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The Role of Feedback in Goal-Setting and Employee Evaluation

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Fors Marsh Group Goal Setting Process

Now that we’ve defined goals and discussed both where they come from and how they link to performance evaluations, I’d like to spend most of this second post discussing the middle part of the goal-setting cycle (namely feedback and revision). There’s a lot of discussion surrounding “how to give feedback” that is, frankly, not relevant to the questions at hand in this blog post. Instead, we’ll focus on the role of feedback play in goal setting and performance appraisal. Let’s tackle each of these independently.

Feedback and Goal-Setting

If you remember, we’ve defined goals as measurable behavioral plans that bridge a gap between an employee’s current and desired proficiency levels. By that definition, feedback helps individuals identify the magnitude and direction of these gaps by providing critical information about employees’ performance relative to their goals. More importantly, many employees will try different strategies for completing a goal; feedback helps them understand the effectiveness of these various strategies and revise accordingly.

Feedback is arguably the most important part of the goal-setting process – after all, how else would employees know whether they’re making progress or not? Because many of us have a tendency to misjudge our own abilities, performance feedback can ground us to the reality of our performance and helps clarify specific ways we can improve.

Feedback and Evaluation

As we discussed previously, I/O Psychologists have come around to viewing performance improvement as one of the ultimate goals of performance evaluation. Ultimately, this type of behavioral change will require employees to get and be receptive to feedback. In fact, frequent (but not too frequent) feedback is the mechanism through which real performance improvement can occur.

Not surprisingly, receiving feedback causes us to react both emotionally and cognitively, jumping to evaluations about whether the feedback is fair, accurate, useful, and satisfying. These judgments are affected by the informal or formal assessments we have made of our own performance throughout the year (which are often, again, biased). As discussed above, frequent feedback can help employees and supervisors develop a shared understanding of the employees’ performance, thereby increasing the overlap in their perceptions and increasing the likelihood that employees’ view feedback as accurate, fair, useful, and satisfying. By providing employees with frequent feedback that is connected to their goals, organizations can help decrease surprises in the annual review that stem from a difference in expectations regarding the employee’s performance.

Everything above leads us to four conclusions about effective goals:

  1. They’re linked to performance evaluations. If we remember that goals “bridge the gap between current and desired proficiency levels,” then integrating goal-setting with performance evaluation system is a necessity to identify current and desired levels. If the performance appraisal tells an employee where they are currently on a particular competency (e.g., oral communication, problem solving), goals help them move to where they want to be on that competency.
  2. They include subgoals. Developmental goals are often too general to be immediately actionable or measurable. Subgoals help employees connect broad developmental goals (e.g., “deliver briefings or presentations with expertise, “independently prepare written documents”) with specific plans (“present study results to client leadership,” “create technical report summarizing methodology and results”) that they can easily see and measure in their day-to-day job.
  3. They are measurable. Measurement is essential not only for evaluating employee performance but for employee development as well. This is because feedback helps employees modify their goals and behaviors and improve task performance. By understanding and stating how each goal and subgoal will be measured, employees and supervisors are better prepared to discuss feedback throughout the year on both their overall developmental progress and their specific performance on a task. Defining measurement upfront will also reduce confusion or surprise in annual reviews.
  4. They provide an opportunity for feedback. This directly ties in the measurability aspect discussed above. Feedback will play a critical role in both the goal-setting and performance-appraisal processes by helping employees understand their performance and evaluate their own performance.

Where does this leave us with DeNisi & Sonesh’s (2011) quote on the state of performance appraisals? I’ve argued that one of the reasons employees dislike performance reviews is that they’re often left without direction about what to do next with the information they received. Similarly, it’s all too common for an employee to find themselves at the end of the year with a list of accomplished goals that are unrelated to the competencies they’ll be evaluated on. These are both symptoms of a larger problem – an organization that hasn’t connected their development and evaluation systems or one that doesn’t provide employees with feedback throughout the year. I urge you to rethink the role of performance management and goal setting play in your company. If performance management exists to develop employees, let goal-setting be the method through which annual reviews turn into action.

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