or a fatality resulted (appropriate performance feedback)
In a work unit meeting closely following the accident, appropriate remorse is expressed for the injured or deceased individuals. The cause of the accident is discussed and the known or probable deviation from work rules. The emphasis is on clarifying the rules and the consequences for violation. General recognition and positive reinforcement is given for those who continually follow the rules. Emphasis is on how to prevent any recurrence.
About the author
Russell T. Westcott is an ASQ Fellow, certified quality auditor, and certified manager of quality/organizational excellence. He edited The ASQ Certified Manager of Quality/Organizational Excellence Handbook, Third edition (ASQ Quality Press, 2005), and was a co-editor of the ASQ Quality Improvement Handbook. Westcott authored Simplified Project Management for the Quality Professional (ASQ Quality Press, 2005), and Stepping Up to ISO 9004:2000 (Paton Professional, 2003). He is active in ASQ’s quality management division and the Thames Valley, Connecticut section management.
Westcott instructs the ASQ certified manager of quality/organizational excellence refresher course nationwide. He writes lists for Quality Progress, Quality Digest, The Quality Management Forum, The Auditor and other publications.
Westcott is president of R.T. Westcott & Associates, founded in 1979 in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. He guides clients in implementing quality management systems, applying the Baldrige criteria, strategic planning, and project management practices.
Tags: performance feedback.