In an article I wrote last year, Why "Constructive Feedback" Doesn't Improve Employee Performance, I said "constructive feedback, which is usually critical, rarely helps anyone, and certainly rarely improves employee performance on the job." A number of management experts have recently engaged in renewed dialogue about the dysfunctionality of performance reviews, and a new idea on how to replace it using a positive "crowdsourcing," process has produced an interesting alternative.
In his article in the Harvard Business Review, Tony Schwartz, President and chief executive of the Energy Project, and author of Be Excellent At Anything, says when we hear the phrase, "would you mind if I give you some feedback?" what that means to most of us is "would you mind if I gave you some negative feedback?" wrapped in the guise of constructive criticism.
There are some fundamental problems with negative criticism, regardless of whether we clothe it politely as "constructive." First, Schwartz contends, criticism "challenges our sense of value. Criticism implies judgment and we all recoil from feeling judged." Indeed, psychologists such as Daniel Goleman, contend that threats to self-esteem and self-worth in the form of criticism can feel like threats to our survival.
Nowhere does so-called constructive criticism appear more frequently than in performance reviews of employees. The prevailing theory is that constructive criticism will improve the employee's performance, and that the employee will positively welcome it. Nothing is further from the truth.
The traditional performance appraisal, as practiced in the majority of organizations today, is fundamentally flawed and incongruent with our values-based, vision-driven and collaborative work environments.
Robert Sutton, a Stanford University professor, says that performance evaluations do more harm than good. A 1998 study by Development Dimensions Inc., found that employers expressed overwhelming dissatisfaction with performance reviews. The consulting firm, People IQ, in a 2005 survey, found 87% of employees and managers felt performance reviews were neither useful nor effective. In an article published in The Psychological Bulletin, psychologists A. Kluger and A. Denisi report completion of a meta-analysis of 607 studies of performance evaluations and concluded that at least 30% of the performance reviews ended up in decreased employee performance.
Charles Jacobs, author of Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn't Work and Other Supervisory Lessons from Brain Science, says the brain is wired to resist what is commonly termed as constructive feedback, but is usually negative criticism. Brain science has shown when people encounter information that is in conflict with their self-image their tendency is to change the information, rather than change themselves. So when managers give critical performance appraisal feedback to employees the motivation to change is improbable.
Samuel Culbert, a professor at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, and author of Get Rid of Performance Review: How Companies Can Stop Intimidating, Start Managing and Focus on What Really Matters, argues that performance reviews are "destructive and fraudulent." He says "it's time to finally put the performance review out of its misery … this corporate sham is one of the most insidious, most damaging and yet most ubiquitous of corporate activities." He also argues that such reviews "instill feelings of being dominated. They send employees the message that the boss's opinion of their performance is the key ingredient of pay, assignment, and career progress." The use of performance reviews, he says, is about "power and subordination," and causes employee defensiveness and stress. What should replace the performance review? Culbert suggests it should be a "performance preview," a process that holds the manager and members of the manager's team equally responsible for results.
Literature abounds with systems and strategies for giving constructive criticism. Perhaps the silliest of these suggests that the person giving the constructive feedback should "sandwich it" between positive statements. Again, this ignores the brain's programmed preference to respond to negative information.
Rachel Emma Silverman and Leslie Kwoh, in two articles in The Wall Street Journal, cite evidence from the Corporate Executive Board that some companies are replacing formal performance reviews with "performance previews," in which the boss or manager engages in a dialogue with an employee about how a specific task or project will be completed before action is taken. This places onus on the employee to specify the how and what action will be taken, but also places onus on the boss to discuss what supportive actions are necessary, creating a two-sided, reciprocally accountable performance system. The boss's job then, is to guide, coach, tutor and assist the employee rather than judge, evaluate and find fault.
As well, some companies are using online technology to regularly collect "crowd sourced" feedback. This allows employees to give immediate feedback to any other employee or boss while work is progressing. Erick Mosley, in the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, writes "a group of independently deciding individuals is more likely to make better decisions and more accurate observations than those of an individual. Crowdsourcing, by leveraging social recognition data, is a better way for managers to collect, evaluate and share information on employee performance."
Unlike 360-degree performance evaluations, which are end-point or annual processes, crowdsourcing is real-time feedback. Also, rather than constructive crowdsourcing evaluations that duplicate performance evaluations that look for faults or critical feedback, a crowdsourcing system can be used as a motivational tool, by providing positive feedback. "When the crowdsourcing concept is applied in this way," Mosley says, "co-workers and peers can identify and reward desired behaviors and cultural attributes through unsolicited recognition, as they happen… This stream of recognition, which often appears in internal social news feeds, provides timely, measurable insights into your talent top influencers and performers."
Constructive criticism is an oxymoron: All criticism is inherently destructive and negative, however we may attempt to window dress it, or "sandwich it" between positive statements. Anything constructive is associated with growth, which requires a person to be open, not in a defensive state of mind.
Corporate leaders now have an opportunity to abandon a system that is not only dysfunctional but doesn't recognize the latest in neuroscience research and take advantage of new social media technology.
Ray Williams is President of Ray Williams Associates, a company based in Vancouver providing leadership training and executive coaching services.
Thanks to Ray Williams / Business Financial Post / National Post / Postmedia Network Inc.
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