We’ve all heard the famous bromide that “honesty is the best policy.” But when it comes to performance feedback, honesty often falls by the wayside. Many managers hide behind performance management checklists or water down their feedback with generalizations. And on the other side of the equation, employees tend to position themselves in the most favorable light possible in their self-assessments, and avoid giving constructive feedback to the boss, even when it’s requested. The result is a lack of candid dialogue between boss and subordinate — which not only prevents the organization from improving, but also stymies individual development.
The odd thing about this phenomenon is that everyone knows that performance feedback should be more candid. There are hundreds of articles about the value of candid assessments and most supervisory and management courses include some variation on how to have “courageous” conversations (corporate-speak for “honest”). There also are some organizations, such as GE and (the new) Ford under Alan Mulally, that insist upon it.
Research also shows that employees are far more engaged when they receive honest feedback; and that leaders who rate highest in managerial effectiveness are those who most actively seek feedback from others. Yet performance feedback continues to look like the Emperor’s New Clothes, where everyone pretends that it’s different than it is.
The reality is that candid, two-way dialogues are intensely uncomfortable and cause anxiety on both sides of the table. The boss, for example, often worries that too much candor might be hurtful or damaging. As one senior manager said to me, “If I tell this person what I really think, it could destabilize her and make it difficult for her to do her job.” At the same time, the boss may also want to be liked by the subordinate and doesn’t want the relationship to deteriorate, especially if they have to work side-by-side. So it’s easier to pull punches than to say something that might damage the relationship.
On the other side of the ledger, subordinates worry that negative feedback will adversely affect their job continuation, career prospects, or earning power — so they may appear defensive or anxious, which makes it even harder to have an honest conversation. And if the manager asks for feedback, many subordinates will try to say nice things as a way of currying favor, or signaling a quid-pro-quo arrangement of “I’ll give you positive feedback if you give me the same.”
The net result of all this angst and (largely unconscious) anxiety is a stilted, pro-forma, ritualistic, and not very productive pattern of dialogue about performance. It’s a pattern that adds little value to the organization or to managers and employees.
Unfortunately, given the powerful nature of the underlying psychological forces, it is difficult to break this pattern. Most people believe Jack Nicholson’s line from the movie, “A Few Good Men,” when he shouted: “You can’t handle the truth!” That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing you can do. On the contrary, given the enormous value that more honest feedback can produce, here are three suggestions that might be worth exploring:
Acknowledge and discuss the difficulty of honest performance feedback. Whether you are the boss or subordinate, initiate conversation about the issue, the underlying psychology, and the value of getting it right. Use this blog post or other articles like it as a way to get the discussion started. The more you can build awareness of the dynamic, the better your chances of dealing with it.
Separate developmental feedback from job-security issues such as compensation and promotion. The easiest way to do this is to conduct these discussions at different times (even if your corporate process wants you to do them together). Doing this allows you to focus the conversation on how you and your subordinate can better accomplish key goals and projects — so the discussion is more work-related than “personal.” Making this explicit division removes some of the emotion from performance assessment and might free you up to be more candid.
Like any good skill, you need to practice. So don’t wait until the formal process kicks in and you’re under the gun to fill out forms and have a high-anxiety performance review. Instead, engage your people (or your boss) in a series of mini-discussions about how things are going and what can be done differently. The more frequently you have these conversations, the more comfortable they will become. Honest performance feedback is not easy. But learning how to do it well can make a huge difference both for you and for your organization.