Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Up and to the Right

Take a moment and tally up how many people work in and for your business. What if every one of those people were suddenly 25% better at their jobs? What if they were each 50% better? How would this impact your business? Leadership studies have shown that a “feedback culture” improves team member performance faster than any other organizational change. Don’t miss out on what could be your chance to have a high-performing team.

It’s long been a part of business culture to have regular performance reviews and the purpose has, supposedly, been the improvement of the employees and, therefore, the improvement of the business. The idea is that if you give someone a review of his performance, he can improve it. Sounds simple. Unfortunately, few times of the year are less productive and more stressful for managers than “performance review” time. Perhaps you too have dreaded the performance review of your employees, knowing it might be contentious or upsetting, or, at the worst, a nightmare of legal vulnerability. Sometimes the reviews are a surprise. Other times they are a boring, repetitive exercise in paperwork.

A new trend has been sweeping American companies over the last few years that is intended to end this once-a-year feedback-fest which is usually littered with half-baked opinions and squishy goals. Many companies are now working to create “feedback cultures”, cultures where open communication about job performance occur on a daily or weekly basis, sometimes even minute-to-minute, to increase awareness of strengths and weaknesses and to take the pressure off of the yearly performance review.

If you have decided that you want to up-level your team in a hurry, nothing is better than creating an instant feedback loop for your team. Follow these simple steps to get started.

Creating a Feedback Culture:

1. Set expectations for the entire team. Have a meeting to let your team know that you intend to improve performance by trying new feedback methods. Tell them not to roll their eyes yet. Explain the feedback method will include metrics as well as individual feedback to each person. The idea is to get everyone used to feedback so when it comes along, it isn’t so bothersome.

2. Get agreement. Get the team’s agreement that feedback is not only a good idea, but that it will be accepted routinely. Next, have each person work out one major metric that measures his job performance and graph it on a line graph. For example, if the person is a receptionist, have him track the number of incoming calls, packages or visitors that are correctly routed. Make it a game to get this number higher and higher. The game is UP and TO THE RIGHT on his graph. Next, work on "soft skills" such as tighter communications, better grammar, a more pleasant tone of voice. Make it a game to improve these things, rather than focusing on them being "poor" right now.

3. Educate about feedback. Help the team distinguish between performance feedback and useless or harmful opinions. Example: “You need to be more organized. I suggest a schedule including each client, time of appointment and outcome” [performance feedback] VERSUS “You are so disorganized!” [useless/harmful opinion]. Good feedback is specific and actionable. Make sure all your feedback meets these criteria. Realize you may need to give a piece of feedback in several ways, over several conversations. Also educate the team about metrics, how to track them and how often you will be reviewing them. Start with weekly metrics and review them at a short, end-of-week meeting. Push everyone for an "up and to the right" graph.

4. Practice. Start right in the first meeting to give on-the-spot feedback. Get the team members used to it. The only way to do that is to practice. Remember to balance positive feedback and “improvement” feedback.

5. Prepare for reactions. The most important thing to do is to be committed to your feedback process. Don’t change simply because you hear some grumbling. Those who are good performers will like the new feedback because their graphs and their feedback will set them apart. The winners will be very obvious. You can call them the “up and to the right” crew.

If you are already skeptical about whether this can work for your organization, consider the story of a small team at a major technology company that decided to jump headfirst into trying this new method of feedback. The first thing that happened was a bunch of noise. “I don’t like it. It’s cruel.” “Is this what they call ‘thickening our skins’?” “Seems like an excuse to be mean.” Yes, the adjustment was rough at first. After a week or two, the whole crew was used to sporting graphs for every team meeting, looking for “up and to the right” curves. They started making feedback, the specific and actionable kind, a part of the daily routine. The team became a study in high performance with some of their best-performing members being promoted within the year. This same team was responsible for creating the laptop on which you might be typing your email.

And of course, you can always remember the words that came from the same person who threw away his performance review: “All that matters is graphs that go up and to the right.”

And, in the end, it’s true isn’t it?


  1. Great new article on Performance Reviews and...

  2. Hey Jill!

    Thanks you for giving so openly as you do. Not only do you speak to the value of integrating feedback, you also give a powerful process. I look forward to using it very soon.


  3. Great article, Jill. A very comprehensive treatment of the importance of giving and getting good feedback in the workplace. Hmm. And in life as well!