Objective appraisal is impossible

Nine Lies About Work

Although feedback is famously “the breakfast of champions”, nobody likes getting negative feedback.

Now a new book, Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World, by management researcher Marcus Buckingham and SVP of Leadership and Team Intelligence at Cisco Ashley Goodall asserts that most management feedback and performance appraisal, including 360º, is unreliable because:

a) It measures people, formally or informally, against ‘competencies’ like Strategic Thinking or Self-Actualisation – which, because they are abstract concepts rather than observable things in the real world, cannot by their nature be measured.

b) Raters don’t hold these concepts stably in their mind when they turn from one person to the next. Instead, each rater tends to have a consistent pattern of rating which stays pretty much the same whoever they are looking at – so a high or low rating says more about the rater awarding it than about the ‘ratee’. This is known as the ‘Idiosyncratic Rater Effect’.

Focus on strengths rather than gaps

A consistent feature of Marcus Buckingham’s books is that we get a much better return from focusing on people’s strengths than from trying to fix their weaknesses.

You can train people to add missing skills, but fixing their ‘gaps’ and deficiencies through training is hard work if those gaps result from their attitudes and interests.

It’s more productive and better for morale to discover their strengths and put people in roles where they can use them. You don’t need to motivate people to play to their strengths, as it’s what they want to do anyway.

As Ashley Goodall points out in this Forbes interview, “the best coaches (and the best team leaders) devote most of their attention to figuring out what’s working and then how to build on that. They know that fixing poor performance gets you only adequate performance. You can’t remediate your way to excellence—and that the raw ingredients of great performance are the moments where something goes well.”

Because we are almost hard-wired to focus on threats rather than opportunities, negatives rather than positives, our natural tendency is to give (inaccurate and demoralising) detailed feedback when people do things wrong, but to either let good performance pass unremarked or to give vague, non-specific acknowledgement of good performance.

Buckingham and Goodall contend that excellence is idiosyncratic to the individual, so it’s worth bringing to the person’s attention what you liked about what they did.

How to do this objectively and unimpeachably? The authors point out that, given our psychological biases that come into play when we assess the performance of others, they only thing we can be sure of is our own reactions – so that’s what we should share. The recipient of these reactions can decide for themselves what they should do to get more of these reactions (if they were positive) and less of them (if they were negative).

More about this from Buckingham and Goodall:
The Feedback Fallacy – HBR article
What Managers Get Wrong About Feedback – audio interview with Ashley Goodall

Next: a format for giving positive feedback


Why It’s Better, And More Accurate, To Give Positive Feedback
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