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Feb 27 2019
Why Feedback Fails, and a Performance Thinking® Alternative

A recent article  in Harvard Business Review called The Feedback Fallacy debunks a number of widely accepted ideas about the effective use of feedback on human performance.  In particular, it addresses “the overriding belief that the way to increase performance in companies is through rigorous, frequent, candid, pervasive, and often critical feedback.”

There are many problems with this belief, some mentioned in the article and others implicit.  Let’s take a closer look, and then look at an alternative approach to setting expectations and providing feedback that is at the heart of Six Boxes Performance Thinking.

There’s no dispute that individuals and teams can gain from a clear understanding of what they need to produce, and how; and from information about how well they are performing, and what might help to improve their performance in a positive way. Positive, specific, timely feedback for what we do right can rapidly accelerate performance. Lean process improvement uses various kinds of visible feedback tools, customer service representatives listen to themselves with a behavioral checklist, and so on. These forms of feedback can help. But words like “candid” and “rigorous” when describing feedback often hide what amounts to punishment of what people do incorrectly.

The HBR article unpacks and disputes the idea that “other people are more aware than you are of your weaknesses, and that the best way to help you, therefore, is for them to show you what you cannot see for yourself.” They question the ability of others to give precise or helpful feedback.

Certainly their criticisms makes sense, particularly if the expectations against which one is being judged are vague or open to wide interpretation.  Even with precise behavioral expectations, people often are poor observers and may not be skilled at identifying critical features of one’s behavior that could make a difference.  The article continues by debunking several other myths, but after a few paragraphs settles on what we think is one of the greatest problems of all, one that is virtually all-pervasive in practices followed in organizations of all kinds.

That big problem is that assessment and feedback are often based on competencies, defined in models embedded in performance management systems, training programs, and models of so-called “excellence.”  I’ve written elsewhere about how competency-based systems are inherently unfair, ineffective and even destructive. That’s because competencies are inherently abstract, generalized concepts that apply to whole categories or clusters of behavior. The original competency models took sometimes more than 100 defined types of behavior, sorted them into piles, and then labeled the piles. The labels became the so-called competencies. But such verbal expressions are painfully abstract and difficult to pin down. How we can possibly compare and evaluate “business acumen” when exhibited in a public presentation versus in a 1:1 meeting with a direct report, or in  a written proposal? How we can possibly compare “strategic thinking” embodied in a business plan and in a meeting design, with a rating scale that is actually refined opinion?

As straight-faced as people can be when they rate others using scales of 1 to 5 on such abstractions, it is  outrageous to think that rating others on abstract categories of behavior can possibly help develop performance in  a cost-effective or reliable way. It is not nearly specific enough to be helpful, yet vague enough to be possibly harmful. Moreover, a rating can depend in extreme cases on whether the rater got a good night’s sleep,  enough coffee that morning, or has a hangover. While those might be slight exaggerations, you get the point. Rating people's performance on subjective scales is not helpful, certainly not useful enough to merit all the time and effort usually put into it, even when done infrequently, which is usually the case.

These days I often ask groups of people to whom I deliver presentations or training, “How’s that competency-based rating scale performance management system working for you?” They roll their eyes. 

I follow with, “Is this causing any cynicism among you and your colleagues about performance evaluations and compensation decisions?”  They typically nod their heads.  Competency-based feedback is, indeed, the Emperor with No Clothes.  It appears that we are doing something useful, when actually we are merely assigning numbers that are only ordinal levels, and not quantities, to vague concepts with some kind of “holistic” judgement about the person.  Not exactly buttoned down performance engineering!

That is not to mention our ratios of positive to corrective feedback – which unless they are 4:1 or better are unlikely to be very effective, even when applied to more specific and concrete examples of behavior.  Not only do we tend to correct more than we praise, but we usually do so with significant delays. Thus, in most cases, the feedback is so removed from the details of behavior that neither the performer nor the person giving feedback can be precise enough to be helpful.

But there is another approach.  And it is at the heart of Six Boxes Performance Thinking.  The HBR article hints at our alternative when the authors suggest that we “look for outcomes.”  They write that those who give feedback should focus on specific behavior that produces the desired results.

In the logic of Six Boxes Performance Thinking, performance in organizations has three elements:  behavior or activity; the valuable products of behavior – what we call accomplishments or work outputs; and the organizational or business results to which they contribute. In the Performance Chain, we judge the value of an accomplishment by the extent to which it contributes to organizational or business results.  And we specify needed behavior based on the extent to which it produces valuable accomplishments or work outputs.

We say that accomplishments, or work outputs, are “countable nouns.” That is, like widgets coming off an assembly line, they are things that can be counted and evaluated as to whether they do or do not meet what we call “criteria for a good one.” Such criteria apply not only to concrete deliverables, like widgets or documents. They also apply to less tangible things that, nonetheless, can be defined as either “good” or “not good,” and counted.

Such accomplishments can include decisions, transactions, innovations, descriptions, improved process designs, people who say they liked our service, and even relationships. We focus leaders, managers and performance professionals on identifying criteria for “good” ones that are easy to agree upon and for which there is relatively narrow room for interpretation.  We say that the performer and everyone else should be able to evaluate the work output or accomplishment – the product of behavior – as either meeting or not meeting criteria. Criteria for good work outputs might be based on the business results to which they are intended to contribute, the requirements of customers or recipients of the work outputs, or sometimes on cultural values that  define what we consider to be good accomplishments.

And this is the key to giving useful, effective feedback: If we focus on the accomplishment or product of behavior, not primarily on the behavior, we can clearly define what good looks like. Then both performer and manager or peer can decide whether any given accomplishment is good, or needs improvement. And if there is room for improvement, then they can engage in a collaborative effort to decide what behavior ought to change and how to help make that happen.

This approach, embodied most simply in our Six Boxes® Performance Coaching program, moves the feedback process from behavior to outcomes, from subjective to objective, and supports self-feedback based on shared knowledge of criteria for good work outputs. Our coaching and management programs leverage this level of specificity. We find that instead of dreading feedback, individuals and teams appreciate knowing exactly what they are expected to produce, gain insights and often bring innovative ideas for changes in behavior, and can share expectations and feedback with each other. This practice becomes a potentially collective learning exercise, an ongoing process as part of continuous performance development.

The HBR article also reminds me of the relatively narrow approach to performance improvement in so many organizations, depending mostly on training and feedback for development. Our Six Boxes Model defines a comprehensive system of behavior influences in six interrelated categories that are either supporting or getting in the way of performance at all times.

The full set of behavior influences includes skills and knowledge as well as feedback. It begins with clearly stated expectations so that feedback can be equally clear, to compare with expectations. We learn to adjust tools and resources to develop individuals and teams. Taken together, this more systemic approach allows performers to make more frequent contact with the natural positive consequence of success.

With Performance Thinking we can leap past crude competency based rating schemes and take advantage of accomplishment based feedback in the context of a system that supports performance. We can enable leaders, managers, coaches and performance professionals to drive continuous agile talent development by adjusting the variables in the Six Boxes Model in cost-effective combinations. And we can, to some extent, bypass the old arguments about what does or does not make for effective feedback because we  have a fundamentally better approach based on accomplishments, not competencies.

I applaud Harvard Business Review for taking up the issue of feedback, and addressing some of the myths and old ideas that surround it. We can do much better, and Six Boxes Performance Thinking provides a simple yet powerful framework for crisply defining successful performance and arranging conditions for continuous improvement.

For more about Six Boxes Performance Thinking, check out our programs for Performance Professionals and those for Leaders and Managers . 

Also check out our 10th Annual Six Boxes Summer Institute , which is going to be amazing. We'll be exploring in depth the possible synergies and intersections between Design Thinking and Performance Improvement, partnering with our friend and colleague, Surya Vanka .

Please share your email address with us to receive periodic updates and notifications , subscribe to The Performance Thinking YouTube Channel , and consider joining our growing LinkedIn discussion group.

Thanks for reading this far. I know it was a long one!

 -   Carl Binder, CEO


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