How to get true performance from feedback
by Rachelle J. Canter, Ph.D.

Does performance feedback really work?  The answer is yes -- it can have a dramatic and lasting effect if It's properly collected and delivered, and there is appropriate follow-up and accountability. To get true performance from feedback, you will want to follow some key guidelines.

Keep it Specific and Behavioral

Behavioral feedback identifies and operationalizes the key behaviors critical to success.  This means reinforcing attention to what's important and putting feedback into objective terms.

Specific feedback focused on observable behaviors -- not subjective traits -- delivers an unambiguous message that's objective and clear, while defusing the tendency toward defensiveness that arises when one feels personally attacked.  It appropriately shifts the focus off the person and onto the behavior that needs changing.  Consider the impact of:  "George, you're too argumentative" versus "George, you interrupted the client several times when she was explaining her concerns to us."

Keep it Comprehensive

Originally performance feedback was unidirectional: from boss to subordinate.  Over time, feedback systems expanded to include upward feedback from subordinate to boss.  The emphasis has now expanded to downward, upward, and lateral feedback, what are called 360 feedback systems.  These systems incorporate performance feedback from multiple sources:  one's supervisor, oneself, one's peers, one's subordinates, and sometimes, from one's clients or customers.  It's the full circle of perspective -- the entire 360 degrees.

Among the numerous advantages of 360 feedback, the most important is that multiple raters  observe different behaviors directly (e.g., how an individual takes a deposition or responds to a client's questions).  This provides a more complete evaluation, and one that corrects for common errors in rating performance. It also makes it harder for one performance mistake to assume damning or undue significance in a person's record.

For example, a partner who evaluates an associate harshly due to one poorly written brief, doesn't have the final word on the associate's performance.  Other associates, who likely have more daily exposure to the individual's performance, also have input.  Indeed, evidence suggests that peers have the best information about an individual's performance, presumably because they have the most varied opportunities to observe it

Keep it Frequent and Immediate

When it comes to feedback, more is more.  In other words, frequency is crucial.  And the greatest impact on future performance comes from immediate feedback. It doesn't have to be elaborate or time-consuming.  Say something like, "That brief was very well written, particularly the section oh..." or "You handled the client's concerns very well, but next time I'd suggest that you also..." You thereby provide immediate and clear information as well as an opportunity for discussion.

Keep it Simple

Limit the focus of performance feedback and improvement efforts to a maximum of three areas.  Trying to fix 15 things at once ensures that nothing will get fixed.  Agree with the individual on up to three priority areas for improvement.  Focus feedback and development efforts accordingly.

Keep it Confidential

Preserving confidentiality is key to meaningful feedback.  Peers and subordinates may not give feedback freely if they're concerned about confidentiality and possible retribution.  Therefore, It's critical to provide feedback results in aggregate form when you've solicited feedback from others. 

The need for confidentiality applies to receiving as well as to giving feedback.  Individuals may be uncomfortable sharing low scores or admitting performance weaknesses to others within the firm.   Despite good intentions, people can fear institutional memory.   That's one reason why It's advantageous to use an outside expert in delivering feedback and implementing behavior changes.

Keep it Developmental

While feedback is important in reviewing past performance, to get the most out of the process, it must also focus on development:  How do we improve things in the future?  This forward orientation can be difficult for lawyers for two reasons.  (1) The nature of law emphasizes what's wrong with things, and (2) The law  is based on precedent, so lawyers are used to looking backward. 

Both these legal tendencies work against offering motivating feedback that puts the emphasis on future performance.

It's critical to recognize that we cannot change the past but we can learn from it.  The Center for Creative Leadership found that one of the distinguishing factors for successful executives is not that they've had fewer failures than those who are less successful.  The difference is that the successful executives have learned from their experiences.  And most of their learning occurred on the job.  Feedback facilitates that learning.

Keep it Separate from Compensation

Should your feedback program be geared toward evaluation (i.e., for formal performance appraisal, salary, and promotion decisions) or personal and professional development? Most companies opt for the latter to ensure that the feedback's value isn't diminished by other issues.

The chief advantages of linking 360 feedback to compensation are that it provides clear accountability for performance and it provides a clear return on investment, since the data's used  for a specific administrative purpose.  While these advantages are compelling, in practice they are often overshadowed by political considerations that subvert the objective evaluation and produce skewed or distorted data.  An observer may, for personal reasons, rate punitively. Or raters may feel intimidated, fearing retribution for critical ratings.  Instead of ownership and non-defensiveness, which are important to using feedback, this kind of system tends to promote self-interest and anxiety.

In addition, concerns about pay  tend to diminish or obscure the feedback's developmental aspects.  For example, instead of concentrating on the question, "Why did peers and subordinates rate me low on building relationships?" the person's focus is,"Why wasn't my compensation higher?"

Using feedback exclusively for personal and professional development enhances the feedback's  value and minimizes political or other subjective considerations.  And the firm can still address the issues of return on investment and accountability is either of two ways: 

(1)  Use the feedback results to create an individual development plan.  The person's ability to meet the action plan's objectives can then be used as input during formal evaluations. 

(2)   Raise the minimum scores for subsequent feedback measurements.  Hold the individual accountable for the action plan's development and implementation.

Keep it Accountable

Feedback in and of itself does not produce change.   The most critical phase is implementing the feedback findings -- that's when change occurs.  The emphasis must be on action planning and follow-up.  According to a study by Keilty Goldsmith & Company, the amount of post-feedback follow-up is a very strong predictor of performance improvement.

There are various options to consider, including these:

I will never forget a conversation I had with a client from a major national law firm.  She was thrilled with the firm's newly-introduced performance evaluation system.  Wanting to know more, I inquired about what happened after an attorney received the evaluation.  Was there a written agreement about specific behavioral changes that needed to occur? what follow-up coaching did the individual receive to ensure the changes were made?  what were the accountabilities for making the needed changes?  was an action plan with specific milestones and timetables prepared? 

I never asked those follow up questions because the utter look of astonishment on my client's face made it clear that the system had been designed and introduced without any follow up component.  Yet the overwhelming evidence from performance feedback and other change projects is that follow up and accountabilities are the most critical aspects of successful change efforts.

Change occurs slowly and gradually.  Supporting change requires providing ongoing assistance to track and improve efforts.   If you don't have time for the requisite ongoing support, you can retain a consultant to take the lead in monitoring progress and maintaining focus on needed changes.  While your participation will still be needed for the process to be effective, you can shift some of the day-to-day focus to an outside expert.

Make Good on Your Investment

Performance feedback can be a powerful tool in professional development and performance management.  By following the guidelines given here, firms can make good on their investment in their feedback program and in their people.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 1999 Newsletter Compendium of Leadership & Management Directions, a publication of the American Bar Association.  Copyright © 1999   American Bar Association.  All rights reserved.  This information of any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.