Why We Struggle With Performance Reviews: Feedback Can Be Brutal

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The performance evaluation in corporate America is the dreaded, ineffective leadership responsibility that few ever do well.

The concept is actually good: provide expectations for performance, feedback on work accomplished, and develop skills for the future.

How can we argue with that? But, why is it so gosh darned difficult to do it well?

I have new insight, based on a recent experience of my own. Let me explain.

Everybody’s a critic

I really like a certain kind of jewelry, but I had trouble finding what I was looking for, so I decided to take a class and learn how to make it. I found out I enjoyed the creativity of the design, as well as the technical and detailed work involved. When I was focusing on the design and creation, my brain was unable to think about work, and this is a good thing.

I found that I was actually pretty good, and got very positive feedback from friends and family. I was having so much fun, I was overrun with finished pieces, so I put several up for sale with a lovely art shop in St. Augustine, Florida – right on the tourist path. That was yesterday.

It wasn’t until a couple of people passed my display while I was still putting pieces up, that it hit me. People may not like my work! I mentioned that to the store owner who promptly told me, “oh, you’ve got to get over worrying about that.”

Artists, writers and performers put themselves “out there” on a regular basis, and realize that they may receive feedback that is brutally negative or wonderfully positive. They then have to make some decisions about the feedback. They may decide that …

  • The feedback is valid and helpful, and making a change may improve future performances; or,
  • The feedback is not helpful, that the critic either missed a point or just plain didn’t like it, and making a change is not in the cards.

5 lessons about feedback

Perhaps there are a few lessons from the arts that we, in corporate America, could find helpful in making our performance management programs more effective.

  1. Don’t make it personal or take it personally. Sometimes there actually is a personal element, but don’t let it get you. Look for the possible validity and help, or not, within the feedback and make a decision about how to receive it. But it is about the performance and not the person.
  2. Employees need to have the skill for and freedom to receive performance feedback and engage in open dialogue. Employees may not have the luxury (as a performer does) of rejecting the feedback, but they need to trust the giver of the feedback and talk openly about change and consequences.
  3. Leaders need to be trusted to provide feedback. They should know how to source objective information to support feedback, to offer observations in such a way that helps the employee see the “why,” to offer the feedback in such a way that it is not personal, and to create an open dialogue based on performance and development rather than on judgment.
  4. Leaders need to be accountable for improving the performance of their teams, and for developing the skill and competence of their workforce.
  5. The performance management process in an organization should be designed to be as objective as possible, providing for solid performance data, employee involvement and contribution, and oversight to ensure that the process is working to actually improve performance.

Thankfully, we in corporate America are not subject to brutal negative feedback (at least as individuals) that performers experience.

However in the spirit of improving and growing, feedback is a critical element, and we need to learn how to communicate effectively with feedback.

This originally appeared on the ….@ the intersection of learning & performance blog.

  • Tarik Taman

    Carol, thanks for drawing attention to the Achilles heel of talent management. In most organizations, most managers find giving honest feedback tough, It’s not surprising – it’s difficult. Usually organizational culture isn’t set up for it, managers don’t understand why it’s important ,and everyone can take the easy way out by blaming HR. Good ways of getting round these issues is making performance reviews shorter and more frequent, using externally sourced competency frameworks and most importantly, developing a culture that sees the preference review as essential to building a better organization through Talent Optimization.

    • Carol MacDonald Anderson

      Tarik, you’re right that this is the key to improving organizational performance, and that it is one of the more difficult tasks for leaders to complete. I agree that helping leaders do this better will go a long way toward retention and performance improvement. Thanks for your comment.

      • Tarik Taman

        Thanks Carol, I’m glad we agree but there remain the difficult questions – how do we actually help managers improve their feedback, and, are most organizations ready to make that change?

        • Carol MacDonald Anderson

          The only answer I can come up with is for the organization to commit to leadership as a key competency, develop skills through knowledge and practice, and have a structured accountability program that says “this is important; this is your job.”