The most common complaint heard in company corridors pertains to the company’s appraisal system and the quality of feedback to the manager from his superior. Whatever is done, it never seems to be good enough. Improving on this aspect is a constant effort everywhere, all the time.
The theoretical characteristics of the ‘ideal’ appraisal system are known. The feedback message must contain comments with examples and suggestions for improvement. The message must be delivered in a positive environment, a context of trust. Implementing this correctly is very complicated.
Thirty five year old Pratap used to work in my department at a certain point of time. He was a competent engineer and could solve technical problems reliably. He had two characteristics: first, that he was forever critical of other colleagues and departments; second, that he was supremely confident that he could run a business. I often wished he would attempt to be more realistic. I even hinted such thoughts to him, bearing in mind that he was also a very sensitive individual.
In the natural course of our careers, he and I moved into other parts of the company. We began to work together again after several years. By this time, there was a senior manager between his position and mine. Pratap would drop in occasionally for a chat. Most of the time he would enquire about the family and talk of our earlier work experiences, and I would spend some social time with him.
On one such occasion, Pratap complained that his immediate boss was ambiguous in giving him a performance feedback. As a result, he felt that he was not being considered for advancement into a general management position. He felt aggrieved. I told him that his boss would give him more direct feedback.
When I broached the subject to Pratap’s boss, he insisted that he had given his feedback, which was admittedly delicate, as he did not wish to damage Pratap’s self-esteem by being too direct. However, he agreed to try once again. His boss had felt that Pratap’s execution capability was limited by his inability to get along with peers and other departments. As a result, his boss felt that Pratap had become part of the problem, not a part of the solution..
After three weeks, Pratap arrived in my office in a rather depressed condition. He said his boss had been ‘ brutal in his feedback’ and surely there was no need to make a big deal out of one’s supposed shortcomings! I was amazed. I could not help pointing out that a more direct feedback had been sought by him.
“Of course that is true. But that does not mean that you make me feel incapable or isolated,” he insisted. I found it difficult to agree with him, particularly because Pratap’s boss was regarded in the company as one of the most humane and caring managers. I suggested to Pratap that perhaps he was not really ready for a direct feedback, though he had stated that it was what he wanted.
“But what is your view? You have known me for long,” he persisted. I said that I had participated in the appraisal and concurred with what had been commented. Pratap was crestfallen. “Well, I have to think about my future,” he said remorsefully as he left my room.
Pratap left the company to do jobs in a couple of outside companies. Since he was in touch with me for advice and counseling, I could observe that he was not achieving as much happiness as he expected, hence not much success.
All managers say that they want ‘frank and open feedback’. Most are unprepared for it. The best feedback is obtained not from what is stated explicitly, but from what is not stated.
If a manager can learn to listen to the song behind the words, then he would have got the feedback without damaging his ego and self-esteem. It is a skill to be cultivated.