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The Importance of Feedback During the Pandemic

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feedbackWhile you have likely read a lot of articles or even sat in on a webinar related to Work from Home (WFH) techniques, suggestions for managing virtual teams or even communicating during the pandemic, one topic that seems absent relates to the dreaded employee review process. And though I describe it as dreaded since that is the word many use associated with reviews, they are actually something I look forward to and strongly believe in. I know my sentiment is not widely shared though. Many managers groan during review process time and are quick to cite that it takes a lot of time and isn’t terribly productive.

My quick counter to this groaning is that you aren’t doing it right if you don’t love it as much as I do.  The employee review process gives us the opportunity to provide needed feedback and set direction for the future. Further, it is more important now than ever because of our virtual work environment. To those claiming it takes too much time and is too expensive, how can you not invest an hour or two a few times a year with a direct report to set goals and provide feedback? Still, the experts cite that the reason reviews are dreaded goes far beyond the time it takes. The real stressor very well may be our business culture’s fear of providing feedback.   

I recently listened to a great podcast, the Myth of Feedback by Michael Auzenne and Mark Horstman, that gave me great pause.  I learned on the podcast that, after the Civil War, the United States Army invented the concept of an annual review to address succession planning. Interestingly enough, the first reviews did not involve or include the person being reviewed.  Rather, they were written by a superior and identified necessary training, growth and planning needed for said employee (soldier) to advance. There is still much benefit to such a process, though I would argue engaging the employee in the process can prove beneficial. Civilian organizations started using reviews as a business tool decades later, but still didn’t include employees as a general practice. Then, finally, managers realized that reviews could be part of developing employees.

Auzenne and Horstman went on to detail, however, that the process of providing feedback is different than a review, as reviews aren’t only about performance feedback. The review process isn’t simply about planning for the future, which can be very focused on the needs of the organization. It is, rather, the need to share feedback – good or bad – to help guide the employee. Sounds simple enough, but this communication loop looks very different during the pandemic and our new normal.

Auzenne and Horstman noted that feedback is a manager encouraging a direct report to do the right thing – to be effective in the future – and it is not necessarily prescriptive. It isn’t praise. It isn’t yelling. It isn’t generic. It is communication about performance that is focused on encouraging the future. Such a process is needed now, more than ever. 

Consider the typical review process, which has its own flaws. For example, if you are mentioning something to an employee in December about something that happened in March, it is old news and we have more pressing  issues!  Hopefully, feedback occurred between reviews related to progress on projects, adjustment of goals, and identification of needed skills. Think of the amount of feedback you provide team members as well as direct reports when you have personal interaction and see them in the office. Chances are the feedback is immediate. Now, consider the fact that when feedback is needed, the supervisor must choose to deliver it electronically or via a phone or video call. And, if you aren’t accustomed to providing feedback, it can be difficult to provide candid suggestions in such a format. Many have opted instead to fall back on the excuse that “this conversation is probably better had in person, so we’ll table it for now.” However well intended that sentiment may be, it really does put the employee at a disadvantage since they don’t receive the necessary feedback to grow and pivot as needed to succeed. 

In her book Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss without Losing your Humanity, Kim Scott detailed what a disservice we do employees because of the lack of feedback that is typical in today’s workplace. Still others argue that providing feedback creates anxiety. While it may create some anxiety, I counter that surprising your employees with feedback during a yearly review process that seems to come out of “left field” will create more anxiety. Further, if your process creates so much anxiety, can you alter your process?

In a recent article, one company executive for a software company noted that the traditional annual review process seemed really ineffective during COVID-19 as it was a look backward and didn’t help improve future performance. Instead, having more real-time interactions providing more timely feedback is key to success. 

At AOE, we participate in a quarterly review process and though team member check-ins occur much more frequently, this formal session each quarter allows us to pivot throughout the year so the organization and employee both recognize success. The review process also enables us to show employees how their work contributes to the organization and the bigger picture, as well as provide feedback to the management team about any hiccups or issues we need to address. Although quarterly may seem like a lot, I am a huge advocate for not letting things fester. I find if issues can be addressed quickly and appropriately, both parties can move along without any potential drama. Quarterly reviews also ensure that milestones and accomplishments aren’t overlooked or overshadowed because of time between the activity and the review.   

Bill Gates is quoted as saying that “We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.” To that end, if you don’t have a formal review process, now is a great time to organize it. And even if you do have a process, review it and see how you should adapt it to better meet the needs of your workforce during the pandemic.  Let AOE know if we can help!

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