As a leadership coach, I often have the opportunity to work with high-performing leaders who are interested in infusing their employees with a passion for results and openness to feedback that will help them become increasingly capable. I remember the precise moment when I became an advocate for people to have the opportunity to receive their own feedback in order to use it as a development tool. Today I’d like to share that experience with you.
For more than 10 years, I worked for a high-tech company that had a well-defined, well-orchestrated process for performance appraisals that allowed managers and employees to document achievement against specific objectives. The manager was responsible for the process – setting objectives, setting up meetings with employees, following up on progress, gathering feedback from key stakeholders, writing the reviews, obtaining employee signatures, and allocating associated bonus funds based on performance. It was clearly a top-down, pay-for-performance culture, and despite its inherent flaws, employees were accustomed to the process.
Then my company merged with another company of similar size – a high-tech consulting firm that approached performance management in a vastly different way. I found out about it when a newly acquired employee let me know that the time was approaching for her annual performance review. She wanted to give me a heads up that she would be preparing for that discussion by contacting her internal customers for feedback on her performance.
Say, what? She was personally going to start her own performance review process. I didn’t know what to think, and I’m sure she saw my bewilderment. Rather than impose my process on her, I had the presence of mind to stop, listen, and learn. I asked her to tell me more about the performance review process as she knew it, and she explained how at the acquired company, the employees owned the process. They drafted their own objectives, met with their managers to discuss and confirm, followed up and gave status reports, sought their own feedback, wrote their self-reviews, and then set up a meeting to discuss with managers their achievements, areas for development, and aspirations. The managers contributed by guiding objectives, giving timely feedback, and writing comments, and they allocated bonus money based on both individual and team performance.
The idea that people would seek their own feedback was new to me and a bit unnerving. You mean you just ask people for feedback directly? You ask them to tell you straight out what you did well, what you could have done better, and if you exceeded their expectations? Yes, she said. That’s pretty much it.
Isn’t that stressful? I wondered aloud.
She answered with a question that changed closely held belief. Isn’t it stressful for YOU to have YOUR MANAGER reach out for feedback that you should be getting directly from the people who are impacted by your work? Shouldn’t you have built the kind of relationships that allow other people to give you the information that will help you improve your level of service, your interactions, and your effectiveness?
She was right – it was stressful to have my manager initiating and engaging in the performance appraisal conversations that I should be having. I should be the one finding out about the perceptions of others regarding my behavior, attitude, competency, communication style, and follow through. After all, I’m the only one who has the ability to change anything about me or about my performance.
I learned from this employee’s explanation and example, and mustered my courage. From that moment on, I took responsibility for my own development. At my level in the organization, I certainly didn’t need my executive vice president to provide parental supervision; nor did I need him to hold me accountable for my responsibilities. I set out to acquire the taste for authentic feedback, and I was astonished by how immediately empowered I felt as a result. When I received direct positive feedback, I savored it. When I received redirecting feedback, I knew where it was coming from and developed a sense of what I could do to change that would have immediate impact.
During the ensuing years, I have shared this pivotal moment in my leadership learning with the many other leaders who I’ve coached. Usually we start with a 360 assessment with the leadership team demonstrating to the employees how to respond to feedback without becoming defensive. We follow up with conversations designed to help both leaders and employees understand how to communicate in a way that increases trust and empowerment. And then we build the capacity for giving and receiving candid feedback in a virtuous cycle that promotes employee engagement and high performance.
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