It has been a number of years now over which research has increasingly shown that traditional approaches to performance management where objectives are set individually and reviewed annually, with limited feedback along the way, are no longer relevant or effective when organisations need to be more agile in the face of rapid change and complex work.
Now more than ever, organisations need to be able to revise strategy, refocus priorities, and develop individuals skills and capabilities quickly, in order to seize upon opportunities.
The emergence of ‘Continuous Performance Management’, (sometimes referred to as Agile Performance Management), as a response to this has rightly gained traction with its core message of how organisations need to be better at connecting employee’s objectives to business priorities and how they should be further encouraging the shift towards meaningful coaching conversations between employees and managers.
In parallel with evolving performance management practices showing promise, studies showing how high levels of employee engagement closely correlate with improved individual performance and sustained business success, naturally has senior leadership and HR professionals looking to weave these threads together into something which will deliver beyond the sum of their parts.
The linchpin which both unites and powers agile performance management and employee engagement is feedback.
Agile in any environment thrives on feedback; it’s a crucial component, and for agile performance management, such feedback provides context for discussions about an individual’s performance against their objectives, and similarly provides the substance for ongoing coaching conversations about their development and growth.
At the same time, along with ensuring employees have a sense of purpose and autonomy, the importance of frequent, on-going, high quality performance & development conversations between line managers and employees, is well documented as a key driver of employee engagement, and it is again feedback which sits at the heart of these conversations.
Why is feedback so critical to both performance and engagement? It’s because individuals have a very human need for, and crave, feedback. Feedback which helps them track progress against objectives, identify their strengths and development areas, and helps them grow both in their current role and in readiness for future ones.
Feedback removes uncertainty and provides clarity, it builds self-esteem and self-awareness, improves well-being, and fuels motivation and engagement as individuals develop in line with their career aspirations.
It’s worth noting as well that the workforce is changing; a younger generation is entering the corporate life with an appetite for feedback. The absence of feedback impacts the quality of check-in conversations with individuals; there isn’t the substance to inform discussions about performance, development, and career progression, with the consequence that such conversations are superficial or nudged away.
This fuels an underlying tension and frustration where employees feel they are not getting a clear sense of their strengths, development needs, and promotion prospects; over time, this uncertainty, the feeling of being undervalued, and a fear of not moving forward in their career ad realising their full potential within the organisation, can have talented people become completely demotivated, disengaged and leave the business.
However, a lack of feedback can have consequences beyond individual performance and engagement. Every system, every process, and every organisation needs feedback to improve - without a constant stream of feedback flowing in all directions around the network of multidisciplinary teams which exist in all workforces, things will ultimately stagnate as there is no catalyst for improvement; and if poor behaviour goes unchecked without feedback, the very cultural fabric of an organisation can be damaged.
Despite how crucial feedback is, many workforces can struggle to create a more feedback-rich culture though - It can be for a myriad of reasons; for example, it might be a lack of performance management & feedback skills on the part of supervising partners and line managers, or a lack of technology and a process which makes giving feedback easy, or simply that the leadership of the firm hasn’t signalled their belief in the importance of feedback, so the challenge is a cultural one.
Whilst we might now recognise the true value of feedback, and its importance in driving performance, development, engagement, and improving most areas of organisational life, it's necessary to step back before enthusiastically generating a flow of feedback across the business.
We need to consider what we wish to achieve through people giving and receiving feedback to each other and how we can ensure it adds value to individuals, teams and the firm. Constructive feedback is part of the conversation and shouldn't be seen as a negative expression.
Feedback is only genuinely valuable if it is accepted and acted upon by the receiver. Whether it is reinforcing feedback, from your line manager or a range of people around you, offering praise and recognition, or developmental feedback which highlights areas to improve in, it only works if it is heard, understood and accepted first and foremost.
This idea of acceptance of feedback is an interesting one, because it places a responsibility of both the seeker of feedback and the contributor; the seeker has to be open to it, assume positive intent, and find the value in it through self-reflection; whilst the contributor needs to ensure they deliver it, whether verbally or in writing, in a way that is more likely to be accepted i.e. respectfully, with context and evidence, focused on behaviour and impact, and with positive intent.
The likelihood of acceptance of feedback though can also be enhanced by the mechanism and process through which that feedback is provided. For example, if we receive unsolicited feedback, without consent, and without warning, the neuroscience shows that our brain will light up as if we are under a physical threat; the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ impulse will have us unlikely to respond to the feedback in a productive way, however well intended.
Knowing this offers an opportunity to change the way we think about how feedback should work within an organisation - rather than solely focus on people giving feedback, we should shift more of our attention to encouraging, training, and making it easy for individuals to seek feedback.
If we empower employees to take control of that feedback mechanism, to seek feedback on what they want, from whom they want, when they want it, and provide them the skills of self-reflection, then we will see greater acceptance of feedback and more productive responses to it.
Of course, it won’t always be possible for individuals on their own to make sense of their feedback, find the value, and know how to respond to it most effectively; there is still clearly a crucial role for a supervising partner or line manager to play. They need to be able to participate in meaningful conversations which deliver the right outcome and which build trust with an individual.
Feedback as we noted earlier can provide valuable substance for the ongoing check-in conversations individuals have with their managers. Individuals will often benefit from exploring the feedback with another person, discussing it out loud, and further raising their self-awareness around the themes within the feedback. Here's some feedback questions that the manager can ask to help the individual:
From exploring and building self-awareness, the manager can then coach and build commitment towards actions; engaging in a genuine two-way dialogue where the individual is encouraged to take responsibility and come to their own decisions, again through a simple template of coaching questions, such as:
Such ongoing, two-way, meaningful conversations, coupled with continuous good quality feedback, drawn in by an individual when they need it, will create an environment where the focus will be less on managing people’s performance and more on engaging people in their performance; the difference might seem just semantics, but the reality can be transformational.
John Rice is a Director of Bowland Software. With extensive professional services experience, Bowland Software helps organisations adapt and thrive by implementing a more agile approach to people management through ‘Flow’, their new on-line performance engagement platform.