Feedback is an essential adaptive mechanism of all biological and social systems, from single celled organisms to human beings, from non-profit community associations to multinational organizations. Feedback from others and from the environment is what allows a child to learn a language, an athlete to win an Olympic Gold, an army to win a battle, and a CEO to lead a cutting edge business. Feedback is a fundamental way that individuals and organizations learn and grow, dropping unproductive behaviors and attitudes and aligning efforts with the goals that lead to individual and collective success.
So why is this natural and constructive process frequently viewed with loathing and suspicion in many organizations? The answer is that the performance review systems used by many organizations do not meet their objective of providing useful feedback because the feedback system is not aligned with management systems, organizational culture, other HR systems, or the needs of individual employees. A feedback system that is out of alignment cannot achieve its goal of balancing individual and organizational energy.
Misalignments in Feedback Systems
There are many ways in which performance feedback can be misaligned with management systems:
- The feedback system can be misaligned with corporate strategy so that what is being measured and evaluated at the individual level does not relate to the big picture. This can be particularly problematic where reviews are static once-a-year events, instead of being part of a continuous data gathering cycle.
- When political considerations override valid performance feedback in organizational decision-making, or when achievement does not drive the organizational reward structure, employees readily perceive the lack of alignment and are quick to write off the feedback process as unfair and biased.
- Performance feedback can be out of alignment with organizational culture if the unique values of the culture are not explicitly brought into the measurement process. In developing an executive feedback system for the Board of Directors of an organization in the agriculture sector, we quickly learned that the roots of the organization as a farm-based cooperative had to be incorporated into the system by including measures that assess the extent to which executives promote cooperative values throughout the organization. Alternatively, it was imperative that the feedback system that we developed for a first-nations band reflect their strong focus on community and heritage if band members were going to invest their energy into the feedback process.
- Performance feedback systems are frequently not aligned with other HR systems. While conducting an audit of HR functions for a large urban police organization, we were quite surprised when we examined what was the role of performance reviews in promoting officers through the ranks. The answer was “none” – performance reviews were not considered in promoting police officers. This is a somewhat extreme example, but it is all too common to find that no direct link exists between performance feedback data and such HR functions as recruitment, promotion, compensation, absence and turnover management and training and development. Is there any wonder that employees perceive such performance feedback as irrelevant?
- At the individual user level, a feedback system can be misaligned with the needs of the individual employee if the system is overly complex and time consuming, does not contain valid, job-related measures or if no user training is provided. Alternatively a system, particularly when it is computer-based, can suffer from feature overkill, with bells and whistles that distract the reviewer from the main task of providing meaningful feedback. In designing performance feedback systems we must always remember that a system that fails to meet ease of use requirements or distracts the reviewer will create an immediate energy blockage, even if the feedback process is aligned at higher levels.
Next: Aligning Performance Feedback Systems with Organizational Energy