December ought to be a month of celebrations, but for managers it often isn’t. In many companies this is the time for the yearly performance appraisals. When top management is not trusting employees, and employees are not trusting top management, the middle manager is usually caught between a rock and a hard place. But they don’t have to be. Organizing feedback for performance evaluations can actually be very interesting, but only when people do it right.
What is proper feedback?
Before we go into the “how” of organizing feedback, we need to clarify what good performance feedback is. First of all, to properly evaluate a complex system, such as your team, you need a complex way of reviewing. No single viewpoint can properly reflect an employee’s performance. To do justice to the complexity of their performance, you need multiple views, from different people [Dent, 1999:16].
Take Evelyn for instance, your fictional new employee. You think she’s oftenbehaving somewhatreserved. And when you ask her something to do, she always seems to mess things up. Even worse, she tries to avoid any confrontations afterwards. What you don’t know, but her direct colleagues Kate and Kevin do, is that Evelyn is in fact terribly shy. And when stress levels go up, which happens whenever you are around, her shyness makes her clumsy, which she tries to conceal with what easily can be misinterpreted as avoidance or disinterest.
Therefore,in order to collect proper feedback about Evelyn,you need input from multiple angles. Your own view (Evelyn needs to work on her communication skills); Kate’s view (Evelyn isin fact very friendly, when she’s not stressed); and Kevin’s view (Evelyn is good at what she does, as long as you leave her alone).
Fortunately, there’s a popular practice called 360-degree feedback [Heathfield 2010]. It’s an evaluationtechnique where one individual is, figuratively speaking,the center of all attention, and feedback on her performance is givenby subordinates, peers, supervisors, and sometimes even customers or suppliers.
Unfortunately, there are a few issues with 360-degree feedback. Besides the fact that the practice is often misapplied by traditional managers as “fire at will from all angles”, I have another complaint about it: it can be so very formal!I remember once spending hours collecting forms, filling out forms, and redistributing forms, about myself and my fellow team members. When you ask people their opinionsabout colleagues withsuch formal methods, chances are high you will only get formal answers. Thisis unlikely to deliver you the feedback you really need about your team members.
That’s why I prefer to combine 360-degree feedback with the perfect technique to un formalize almost anything: food!
The importance of food
In their book Fearless Change [Mans, Rising,2005] the authors state that you can turn any ordinary gathering into something special by sharing food. It can make the people involved feel special. The authors go even further in saying that food available during a meeting is important “because it helps to relieve the strain and exhaustion that often develops during intense retrospective work”. And what is more retrospective than being evaluated by your colleagues? Christopher Alexander described inhis Communal Eating pattern that sharing food has an important role in almost all human societies [Alexander 1977]. It binds people and makes them feel part of a group.
How do you start?
Take your team out to dinner, get them seated, pick something to drink, enjoy some small talk, order food, and begin. You could offer to be the first person to be evaluated by the others, because this shows courage and respect. Make notes, and remember to say “thanks” to the people who contribute to the evaluation of your performance, especially when the feedback is honest, valuable and constructive. For many people it takes courage to tell othershow they feel about their behaviors.
Benefits of 360-Degree Dinner
From discussions at the table it can quickly become clear whether the majority of the participants share the sameopinion about someone’s performance, or not. If not, it’s a good time to find out why.
When some reported issue is not clear, the person who is being evaluated can ask to have the issue clarified. Push for concrete examples, because nobodyshould suffer abstract evaluations. People can then respond and maybe even shed the issue in a new light.
When talking face-to-face people tend to be more sincere and respectful. Behind-the-back-evaluationscan too easily be colored by spite, vengeance, or some people’s habit to gossip about others.
Nobody is perfect. So chances are that group dynamics ensure thateveryone gets to swallow the same amount of feedback. But make sure to intervene when someone gets more than his fair share of “constructive” input.
When the HR department has supplied management with official performance appraisal forms, the team members can finalize these forms themselves, based on the input they received during their 360-degree dinner, and have them reviewed by their team members. The manager can then sign themoff and send them back to HR.
It probably would be best if you had 360-degree performance sessions several times per year, so people don’t have to dig too deep in their long-term memories.And by combining 360-degree feedback with food you not only un-formalize the process. You also make sure all participants have to look the others in the eyes, which urges everyone to be honest, fair, and respectful.
Of course, if you think your team will have trouble with that last part, you will have towork on that first…
Author: Jurgen Appelo is author of the book Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders, and creator of the 2-day course Management 3.0: Agile Leadership Practices, available in many countries. http://www.management30.com/
Alexander, Christopher. A pattern language : towns, buildings, construction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Dent, Eric B. “Complexity Science: a Worldview Shift” Emergence. Vol. 1, Issue 4, 1999
Heathfield, Susan M. “360 Degree Feedback: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” http://humanresources.about.com/od/360feedback/a/360feedback.htm. About.com. 2010.
Manns, Mary and Linda Rising. Fearless change : patterns for introducing new ideas. Boston: Addison-Wesley, 2005.