Three reasons why giving performance feedback based on indirect information doesn’t work
In my previous articles, I advocate that managers provide performance feedback based on direct observation. This way, the feedback is more likely to be specific, immediate, and behavior-based. All good things. The best sources are observation during practice, direct observation during a performance, and tangible artifacts.
Yet, managers receive lots and lots of data about employees’ performance from indirect sources: Other employees, customer feedback, the “big boss.” I generally advocate that managers refrain from “giving feedback” based on indirect sources of information, because they have some serious disadvantages:
(This article uses examples of the boss’s boss giving feedback about an employee, but the same goes for peer feedback or customer feedback given to a manager.)
1. Indirect feedback tends to provide non-specific summaries and vague generalizations.
Let’s say your boss likes one of your employees a lot. She tells you, “John really nailed it this week.” This is great! But you have no idea what it is that John did that earned this praise. Giving feedback to John on this – even when positive — is kind of awkward: “I have some feedback for you, John. Sarah says that you ‘nailed it’!” It’s great to give the praise, but without the specifics, it doesn’t make much sense. John will say to himself, “Okay, I’m not sure what I did, but I’ll take it.”
In the negative example, when the boss says, “John is screwing up, do something about it,” the manager is in the situation where it seems like performance feedback is necessary, but on what? Even though it is “from the boss,” recognize that it’s incomplete and vague. (If the boss’s boss were a “manager by design,” this kind of non-specific feedback wouldn’t be given, and would be more behavior-based.)
2. Indirect feedback means there is an automatic time delay
The second disadvantage of using indirect sources of information for performance feedback is that there is, by definition, a time delay before the manager gets it. Even in the scenario where the boss’s boss comments on one of your employees right after a meeting, if you weren’t there, there is a time delay before the relay of information is made. And that’s even if the boss’s boss comments right after the meeting! In most scenarios, the time delay is even more pronounced. You meet with your boss once every two weeks, and she tells you something about John that happened some time over the last month. Yikes! Sorting this out will be tough. And the more that there is a time delay, the more useless the performance feedback becomes.
3. The indirect feedback is usually clouded by value judgments
When getting indirect feedback, the source of the feedback unlikely to provide behavior-based language. Instead, they’ll tend to use linguistic short cuts known as value judgments, which succinctly serve to summarize the behavior, the evaluation, and the relative permanence of the behavior as an innate part of the person being commented on.
Here’s an example: Your boss may say this about your employee, “John’s not very smart.” Or, “John’s a real smart guy.”
These value judgments are actually three steps removed from John’s behavior. First he did something or a series of somethings (we don’t know what), and, second, what he did has been evaluated positively or negatively and, third, these behaviors are implied to be permanent and unwavering in John, meaning there is no capacity to change (he is either smart or not smart).
When someone delivers a value judgment, it’s very efficient for the deliverer of the information, but very inefficient for the recipient. As a manager, you want information that helps you get your employees to get better at what they are supposed to do. A value judgment tends to do the opposite: It hurts your ability to help your employees get better, as it give you nothing to work with to give feedback, and it clouds your mind as to the relative merits of John’s essence (that is, you are persuaded as to John’s relative smartness).
Because value judgments are so resonant in language, we tend not to recognize that they are doing several things at once, and we especially don’t recognize how they are making things more difficult to change behaviors for the better.
So there are three reasons not to rely on indirect sources of information to provide performance feedback. In my next article, I’ll discuss even more reasons managers should not rely on indirect sources of information. In future articles, I’ll provide some strategies for addressing indirect sources of information in providing performance feedback.