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Leading Off
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It’s that time of year again. HR teams arrive with updates to last year’s performance-review forms, employees’ hands start sweating with every interaction with their managers, and on the tip of everyone’s tongue is that dreaded word: feedback. Of course, delivering thoughtful feedback is a critical tool for developing those you manage, and for developing yourself, but the process has become much more challenging during this time of mostly virtual contact. A spike in employee resignations only adds to the pressure on reviewers. So why is it that so many employees think their managers flub it during annual reviews, and so many managers think their feedback doesn’t really make a difference? This week, let’s look into the art and science of giving and getting feedback—after all, your annual moment of truth will be here before you know it.
figures of people
The feedback cure for executive isolation
As managers take on more—and more complex—responsibilities, it’s critical that they, too, receive unfiltered feedback that facilitates not just their individual careers but the growth of the organization. Yet the higher an executive rises, the higher the risk of isolation and confusion about the best developmental opportunities to pursue. In this 2011 McKinsey Quarterly article, Harvard Business School professor Robert S. Kaplan suggests that senior executives can get better feedback by establishing a network of junior coaches. Start with an assessment of your strengths and weaknesses and make a list of five subordinates who can speak to your leadership effectiveness. It might seem awkward to ask a handful of direct reports for guidance, but given time and persistence, regularly seeking input can lead to valuable insights that enhance your performance and uncover potential blind spots.
That’s the percentage of respondents in a McKinsey Global Survey that say ongoing coaching and developmental feedback positively affect an individual’s performance. In fact, our analysis indicates that when managers can effectively coach employees, the performance-management system is much more likely to be perceived as fair. Regular, ongoing feedback is even more critical in a remote-work environment, since employees may be feeling more anxious and disconnected, and managers may be feeling frustrated by a lack of visibility into performance. Although technology has enabled us to work off-site and in real time with others without missing a beat, challenging conversations can become even more so when conducted in a virtual environment. Periodic check-ins, whether monthly, weekly, or even daily, help to ensure that employees aren’t blindsided by the content of annual performance evaluations.
“Expertise is a tricky thing. To take advice from someone is to agree to be influenced by them.”
So says Leigh Tost, an associate professor at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, in this New York Times article on the best way to give advice. As insightful as your feedback might be, if you have any hope of influencing your colleagues, delivery matters. When the boss expresses gratitude and provides positive feedback, employees feel valued, while at the same time desired mindsets and behaviors are reinforced. In addition, accepting someone in a nonjudgmental way has been shown to increase that person’s confidence, while, as you might suspect, constant criticism can foster insecurity and erode motivation. It takes empathy to validate someone’s feelings when delivering developmental feedback. But being friendly and compassionate can make all the difference between whether your advice is heeded or ignored.
two people talking
Sisyphus had nothing on the annual performance review. In this episode of The McKinsey Podcast, McKinsey partner Bryan Hancock and senior partner Bill Schaninger discuss why a majority of corporate leaders and over half of employees say that the performance-management system doesn’t actually help them identify the top performers or improve individual performance. “We’ve got a process in which the people receiving the review don’t think they got it right, and the CEOs don’t find it useful. Yet we’re stuck in this annual cycle of going through this,” Hancock says. Our research finds that there are ways to improve. When employee goals are linked to business priorities, managers are taught how to coach team members and deliver constructive feedback, and people are compensated fairly, performance management is much more likely to be perceived as effective.
Agile listening
frosted leaves
In agile organizations, which feature faster decision-making cycles and autonomous teams, continuous feedback is necessary to support a culture of risk taking and personal growth. However, it’s not always easy to put into practice. One important step is to clearly define the roles that various leaders play in employee development, since in an agile setting, the evaluator typically doesn’t have the direct oversight that a conventional manager might expect. Because of this, leaders synthesize feedback on individuals from many different sources. While this may be time intensive, aggregating input from peers, subordinates, and other leaders can offer a more complete picture of an individual’s performance. Along those lines, a few companies are experimenting with crowdsourcing feedback through the use of apps, enabling employees at all levels to comment on one another’s performance with the push of a few buttons. For some, that “digital high five” just might be the thing to get them through another evaluation season.
Lead well.
— Edited by Belinda Yu, an assistant managing editor in McKinsey’s Atlanta office
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