Feedback done well can stitch an organization together. Yet few companies do it well.
That may explain why more than four-fifths of firms are ditching standard year-end performance reviews, including Goldman Sachs and General Electric.
Instead, many firms opt for a different take on the process.
So how do employees and their bosses give and receive feedback that neither party takes too personally?
A quality feedback process hinges on trust and setting expectations. And several companies say real-time, specific and face-to-face feedback is most effective.
“Companies that manage employees well don’t leave (feedback processes) to chance,” said Robert Atkin, a clinical professor of management at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz School of Business. “They’ll talk and say, ‘Hey guys, what do you do think about this?’”
At Summa, “ataboys,” is one of the Pittsburgh software firm’s most common forms of informal feedback. The simple phrase acknowledges a job done well.
But Summa’s director of human resources, Mark Coy, said it extends further than that. Without specific feedback, including detailed steps for improvement, employees don’t know how to improve — or exactly what they’ve done right.
A couple of years ago, Summa migrated to an in-the-moment feedback process or “agile performance management.” Saying “great job” is not enough, said Coy. Point out specifics. Describe steps they can take to do better.
“What did I do that really made a difference? Being specific is more helpful to an employee. That’s where a lot of people fall short.”
If feedback is given weeks, months or even years afterward, it’s out of context. That’s one reason GE took to a mobile app, where employees and managers can log in and give feedback at any time.
But while the app allows for real-time feedback, it can kill face-to-face interaction.
Employees felt the quality of reviews suffered because bosses struggle to explain performance and provide steps for improvement, according to a survey of more than 9,000 employees by Virginia-based advisory firm CEB. Gallup research published last year found 63 percent of employees say their bosses don’t recognize their achievements.
Keeping it comfortable
At Comfort Keepers, an in-home senior care provider offering services in the Pittsburgh area, recognition is at the core of its feedback process. Caregivers get cards at their birthdays and holidays from their bosses. After a quality job, they’ll receive hand-written thank-you cards.
“That’s feedback,” said Lillian Germany, a caregiver. “That makes you want to do a good job.”
When she has tough feedback to give someone, Germany might drop the subject and come back to it later on. It’s a gradual process, she said. She acknowledges that criticism, even constructive, can be a tough pill to swallow. In the end, it’s about making colleagues and clients feel comfortable.
Carmela Stulga, client care coordinator, works in a liaison role. When telling somebody what they don’t want to hear, she’ll first mention what the person wants to hear. Then she’ll say, “It’s better if you handle it this way,” and explain the would-be result.
Before he gives feedback, Fredrik Ruben, CEO of communications firm Tobii Dynavox, asks if the colleague is ready. You don’t know what kind of day they’re having, he said.
Then, instead of explaining what they did wrong, Ruben describes the results of one’s behavior. If somebody’s late, for instance, he explains the consequence of the lateness, detailing how it makes him feel disrespected — as opposed to barking, “Don’t be late!”
“Feel” is a keyword in company’s feedback process. “If you use the word feel, people cannot have an opinion of right or wrong,” he said.
As CEO, Ruben says he rarely gets feedback. When he does, he cherishes it. Sometimes he’ll ask, “How do you find this meeting? Is my behavior all right?”
The most difficult feedback conversations often begin when somebody you respect does something out of line, Ruben said. It starts with setting expectations and building trust. Do that from the get-go, and come a hard time, the trust has already been built.
At Tobii, most staffers meet with their bosses one-on-one for 30 to 60 minutes bi-weekly. Every day, employees ask one another about life outside of work.
“Feedback in my mind is really dialogue,” said Tony Pavlik, vice president of global operations. “I always ask how can I help? Am I giving you enough suppor?”
He noted some people can be very guarded, making it hard to break their shell.
In those cases, it’s especially important that the feedback doesn’t “come out of the blue,” said Bob Cunningham, Tobii’s vice president of product and development.
“It’s a continuous thing,” Cunningham said. “Whether it’s negative things, positive things, it’s always in context of a bigger picture.”