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Appreciation, Feedback and Evaluation

Managers often struggle with how and when to recognize employees. Whitney Johnson recently blogged in The Harvard Business Review about this issue, and her proposal mirrors many of the misunderstandings managers have about appreciation, feedback and evaluation.

In her blog, Johnson offers the following proposal to managers and leaders seeking to recognize the routine work employees do every day:

"Here's what I propose. And knowing that our 'upside surprise' mentality will not be easily overturned, my proposal is modest. Every day for the next week, will you express appreciation to an employee or colleague for something they routinely do that makes your business run well? It can be via e-mail, over the phone, or even better, in person. Be specific. For example, as I take the challenge myself, I plan to say to one colleague, 'I am continually impressed by how you can craft such a compelling investment thesis.' And to another: 'Every day, I notice how meticulously you attend to operations. Because more investment firms have gone belly-up because of back-office sloppiness than because of poor fund performance, this helps me sleep at night! Thank you.'"1

This proposal sounds reasonable on its face and, perhaps, many took up her challenge. But beware of the problems inherent with recognizing employees this way. First, the “thank yous” she shares here are loaded with conditions (e.g., “for crafting such a compelling investment thesis”). If you want to show appreciation, don’t put conditions on your thank you.

Second, the condition is based on an evaluation that tends to be subjective. Johnson violates her own rule to avoid being vague (meticulous attention to operations)—mostly because she could not observe or know exactly what was being done. As the person in charge, you should be focused on results—these are really the only things you can objectively address.

Third, the intervention is focused on the individual. While it is possible that the person crafting a “compelling investment thesis” is the sole author, others likely contributed directly or indirectly to the ultimate results such a thesis helped accomplish. Complimenting one contribution discredits the others.

Showing appreciation (versus subjective or evaluative recognition) is important and should be done frequently. Here are some distinctions that may help you show appreciation and provide helpful, objective feedback:

  • Showing appreciation is best done with a simple phrase such as, "Thank you, I appreciate it." Don’t clutter it with conditions based on subjective criteria about how they are working. You cannot know the factors specific to their performance while doing the work. Also, show appreciation close to the work itself — for example, as people are leaving after successfully meeting a goal is an appropriate time.

  • Providing feedback on results is critical to helping people do their jobs. Too often those doing the work don’t know the results, and thus have no way to learn and adjust. Having access to results, such as "97% of orders were delivered on time this week" is VERY helpful to those doing the work. Feedback is objective, and is not about how the results were achieved (subjective evaluation of performance) — that is for those doing the work to own and evaluate.

  • Evaluating performance is something done by the people doing the work, not the boss. This is counterintuitive to a whole discipline that promotes performance evaluations. While the boss must account for results and give feedback on them, the workers are responsible for performance. Performance improvement is an individual process of learning. While feedback can point to problems, it is the worker who must figure out or "learn" how to solve them. Usually, effective feedback systems will encourage people to reflect on what they do in ways that promote learning. The boss is rarely helpful in evaluating, but peers can help one another learn and troubleshoot performance issues.
Though Johnson’s proposal confuses the notions of evaluation and feedback, the intention of thanking employees is quite good. Thanking employees for what WE have accomplished is the best way to appreciate them — and it is inexpensive. One way to say thank you is to celebrate when milestones are reached, e.g. acquiring the 100th client, surpassing a revenue goal, meeting a daily efficiency goal, or winning a contract. Showing you appreciate their efforts is essential, but don’t clutter the work context by subjectively judging their work. Just say, "Thank you."

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1By Whitney Johnson, Harvard Business Review Online blog, “Thank you for doing your job.” January 11, 2011



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