What managers can do about “intangible human-based artifacts”

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This is the latest in a series of articles on what inputs a manager should provide performance feedback on.  The three best sources are practice sessions, direct on-the-job observation, and “tangible artifacts”.   The reason these are the best input to provide performance feedback on is that these are the closest to the performance, hence performance feedback is possible.  The intent of providing performance feedback is that this feedback will help performance improve. The better the feedback, the more likely the performance is going to improve.

It’s a fairly simple model that often gets messed up.  Here’s why:

After “tangible artifacts,” there the are lots of other thing that employees produce —  and managers receive a lot of input about an employee from these – but, as the label implies, these are less tangible (see this article for a general overview) and therefore less useful for providing performance feedback on.  So let’s talk about perhaps the most common of these inputs, what I call “intangible human-based” artifacts and how managers should use them.

Intangible, human-based artifacts:

There are intangible artifacts related to the people they work with that an employee produces.   These are things like “relationships” or “valued customers” or “buy-in from a partner” or “sales.”   These are all human-based outcomes that the employee can “produce,” and in many jobs, these are the thing that the employee must produce.

Since these are human-based “artifacts”, a manager looking at the artifact – i.e., talking to the person or seeing the person’s comments from a survey — is seeing only an indicator of performance, and not the performance itself. Here’s what I mean:

Imagine walking in at the end of a dance performance.  The performance is over and you see the crowd stand up and clap and yell, “Bravo!”  The dancer created the intangible human-based artifact of the “delighted audience.”  Awesome!

This is clearly an indicator that the dance performance went well, but you cannot provide performance feedback to the dancer.   You can comment on the audience’s reaction, “Wow, the crowd really loved the performance!”   But you are still perhaps curious as to what the performance looked like, and the best you can do is inquire to the dancer, “Did you do all of the steps as we discussed?”  It’s better to watch the actual performance so you can say, “I loved that massive jump you did during the finale – such extension!”

So the same goes for someone in sales.  If you see that they are ringing up lots of sales, this is generally considered a great thing.  But it would still be in the interest of the manager to observe directly what the sales person is doing that is generating the sales.  If the person is doing things correctly, great — give praise.  More importantly, if this person is leading in sales, they are likely innovating on top of the expected areas of performance, and this is great info.  You might get more sales from others on your team by observing what the top performer does!

On the other hand, if the person is doing something that generates sales, but is still not correct (such as offering discounts outside their scope of authority), then the manager can provide specific and immediate feedback on what the sales person needs to do differently.

So as a manager, assess what kinds of direct observation or tangible artifacts there are, and provide performance feedback on these items.   If your employees are producing high-quality artifacts, let it be known! If the employee is producing human-based, intangible artifacts, then the manager needs to get closer to direct observation of the performance to provide performance feedback, both good and corrective.  Otherwise, you can only comment on the results, which is fine, but incomplete if you are striving to provide actual performance feedback.

Now, managers don’t have to do this all the time.   If you have observed the behaviors that produce the results, and the results keep coming in, you know what it is that’s being done!

For aspiring management designers out there, what do you do to assure managers are looking at more direct observation as a useful way to learn about what the team is producing?  Or do you rely on managers observing the outcomes and intangible artifacts?

In upcoming articles, I’ll provide a more in-depth look at indirect sources of info about their employees, and how managers should use them.

Related articles:

What inputs should a manager provide performance feedback on?

When to provide performance feedback using direct observation: Practice sessions

When to provide performance feedback using direct observation: On the job

Areas of focus in providing performance feedback based on direct observation: Tangible artifacts

Helpful tip for managers: Keep a performance log

Examples of when to offer thanks and when to offer praise

“Thanks for your Hard Work” vs. “Thanks for your Good Work”

The Art of Providing Feedback: Make it Specific and Immediate

An example of giving specific and immediate feedback and a frightening look into the alternatives

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About Walter Oelwein
Walter Oelwein, CMC, CPT, helps managers become better at managing. To do this, he founded Business Performance Consulting, LLC .


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