Why People Don’t Get Feedback at Work

Book Excerpt
 Abolishing Performance Appraisals: 
 Why They Backfire and What to Do Instead
Format: Hardcover, 300pp.
 ISBN: 1576750760
 Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers
 Pub. Date: October  2000

One of the most common complaints in the corporate cafeteria is, “My boss never gives me any feedback.” Then when the annual performance review, what human resources calls “performance appraisal,” finally arrives, the longed-for feedback doesn’t seem to happen. What is going on? Many of us blame the supervisor as uncaring and unsupportive, but the real culprit is the whole idea of performance appraisal itself.

Performance appraisal, practiced in approximately 80% of workplaces, gives supervisors and employees alike the wrong notions about feedback. The idea of a formal rating and written evaluation has conditioned us to think that feedback is something that is initiated by the supervisor as a once-a-year, formal, sit-down event. However, feedback is available to everyone every day. Feedback is not given mostly because people don’t ask for it-they’re just not aware that they can ask for it, and many people lack the skills to get the information they need.

Feedback doesn’t happen at appraisal time because the process unintentionally promotes fear and focuses on too many things. The fact that the appraisal is given by the boss, a written document is created, the employee signs it, and it goes in the personnel file stages a formal moment-of-truth discussion, rather than an open, personal conversation and exchange about how the work is going.

The ratings themselves get in the way. Most people think of themselves as top performers—80% of people see themselves in the top quarter of all performers! For many people, anything less than a top rating is demoralizing and discouraging, killing any interest in a conversation about improving performance. Worse yet, appraisals tied to pay raises, promotion eligibility, and even discipline, take the focus away from performance and improvement—often the conversation becomes argumentative and defensive.

How can we create workplaces where people regularly and openly receive feedback and use it to improve? Three measures will take you there:

 (1) Educate everyone in the organization on the true nature of feedback.
 (2) Train everyone in the skills of receiving feedback.
 (3) Abolish performance appraisals.

Sounds crazy and radical? Read on.

Contrary to popular misperceptions, people want on-the-job feedback—they want to know how they are doing, what is going well, and what things do they need to work on. The annual appraisal, however, steeply inculcates into to our work culture the idea that feedback is something the boss initiates and doles out in shovels-full at a formal quarterly or annual meeting. Employees pass up opportunities to ask for the specific feedback they need in their day-to-day work, not only from the boss, but from co-workers, customers, and others.

When people learn the true dynamics of feedback, they are more likely to take advantage of it. Feedback is effective only if people hear the message and are open to using the information for improvement. Unless the conditions are right, the feedback will not be heard and people will be defensive about using it to improve. From talking to thousands of people and consistent with the research, we consistently find that feedback is heard and effective in helping people when most or all of the following conditions are present:

  • The feedback giver is a credible source. The giver has expertise, knowledge, or is known to be a source of valid information.
  • The feedback giver is trustworthy. The giver is sincere and can be trusted and respected.
  • The feedback is conveyed with good intentions. The giver either has the receiver’s best interests at heart, or it is otherwise apparent that the feedback is intended to serve a worthy purpose and is not self-serving.
  • The timing and circumstances of the feedback are appropriate. Effective feedback is timely and conveyed under conditions that are conducive for learning. For example, it’s conveyed at a time that the receiver is open to feedback. Also, most people prefer to receive negative feedback privately.
  • The feedback is given in a personal and interactive manner. The feedback is given in person so the receiver can observe the giver’s facial expressions and body language, and has an opportunity to ask questions and clarify the message.
  • The feedback message is clear. The feedback successfully communicates a clear message or new information about something the receiver has done, not done, or needs to do.
  • The feedback is helpful to the receiver. The message contains good information or new insights that are useful or enlightening.

If you ask people about times that feedback meant something to them, they invariably will identify most of the above points. Helping employees to see this will alter their expectations about feedback and enable them to recognize the most ideal feedback resources and opportunities.

People will need some training, too. While most feedback training aims at developing the supervisor’s skills of giving feedback, companies need to train everyone on how to receive feedback. The often-overlooked skills of receiving feedback are many:

  • A receiver needs to know how to ask for feedback, whom to ask, and when to seek it.
  • A receiver must know how to display an openness to feedback.
  • A receiver needs to have the skill of asking the right questions to ensure that the feedback is specific. (“How am I doing?” is usually too vague to elicit useful information.)
  • A receiver must understand the value of repeating and rephrasing the message heard to confirm that the message was clearly understood.
  • A receiver must further learn what to do with feedback and how to sort out what is useful and what is not (for example, recognizing that some criticism must be taken with a grain of salt, rather than fully accepting and over-reacting to someone’s opinion.)

Once people learn the above skills and recognize the ever-present opportunities for feedback, helpful feedback will be given and received in your workplace. People readily understand this, but don’t understand how eliminating appraisal altogether is helpful. An organization unintentionally sends people many wrong messages when it continues formal appraisals. It tends to emphasize that feedback is more the boss’s responsibility in a formal context. The use of ratings engender fear—between appraisals, people will wonder whether the negative feedback they are receiving will be put on their appraisal. This fear impedes the kind of relaxed conversation that needs to occur. In the absence of formal, mandated feedback through appraisal, people will be more likely, with training and education, to ask for feedback. When people seek their own feedback at a time that is most beneficial for them, they will be more open to receiving the feedback. An added bonus is that it will be easier for the supervisor and other respected sources to give critical feedback at the time it is requested.

Moving away from appraisal shifts employees’ perception of feedback to broader options that are more effective in the new workplace. More and more, supervisors are responsible for large numbers of people at scattered locations, and increasingly the supervisors’ occupational background or expertise is in a different field than the employee supervised (for example, a news editor supervising a photographer). With employees owning the feedback process, they can seek feedback from people around them or select the best person to provide the kind of feedback they are seeking. (The photographer can seek feedback from a more skilled photographer.)

Dropping appraisal does not mean supervisors cannot or should not initiate giving someone feedback. The change is more about enabling employees to move from dependency to being responsible for themselves as adult workers. In any case, the supervisor can and must counsel the employees exhibiting significant performance deficiencies, whether asked for or not. When the situation is serious, feedback can always be provided in writing to protect the company in the event of a legal challenge.

Across the nation, scores of companies and organizations in manufacturing, retail and service, finance, healthcare, education, and government have abolished appraisal or pared away most of the process. This has resulted in a happier, healthier work climate and improved performance and productivity for the entire organization.

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