Bonus! Six more reasons why giving performance feedback based on indirect information is risky
I’m a big advocate for managers to give performance feedback to their employees. But the performance feedback has to be of good quality. So let’s remove the sources of bad quality performance feedback. One of these is what I call “indirect sources” of information. These include customer feedback, feedback from your boss about your employee, the employee’s feedback. These are all sources of information about your employee – and provide useful information, but they are not sources of performance feedback.
In previous articles, further outlined what counts as direct source of information about an employee’s performance (here, here, and here). And in my prior article, I describe how indirect sources are, by definition, vague, time-delayed, and colored by value judgments, making them feedback sources that inherently produce bad performance feedback when delivered to the employee.
There are more reasons a manager should hesitate using indirect sources of info as “feedback.” Let’s go through them.
1. Have to spend a lot of time getting the facts straight
Let’s say your boss tells you that one of your employees, Carl, did a “bad job during a meeting.” The natural tendency is to give feedback to Carl about his performance, using the boss’s input. When sharing feedback from this indirect source, you will need to go through a prolonged phase of getting the facts straight. First you have to figure out the context (what was the meeting about?), then you have to figure out what the employee did, usually relying on some combination of what the feedback provider (not you) observed, which, is typically not given well, and what the employee says he did. This usually takes a long time, and by the time you’ve done this, you still aren’t sure as to what the actual behaviors were, but an approximation of the behaviors from several sources. So the confidence in feedback of what to do differently will be muted and less sure.
2. Have to pick apart the conflation of several behaviors
When someone gives feedback to you, the manager, about one of your employees, the feedback tends to be an amalgamation of several things that the employee did. Sometimes it’s summarized, sometimes it’s a series of things that happened, sometimes is a rambling narrative. Picking out what is good, what is bad, and what should be changed is hard to do. For example, you receive the peer feedback, “Carl was excellent to work with.” But what did he do that was excellent? Was it his winning smile? Or was it that he responded quickly to issues? Or that he did his job as expected according to basic performance standards? Performance feedback only becomes performance feedback if it is behavior-based, and getting to the specific behaviors from indirect sources is hard to do.
3. Articulating the alternative behavior is really, really hard
The third disadvantage of using indirect sources of information to provide feedback is that it is almost impossible to articulate the preferred alternate behavior. If you didn’t see the actual behavior yourself, this is almost impossible to do. You can make guesses, but they will likely be wrong.
Imagine giving feedback to dancers based on negative audience reaction (but you didn’t see the performance yourself). “The audience didn’t like the performance, so. . . do X differently.” This is just a guess what X is. Random results ensue.
4. It ignores the larger system forces
When receiving indirect sources of information, the focus is on the individual’s actions, and not the context of the situation. Many times, employees get “feedback” from indirect sources – customers, upper management, or partners. The feedback tends to focus on the individual, “I liked him” “I hated him.” Or “He rocked it!” Or “He screwed it up.” The feedback always pins the performance on the individual’s ability. However, this completely ignores the greater forces that went into the employee’s behavior. If he screwed it up, were there other things that may have contributed to it that were invisible to the feedback provider? Let’s take a highly specific example. Let’s say that Carl is doing a presentation, and one of his power point slides had an error on it, compromising the presentation somewhat. This seems specific enough. It may not have Carl’s duty to finish the presentation, but someone else’s. Or perhaps Carl’s manager gave Carl some other work when he was planning to review the presentation. Or perhaps Carl’s computer stopped working the night before, and he scrambled to get a new computer and didn’t have time to fix the presentation, but realized it wasn’t something that should delay the presentation – so he was aware of it.
In any case, when someone says that something bad happened, it isn’t always on the individual’s ability – there are other forces that go into it, and indirect observation tends to erase this context.
5. The item given feedback on becomes the most important thing
When getting feedback from an indirect source, it is entirely random as to the importance of what it is that was being given feedback on. If someone tells you that Carl’s presentation went badly because there was an error (“The feedback is that the presentation went well, although there was an error. . .”), that implies that the missing slide was the most important thing. However, if the Carl’s presentation met its objectives, it doesn’t really matter that there was a blank slide. But the feedback from this indirect source isn’t likely to point that out. The one bad thing is the thing that suddenly becomes important – the most important thing.
6. It seems like you have to act on it, but you don’t always have to
When you receive feedback about your employee from an indirect source – especially negative feedback – it is implied that you need to do something about it. You need to get this ‘feedback’ to the employee right away. Especially if it comes from the employee’s boss’s boss or a customer. Indeed, this may be the case. But it isn’t always the case! It just seems like it is always the case. Remember that indirect sources of information are not of the same quality as direct sources, and, as such, bringing them up with your employee as “feedback” is of high risk. If it isn’t worth the risk, then don’t bring it up! You can use it as a data point, but it doesn’t mean you always have to turn around and share it as feedback – because it can create a bigger mess than it will solve.
However, it is information with some value, and sometimes it is necessary to share this information with your employee. In my next article, I’ll provide you some strategies for how to manage and share the indirect sources of information about your employees.