It’s the end of the year. You have performance review meetings scheduled with all seven of your direct reports. It’s good news: They are all getting their bonuses this year. For each of them, you have prepared a bulleted list of focus areas for the next year, usually the areas where they need to improve. Everyone gets their bonus and leaves knowing how they need to get better. Win-win, right?
Maybe not if you really want your employees to improve.
Before working with a company’s management team on their leadership development process, we conduct a company-wide cultural survey. Consistently, some of the lowest scores are reported on the question asking if employees receive “meaningful feedback on a regular basis.” This data is then anecdotally supported when I start coaching individuals who report that they have little to no idea how they are doing in the eyes of their manager.
They do receive plenty of feedback, though — at the end of the year. That’s 12 months of waiting. I won’t write specifically about the need to reconsider the practice of performance reviews entirely, but here is an interesting argument that the practice might need to be retired.
In 2018, Morten T. Hansen (Jim Collins’ co-writer of Great By Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck—Why Some Thrive Despite Them All) published Great At Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More with conclusions made from five years of research across 5,000 managers and employees. In it, he suggests that mastery of a field is not simply the result of 10,000 hours of practice as famously posited by Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success.
Rather, Hansen states, “Individuals who progress the most meticulously assess outcomes, solicit feedback based on known standards of excellence, and strive to correct tiny flaws that the feedback has uncovered. This purposeful and informed way of practicing explains why some learn at a much faster rate than others.”
He goes on to say, “Deliberate practice requires that a manager or employee receives helpful feedback every day, yet most people only receive it during their annual review.”
It would be absurd for a champion caliber athlete to receive feedback only once a year from their coach. Just as a great basketball player gets daily feedback to improve their game, leaders can and should do the same.
Unfortunately, when employees receive regular feedback, it is often ineffective, according to a recent Harvard Business Review print cover story by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall.
“Telling people what we think of their performance, doesn’t help them thrive and excel,” claim Buckingham and Goodall, “and telling people how we think they should improve actually hinders learning.”
Hinders learning? That can sound counterintuitive, as we often offer feedback with the best of intentions to support a person’s development. How could it be that our feedback is stunting this growth?
Buckingham and Goodall explain it with neuroscience. When a person receives strong negative feedback, this can activate their sympathetic nervous system, the fight-or-flight response that has been proven to cause “cognitive, emotional and perceptual impairment.” Basically, it shuts us down.
When a person receives constructive feedback pointing to what they did well, however, his has been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Known as the “rest and digest system,” it has been shown to increase cognitive, emotional, and perceptual openness and stimulate the growth of new neurons. We’re more open to learning.
What does this mean? According to Buckingham and Goodall, it means feedback should focus on what is going well to support the activation of this learning system. They conclude, “We learn most when someone else pays attention to what’s working within us and asks us to cultivate it intelligently.”
So, we’re seeing that feedback needs to be given on a regular basis, and it needs to be affirming in nature. How do we do it?
Giving great feedback starts with one single important question, one that I have all of my clients ask on a regular basis: “What is going well?”
For most of my clients in overstressed environments, this simple question is actually quite foreign. Ask for a list of what’s going wrong and the conversation could go on for hours. Ask what’s going well, and they often slide back into listing problems pretty quickly. Shifting towards affirming feedback requires the discipline to ask “What is going well?” again and again so it replaces the habit of focusing on what is going wrong.
When giving feedback, think about the person and ask, “What is going well with them?” Share your answer to this question in direct conversation on a regular basis. By doing this, many of my clients start to notice improved work performance, motivation, enthusiasm and team collaboration. Notice the habit to slide back into answering, “What’s wrong?” Just because it’s a familiar habit, doesn’t mean it’s the right one.