Companies like Netflix say harsh feedback improves their employees' work, but experts suggest bosses aren't always the best judge of performance

Sebastiaan ter Burg/FlickrFeedback doesn’t always work.
  • Leadership experts say the feedback process at most workplaces is highly flawed.
  • That’s because performance assessment is very subjective, and it doesn’t always resonate with employees.
  • Many bosses are realising this, and relying more on objective data.

Giving employees feedback is, supposedly, about telling them what they did wrong and hoping they will fix it.

But the feedback process itself may have some glaring flaws.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, leadership experts Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall took aim at workplaces that are moving toward more frequent (and more candid) performance assessments. In particular, they mentioned Bridgewater and Netflix, which reportedly have cultures of “radical transparency,” i.e. constant harsh feedback meant to improve everyone’s work.

The main problem, as Buckingham and Goodall see it, is that the truth about employee performance is hard to achieve. “In extrapolating from what creates our own performance to what might create performance in others,” they write, “we overreach.”

Another HBR article, published in 2018, featured Harvard Business School doctoral candidate Paul Green arguing that criticism is all but ineffective, specifically because people realise it’s subjective. “There’s an assumption that what motivates people to improve is the realisation that they’re not as good as they think they are,” Green told HBR. “But in fact, it just makes them go find people who will not shine that light on them.”

Read more: An expert says there’s only one good time to give your employees feedback, and it’s not during a performance review

Buckingham and Goodall, the authors of the forthcoming book “Nine Lies About Work,” outline a series of strategies for making feedback more useful. For example, instead of offering a general assessment of the person’s behaviour, they recommend sharing your personal reaction.

They write: “Use phrases such as ‘This is how that came across for me,’ or ‘This is what that made me think,’ or even just ‘Did you see what you did there?’ Those are your reactions – they are your truth – and when you relay them in specific detail, you aren’t judging or rating or fixing her; you’re simply reflecting to her the unique ‘dent’ she just made in the world, as seen through your eyes.”

Objective data may become an integral part of the feedback process

Many companies have revamped their feedback process in recent years.

IBM, General Electric, Accenture, and Adobe made waves when they ditched their annual performance reviews in favour of ongoing, more casual conversations. IBM started using the “ACE” app (an acronym for Appreciation, Coaching, Evaluation), which allows employees to give each other feedback at any time.

Other big changes are underway. A 2019 report from McKinsey & Company and MIT Sloan Management Review indicates that “performance management’s longtime reliance on manager opinion, subjective observation, and intuition is being replaced by a reliance on data.” According to the report, workplace tools like Slack and Asana help provide this data.

Interestingly, the report predicts that the same data used to track performance will also be used to improve it, through customised, email-based coaching and automated “nudges.” To be sure, that leaves open the question of what a manager should provide in the way of feedback and guidance. As the report indicates, the key question that remains is, “How should companies blend automated and human feedback?”

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