It’s Fall again. That means football season has begun….and employee performance reviews are starting to chill the air between employers and employees. But football affords an excellent analogy about how effective employee feedback is supposed to work.

The quarterback drops back, plants his feet, and releases a perfectly thrown ball.

Despite his form, the ultimate rating of this passer depends upon how many of his passes are caught. This in turn depends upon how far he can throw, how accurate the passes are, the timing with his receivers and ultimately his receivers’ ability to catch and hold onto the ball.             

The same dynamics take place everyday in businesses around the world. The difference is that in the working place it is not a ball being tossed but feedback being exchanged. Take a walk through many workplaces and watch out for misdirected communication. Don’t trip over all the dropped balls!

To improve performance, managers everywhere, From boardrooms to blogs, are talking about performance management.  That’s becuase performance management is the heart and soul of execution. CEOs have consistently identified a lack of execution as their top concern. With a slow economy and increased competition, execution is likely to remain to-of-mind. Positioning performance management as a strategic solution is right where it belongs.

Performance management starts with setting clear expectations for all employees and managing the process toward those ends. Performance management is not – I repeat NOT – the revision of the annual review form or a software program to record once-a-year feedback.

To be successful in improving performance requires managers to give ongoing and frequent feedback to their employees.  These employees in turn need to report their progress – or challenges – to their managers on a consistent frequent basis.  In other words, managers need to toss accurate feedback toward employees and the employees need to be in the right mindset to catch and run with it.

That is easier said than done. Quality and effective feedback requires two-way interactions: the messenger needs to be candid but empathetic.  The employee must be receptive to hearing it.  In other words, managers giving feedback need to give specifics about what’s working or not working. They also need to be aware how employees react to their words and actions.  Recipients must believe in the manager’s ability to help him succeed just the way receivers need to trust their quarterback.

Unfortunately most efforts to improve employee feedback focuses on coaching and training the manager. Little if any training is afforded the employee.  That would be equivalent to the quarterback practicing his passing every day while his receiving corps shows up only at game time

This disconnect between   leads to four possible outcomes – one productive, one status quo and two un-productive.

  1. The one and only productive result occurs when the manager is candid and the employee is receptive.  The “quarterback” manager releases his feedback in a way that the “receiving” employee is ready and willing to catch it.  He needs to be willing to layout and catch the feedback even though he knows he might get hit hard as soon as he catches it. He’s willing to catch the ball at all costs because his role on the team requires him to catch the ball.  This interaction happens with regular and ongoing frequency in football stadiums across the United States on a weekly basis.  In the workplace, this occurs only rarely. Many employees agree to play the position but aren’t willing to run the right plays or catch the ball.  It’s no wonder that organizations experience turnover, mistakes, and unhappy customers.
  2. The least productive outcome takes place when the manager neuters the feedback and the employees aren’t interested in receiving it.  This sanitized interaction occurs when the manager is trying to be nice and the employee is too sensitive to receive it. This can also take place when the employee is overly-confident in his or her abilities and doesn’t feel any improvement is needed. Whichever the cause, employee performance becomes stagnant at best and unproductive for the organization.
  3. Now imagine that you have not only the most accurate arm in football but you can rifle a pass harder and farther than anyone.  Unfortunately you don’t have any receivers who can run fast enough or are willing to catch these bullet passes. If you have ever managed an employee, you have likely been in the same position- you had some important information or advice to share, but the other person could care less.   This most disruptive interaction occurs when the manager is candid but the employee is not receptive.  Whether the candor comes across as abrasive or just plain straight-talk to a closed-minded employee, this relationship is doomed to fail and the organization suffers because of it.  Teams don’t win when the receivers don’t catch the balls thrown in their direction.
  4. Finally the most meaningless feedback results when the manager whitewashes what he has to say but the employee is willing and able.  Imagine having a speedy wide receiver with the most gifted hands ever to play the game but the quarterback only lobs short passes to him when he is sure to catch it.  The completion rate will be high but the waste of talent and gains in performance will be weak.  Complacency and camaraderie will exist but performance gains (continuous improvement) will suffer.  Even worse, the talented receiver may seek out new challenges and expect to be traded to a more competitive team, leaving you with a nice-guy quarterback on a losing team. Like passing the football, feedback requires coordination and cooperation between a manager and his report.  If one fails, so does the other.

Effective feedback is a two-way interaction and the manager must control whether the feedback he passes is aimed in the right direction and arrives in a timely manner at his reports.

Learn more about how to put your performance reviews online and encourage more frequent employee feedback.