Peter Maxwell Davies, English composer and conductor says, ‘if you don’t get feedback from your performers and your audience, you’re going to be working in a vacuum’. This statement is pretty much applicable to the corporate world as well.
The term `feedback’ is borrowed from rocket engineering jargon. A rocket sent into space contains a mechanism that sends signals back to Earth. On Earth, a steering apparatus receives these signals, checks if the rocket is off target, and corrects its course. In the world of work, message is given based on observations to the individual if he/she is off target in terms of the goals set by self and by the organization. This message can then be used to correct his or her course.
Feedback is most effective when given in `here-and-now’. This is the traditional method course correction is done, and a method we are all very familiar with. During our growing years, behaviors were noted by the elders in the family (mostly the mother) and correction was done in a very direct and hard hitting manner. We were reminded of what we did/did not do, the result of that, and the impression we have created. If we ever repeated this then a mild threat along with what would happen to our future if we continued with this behavior was communicated to us in such a manner that to this day we would remember the reprimand, and of course, refrain from that behavior.
Professional behavior and work performance does not warrant such a fundamental correction; however, there is a perpetual need for improvement and the only way to enhance performance is to receive critical feedback by people working with, under, above and around us. Personal development, which is essential in the workplace, requires good, honest, well expressed and specific feedback.
Feedback is generally termed as either positive or negative. It actually translates to supportive or corrective behavior which calls for reinforcement or improvement as the case may be. Actually, all feedback is positive as it assists the individual in maintaining or enhancing the present level of performance.
Handling feedback is an art. The ability and the willingness to communicate effectively comprise the crux of a feedback exercise. Here, communication is both ways – that of giving and receiving information. The processes of providing and seeking feedback are most important in making us `see ourselves as others see us.’ Giving and receiving feedback effectively are not easy tasks; they imply certain key ingredients: caring, trust, acceptance, and openness.
One of the techniques that became popular and has since been used in organizations across the world is the 360 degree feedback method. According to consulting firms, 40 percent of companies started using the 360 feedback tool in the early 90s. By year 2000, almost 65 percent of corporate organizations followed the 360 degree feedback tool for both employee development and evaluation process. In this multi rater feedback process, the individual, usually the manager, is figuratively in the center of the circle and feedback is given by superiors, subordinates, peers and customers. Along with the various ratings, the manager’s self assessment is recorded. The data collated and interpreted is used for appraisal and promotion as well as learning and development. The merit in this technique is multifold: it maps the strengths and areas of improvement in the individual and his/her managerial style and it also initiates self-change in the manager. Apart from creating an atmosphere of teamwork and sense of empowerment with accountability, the method also, at times, unearths home truths about the organizational environment and culture. It is important to choose the right people as raters. The choice is a group of people which interacts routinely with the person receiving feedback and is usually shared by the organization and employee.
The next important aspect, after the choice of raters, is the level of confidentiality at which the process is carried out. If appraisers feel that their individual ratings can be identified by the individual or the organization, their rating tends to become less accurate. People, by nature, do not want to give honest feedback, when it is negative, as it will be tied to them. In 2003, Lombardo and Eichinger, of Lominger Limited, Inc. found that accuracy decreases when the ratings become public and identifiable. Accuracy of the ratings increases if confidentiality and anonymity is kept high.
It is a challenge, however, to create a comprehensive process based on the 360 degree tool in large organizations. It is advisable to gradually evolve the process by adopting the tool in small measures. One company commenced this process by providing only to the employee in the first round. In the second round, about a year later, the employee as well as the HR manager viewed the data. The data, though, was not used for performance appraisal; neither did it enter the personal file. The third year, data that was obtained from the feedback process, was incorporated into the performance appraisal process and was also tied to increment and incentives. This helped the employee to use the feedback report as the basis to make improvements in work style as well as work place behavior. The company ensured the raters were kept confidential in all the rounds.
The feedback pans across parameters such as: job performance, behavior at workplace, managerial effectiveness, skills like delegation, communication and team play. The scope of assessment also includes finer aspects like values, ethics, fairness, balance, etiquette like professional courtesies. The process aims to capture in a nutshell, how inspired the employee’s leadership is.
Technology plays an important role to guarantee of anonymity which in turn maximizes earnestness, candor and honesty in responses. The technology must be capable of protecting the data from access by unauthorized people. HR policies and procedures that define feedback process as part of performance management need to clearly state who can view the feedback and in what circumstances. The reliability and validity of the collated data also largely depends on the specification of the group size. It is recommended that, apart from self and supervisor scores, the size for each category should be no less than three.
Technology furthermore accelerates the rating process as many instruments are available online. The data crunched and presented in graphs by the computer is handed in a collective report to the appraisee, who internalizes the feedback and seeks counseling from the management or in some cases from a professional coach.
The 360 degree appraisal, though popular and adopted by many organizations is meaningful and constructive only when the follow up is taken seriously. A half way method, with just the process implemented and no improvement tools in place proves to be a perfunctory exercise which is not result oriented. In many cases, the technique though effective in providing objective and unbiased feedback, does not call for commitment to improve from the appraisees. Organizations feel that adult learning is confined to merely creating awareness but which can cause changes in a natural and positive way. What needs to be remembered is that the adult mind can be in denial and the feedback could be rejected as a matter of opinion. If not handled well, appraisees could end up feeling demotivated and in extreme cases also start harboring a persecution complex. A manager, who is insulated and removed from interactive communication with his team, may be surprised even shocked, when he/she receives the report. The feelings and emotions further cause sadness, anger, humiliation and regret which could snowball into cynicism. In such instances, 360 degree process would have caused more harm than help.
Pay cheques should not reflect the feedback report as the tool is only a compass for pointing out direction to compensation; it cannot be the arbiter of reward. Here, performance in terms of meeting the targets is fundamental to evaluation. At the risk of exaggeration, a manager cannot suffer bad feedback because he refused to grant leave to a team member! It has to be understood that results can be uneven as individual reactions can vary. The manager needs to be given the report and an opportunity to finetune workstyles. A discreet follow up by the HR to check if assistance is required to arrange for counseling, mentoring or coaching for the individual is needed to bring the exercise to a meaningful closure.
Bearing this in mind, the 360 degree feedback process is recommended as a supplement to any performance appraisal system and not in lieu of the existing process. Although applicable across functions and hierarchy, the tool is most effective when used top down.
During an open house session in a software company, an employee voiced a need to have a 360 degree process. When asked the reason he replied that he did not know anything about the process except that it can be a vent to let out pent up frustration! 360 degree feedback exercise, if implemented, calls for an awareness building session as a pre-requisite to raters as well as managers. Perspective is critical if a professional process is to be administered and for receiving objective and real feedback. It becomes a real reality check only if done objectively and professionally.Share