by Chris De Santis, author of “Why I Find You Irritating: Navigating Generational Friction at Work“
Feedback is helpful in developing one’s skills and talents, and is essential to optimizing performance. Historically, supervisors gave formal feedback through an annual performance review. Employees took in the feedback and adjusted their behavior. This approach has been applied to individuals in organizations over the decades, so one might assume it is an effective model.
The Challenge: Feedback on Feedback
One fundamental flaw in the traditional system is that feedback is biased toward simply improving weaknesses. Generally, this is not an attempt at reformation but rather the creation of a paper trail for those who exhibit a preponderance of these failings to justify an inevitable separation. The problem children get the most attention. It’s the squeaky wheel phenomenon applied to people.
More recently, some organizations have broadened their evaluations to include the rising stars. Processes to identify, retain, and nurture the highest potential employees (or “Hi-Po’s”) have grown in popularity. While this is progress, a glaring omission remains. The missed opportunity lies between the extremes since the majority of employees fall in the middle ground known as “good.” Very few performance review systems are geared to providing worthwhile feedback to help the good become great.
Another issue is that feedback is generally under the control and discretion of the manager, not the employee. If the manager deigns to give an employee feedback, it is often biased toward correcting a behavior. This does makes sense because problems that are visible need to be fixed since they have consequences for the individual, the department, and ultimately the organization. A manager may also on occasion provide positive feedback, but again it is the exceptional work that is noticed, not just everyday output by an employee.
The Opportunity: Leveraging Discourse
Millennial and Gen Z employees have a reputation for being somewhat more assertive than previous generations as to how they engage with the powers that be. This assertiveness is sometimes misconstrued as being disrespectful of formal authority, when in reality it is most likely an expression of their comfort in dealing with authority figures. Most middleclass children today have been dialoging with their parents from the time they started uttering their first sentences. This trait can and should be leveraged in service of transforming good performers into great performers. Firms need to give some of the control and responsibility for getting feedback to the people who will gain the most from hearing it.
The Solution: Collaborative Pattern Recognition (CPR)
I recommend leveraging Millennials’ and Gen Z’s natural assertiveness and curiosity by using what I term collaborative pattern-recognition (CPR) feedback, which can help “breathe a little life” into your feedback and organization, so to speak. As the name suggests, CPR feedback is both collaborative and focused on identifying patterns of behavior.
Rather than handing down feedback from on high, evaluations should involve workers in the process. Workers know themselves better than anyone else. They know how their personal qualities do and do not match the role. Engaging them in dialogue can highlight areas of interest that evaluators may have been totally unaware of. The evaluator and employee are best positioned to make real improvements by working together.
CPR is a proactive process that puts employees in control of getting specific feedback in areas of interest to them, to become active participants, shaping the scope and nature of their own evaluations. This approach encourages employees to ask for feedback, with the people responsible for evaluating their work acting as guides in the process.
While evaluators can ask about what the employee wants feedback, it is important that the person seeking the feedback ultimately decides where to focus the conversation. Evaluators should collaborate with workers to identify and develop strengths, as well as shore up relevant weaknesses, and collectively devise a development plan.
Evaluation is a reflective activity — it works best when the person being evaluated engages in self-reflection. Work with employees by asking them to think about the projects and work they have done and what it took to do it.
To begin, have employees and their supervisors identify those skills and traits that are relevant. Ignore weaknesses that are irrelevant to the job.
CPR feedback should involve not just the worker, but those with whom they work most closely. Have the employee identify people within the organization who can assess their performance in these areas, including not just supervisors, but also fellow team members who can provide insights that supervisors may miss.
Setting a collaborative tone upfront is critical in order to prevent offense or resentment. Allowing team members to give feedback to each other in a safe environment builds camaraderie. Ensure that everyone understands the goal is to help each other go from good-to-great. Keep the feedback focused on strengths. The greatest room for improvement lies in areas where employees are already competent or desire to become so one day.
A Win-Win Outcome
CPR appeals to everyone’s innate desire for mastery and feedback about how well we are doing the things that we find engaging. We welcome working with evaluators who help us to improve our skills. A collaborative evaluation that produces individualized, actionable, data-driven feedback in a safe environment is a vast improvement on the nonspecific, vague, often critical or simply nonexistent feedback that seasoned workers have become accustomed to. With the right support and effort, greatness at work is achievable by all. And as workers become engaged with the process and take stock of their improvements, they are likely to be motivated to continue.
Chris De Santis is an independent organizational behavior practitioner, speaker, podcaster, and author, with over thirty-five years of experience working with clients in professional services firms both domestically and internationally. He has been invited to speak on generational issues in the workplace at hundreds of the leading U.S. law and accounting firms, as well as many of the major insurance and pharma companies. His new book is “Why I Find You Irritating: Navigating Generational Friction at Work“.