Safe and unsafe spaces for feedback, self-reflection and growth

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At the very bottom line, company performance is determined by who is doing each job, how well they are doing it, how well they are working with their colleagues at all levels, and how well each team coheres and plays its part in a well-defined company strategy.  It follows that there can be no more important undertaking than working with staff and management to improve what they bring personally to the job and continually improving their capabilities, behaviours and relationships.  This process of growth can only be founded on constructive feedback from the working environment and self-reflection leading to behaviour that is progressively more mature and aligned with the company’s objectives.

Feedback and self-refection require an open mind and open heart and can only really happen in the safest of spaces.  Yet company after company locates them within the most anxiety provoking of all internal processes – the performance review.

We know the drill.  All enterprises want to maximise the return on their investment in each staff member in the form of salaries, benefits and training. The usual mechanism for this is the company’s performance management process.

In its classic form it goes something like this.  The company strategy gives life to a business plan, which sets targets for each division.  This in turn translates into team targets which give rise to individual targets, often known as Key Performance Indicators or SMART goals (must be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time bound).  Then quarterly, bi-annually or annually (which would be better described as a moment of sudden death), individual staff members sit down with their managers to assess how they have performed against their targets, to agree on new or amended targets, to discuss how to rectify missed targets, and to work on a personal development plan which will enable the staff member to improve the quality of their work.

So far so reasonable. All companies need some way of keeping track of whether work is getting done, and supporting, or making sure that staff members are contributing appropriately to that body of work. In truth the evidence is very mixed as to whether this process (which is costly and time consuming), really improves performance in companies. Certainly, very few managers, human resources departments or staff members are excited when it is time for performance management processes.

There are at least two reasons why this is the worst possible context in which constructive feedback on behaviours might be given and lead to change:

  • The first is that the performance management process is where “terminations” for poor performance begin. Score 2 or 1 out of 5 and you are put on a performance improvement plan.  Fail at that, and you find yourself on terms that will lead to improved performance or dismissal.
  • The second is that it is also where the scoring takes place that may determine your bonus for this year, your salary for the next year, and your chances of being put on a fast track to promotion.

Whether you are on a pathway to being “performance managed” into unemployment, or in line for big bucks and promotion, you are hardly likely to be engaging in performance management assessments and conversations with an open mind and a receptive heart. There is just too much at stake for anyone to give primary consideration to:

  • genuinely understanding how they are experienced by their colleagues and their manager;
  • where they have strengths (some of which they may not be aware) worth developing
  • or where they are not doing as well as they think and need to pay attention to upskilling or behaving differently.

The performance management system, however well managed, may be the ultimate unsafe space.  It is far better to separate the reflection, feedback and growth components from the performance management system.  Amongst the key elements of creating an appropriate context and a safe space for these to happen are:

  • Comprehensive feedback on how the individual is perceived by the various levels of stakeholder, namely, management, peers and subordinates;
  • An opportunity for the individual to reflect on his/her own performance where there are no consequences and only opportunities to identify ways to improve;
  • Skilled support unrelated to “performance management” to assist the individual to understand the feedback, undertake his/her own self-reflection, and work on improving behaviour and impact in a context where there can only be positive consequences.

Thornhill Associates has a range of online, anonymous and highly effective tools to create exactly such a context, and can provide reports and coaching support to make this process of feedback, learning and growth highly rewarding for both the individuals concerned, and the company for which they work.

For more information on 360° feedback at all levels within your organisation, please contact us:

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