The Tao of Performance Feedback

Feedback is an essential process that allows individuals and organizations to learn and grow, dropping unproductive behaviors and attitudes and aligning efforts with the goals that lead to individual and collective success. As we have seen in the previous post, a feedback system that is out of alignment with the energy flow fo the organization cannot achieve its goal of balancing individual and organizational energy.

So how can organizations benefit from a Taoist perspective on performance feedback?

1. Promote the view that performance feedback is a positive and natural process by which individuals and organizations ensure that their energy stays focused on achieving their missions. Recognize that top performing individuals and organizations of all types continually seek out meaningful feedback to retain their edge. This positive view of feedback has immediate intuitive appeal and counters the view of feedback as a controlling and limiting bureaucratic exercise. Getting everyone in the organization to see the positive potential of feedback is a major first step.

2. Ensure that the performance feedback system is aligned with management processes such as strategic decision-making and reward structures. There are many ways to promote this alignment. For example, feedback to high-level executives can include upward input from subordinates. Alternatively, feedback to rank and file employees should incorporate elements of the organizational mission and strategy to forge a link to the big picture. Examine the link between rewards such as compensation and promotion and performance as measured by the feedback system. If they do not correlate, find out why. Conduct a formal or informal survey examining employee’ trust in the system and their perception of whether performance feedback influences organizational decision-making.

3. Take the unique cultural aspects of your organization into account when designing your feedback system. I often start a performance feedback system development workshop with a cultural audit designed to bring cultural values to the conscious attention of participants. Organizational culture can be incorporated into a feedback system either explicitly, by assessing the employee’s contribution to promoting cultural values, or implicitly in the feedback components used in the feedback system (e.g., ratings or narrative feedback).

4. Ensure that the performance feedback system is aligned with other HR systems such that performance data inform functions such as recruitment, promotion, compensation, absence and turnover management and training and development. It is worth examining each human resource function individually and asking whether data from the feedback system is being used to drive that system. If performance data are not informing an HR function, find out why.

5. Ensure that the performance feedback system is aligned with the needs of individual users. Listen to users when designing or selecting a system with particular attention to validity of measurement, ease of use, time requirements, and training needs. Maintain a benefit vs. feature orientation, rejecting bells and whistles in favor of features that genuinely enhance the natural value of meaningful feedback. The greater the alignment of feedback with individual and organizational energy, the more that energy can be directed towards achieving individual and collective goals. As Lao Tse said of the Tao nearly three thousand years ago:

“If kings and lords could harness it, heaven and earth would naturally obey.”

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