Traditional 360° feedback and performance evaluations can hurt more than help, despite our best intentions. You've likely experienced this first-hand - the disheartening feeling that comes with being criticized and the natural inclination to defend yourself against perceived slights. We're all human, after all, and it's difficult to hear about what we perceive to be our problems and failures, even in cases where we're eager to know about how we can improve.
There is an alternative - reframe the way you give and receive feedback, focusing on suggestions instead of criticism. It may seem like a simple and subtle difference, but it can have a powerful impact on our performance and engagement.
Focuses on the negative, and damages self esteem.
Feels painful and hurtful, and leads us to put up defenses.
Tends to be perceived as ‘who we are’, and difficult to change (e.g., “I can’t handle conflict”).
Focuses on the positive, and on our capacity for change.
Feels helpful and beneficial, and encourages us to listen.
Tends to be seen as ‘what we do’, and something we can improve (e.g., “Dealing with conflict right away would help me diffuse it more quickly and easily”).
For example, Roy F. Baumeister, a professor of social psychology at Florida State, found that it takes five good events to overcome the detrimental effects of a negative one. Psychologist John Gottman, having conducted research with couples for several decades, has proposed the same - that for every negative interaction, a stable and happy relationship has five (or more) positive interactions. Teresa M. Amabile, a professor of business administration and director of research at the Harvard Business School, found that the negative effect of a setback at work was more than twice as strong as the positive effect of an event that signaled progress. The fact is that all of us are hardwired to overemphasize the negative, and exaggerate our faults and fears.
Of course, we can’t simply avoid talking about our development needs. Otherwise, we keep making the same mistakes and never grow or get better at our jobs. And, according to the progress principle, of all the events that can keep people engaged and happy at work, the most important is simply making progress on meaningful work. In other words, feedback is vitally important to improvement and job satisfaction.
So, what’s the solution to this ‘rock and a hard place’ situation? How do we give critical feedback without being critical?
First of all, foster discussion around situations in which the employee was most or least successful, emphasizing aspects that were within their control. Setting up this ‘internal locus of control’ (i.e., emphasizing their ability to change and improve) is key to ensuring that the discussion is positive and productive, even when talking about potential needs.
Highlight achievements and progress. People tend to overlook or downplay strengths, and miss the opportunity to learn more about the talents they can leverage to be even more successful (e.g. a course on innovation and change, for the person who is naturally creative). This includes highlighting what others have done in similar situations, especially the top-performing people in the organization.
Instead of focusing on 'faults' and criticism, offer suggestions and advice on how they can be even more successful in future, and the benefits of doing so. This is one of the keys to giving effective feedback in many types of evaluations, including 360-degree surveys. For example, here is a great example of criticism reframed as a suggestion, from a survey we recently facilitated for a client:
Actively seek opportunities to informally interact with senior leaders. These interactions can be informal phone calls to check in, and update them on your priorities and current activities. You are already doing more of this, keep it up and grow it. It feels like self promotion, but its critical for the team's standing and latitude. Keep it up!
Clearly, this is the type of insight that leads to acceptance and change, as opposed to the disappointment and defensiveness that you might get from direct criticism.
Thank you for reading this article. We hope it offers a useful perspective for your next evaluation.
We're currently seeking feedback to improve our ‘mini 360’ platform, ProDev360, which is based on these principles. Comments, questions, and suggestions are greatly appreciated. Please contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like more information, or would like to try it.
Here are key goals for the platform:
Significantly quicker and more convenient than traditional 360s. Surveys only take two minutes to complete, and use a card selection system rather than traditional rating scales.
Focuses on suggestions (vs. criticism) in order to facilitate engagement and improvement.
Accepts custom metrics, competencies, and items to ensure that organizations can measure what is most important to them.
Allows participants to gauge progress. Surveys can be administered on an ongoing basis (e.g. every 2 months) and any significant changes are highlighted in ‘real time’ on online dashboards.