Why Performance Management Needs to Become Feedback Management


In 2017, the NeuroLeadership Institute gathered over 200 companies in Silicon Valley for a day to discuss what the future of performance management might look like.

We already believed that Performance Management was more about having quality conversations than just having the right technology. Our goal was to the spend the day across what we thought were the six most important conversations: Goal setting, everyday feedback, check-ins, end-of-cycle reviews, compensation conversations, and career conversations.

Yet these 200 companies, mostly already underway with continuous performance management strategies, had a very different idea. No matter what we discussed, every session kept coming back to one big problem that seemed to be at the heart of everything: Improving the quality of everyday feedback.

If people gave good feedback every day, goal setting would be more accurate, more agile, and more useful. There would be fewer surprises at compensation time, and career conversations would be a natural, ongoing process. And if someone had to be let go because of poor performance, this wouldn’t be a surprise. One recent study showed that 75% of people who get fired say they had no feedback about their performance ahead of time.

The Science Behind Fixing PM

There’s compelling research behind the feedback-first approach.

In one recent study, researchers explored data from 234 organizations to better understand which performance management practices drive business impact. They compared nearly a dozen techniques, such as cascaded performance goals, 360 feedback, calibration meetings, and so on, eventually finding that creating a culture of feedback was the most critical driver of positive organizational and financial outcomes.

If organizations don’t take the research to heart, they may be majorly missing the mark on performance management.

The data suggests that most organizations are, in fact, missing the mark. Despite decades of trying to get managers to give better feedback, less than a third of employees receive the routine feedback they need to help them do their work better.

So how can an organization facilitate a flow of quality feedback? In a phrase, solve for feedback with the brain in mind.

Minimizing Social Threat

Traditional feedback experiences feature a persistent and pesky villain — the threat response. Giving unsolicited feedback commonly activates a “fight or flight” response in the brain that shuts down learning. Solving for the organizational feedback problem effectively requires defanging this villain. In other words, asking how do we make the experience of feedback less threatening?

Our hypothesis is there is no approach to “giving feedback” that will address that fundamental problem in a deep enough way. Now matter how you give feedback, the act of someone hearing unsolicited criticism reduces cognitive resources, right when they need them most. These resources aid in the cognitively taxing task of “mental contrasting” — a technique where people mentally compare the present to the past or future.

NLI’s research suggests that we need to rethink the conventional paradigm and focus much less on encouraging and training people to give feedback, and focus more on cultivating the habit of “asking for feedback.”

A recent NLI study of managers in the workplace showed that the “asking for feedback” approach makes the experience much less threatening for everyone involved. In addition, we found that giving feedback was just as threatening as receiving it, further motivating the need to make conversations less stressful.

Practically, these insights point toward a fundamental mindset shift to:

  1. Focus less on “fixing the giver” of feedback
  2. Focus more on “empowering the asker” of feedback
  3. Sustain the behavior of asking over time, to maximize the quantity of feedback

Conventional wisdom won’t be solving the critical “feedback problem” of performance management anytime soon. We think it’s time to help your people build the “brain-friendly” approach of asking for feedback.

Author: Dr. David Rock

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