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A dogma called High Performance culture: Part 6 - When Feedback is Oversimplified

K. Ramkumar
Published: 20, May 2013

K Ramkumar, Executive Director and Head of Operations & Human Resources at ICICI Bank, loves examining the other side of the traditionally accepted views. He examines everything that comes in his way. That has helped him to broaden his perspectives, something that he would have otherwise never done. Even while reading, he debates with the author by writing on the margins. Ram, as he’s popularly known to his colleagues and friends, believes that there is nothing more joyous than having an open debate with an equally passionate and experimental individual. The outcome is not important. What matters is a counter point - the other perspective to every viewpoint. A science graduate and a post graduate in Personnel management and Industrial relations, Ram is an ardent sports fan. He prefers to be in the game as it keeps him engaged with others. He also enjoys making short documentary films.

In this concluding part of the series, I want to examine whether feedback is a key part of any performance process. Without any doubt it is. But we have an idealistic view of the feedback process and it is often not pragmatic, particularly when it is of human performance and not of an inanimate system?

So, what are our current beliefs about performance feedback? Let us first list them:


  • It is natural for people to desire and ask for feedback
  • Feedback can be objective, direct and evidence-based. We are not supposed to mix up the person with the performance
  • Feedback has to be given and received in an unemotional and clinical manner
  • When someone receives feedback, it leads to positive change and performance or ability almost always improves.

To start with, we should explode the popular myth that people desire feedback. They certainly say so. But how often do we see people walking up to someone and voluntarily asking for feedback?

American psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham studied the social orientation of people and constructed a model for social interactivity and called it ‘The Johari Window’. They concluded that the propensity to elicit feedback was one key aspect for creating trust and thus openness, but the attribute wasn’t common among people.

When we say we want feedback in any context, more so when it involves performance, we actually mean we want an explanation on why someone has rated or judged us the way they have.

How does a classical feedback session proceed? First, it is carried out reluctantly, under compulsion in most places. After being hounded by the process owner, the boss with trepidation gets done with the ritual. The subordinate enjoys taunting him. He subtly demands: Tell me only what I want to hear or else I will discredit the process and you.

It seldom gets to a discussion of abilities. Rather, it degenerates into ‘the target was impossible’, ‘did not get enough support’, ‘the market was bad and you do not appreciate my achievements in this tough market’, ‘the system is biased’ sort of aggressive push from the subordinate. Most bosses collapse.

In most cases, depending on the power equation, the exercise is either dismissive in justification or ‘you know the stupid system did you in’ type of cop out from the boss.

Any which way, most sessions are a disaster and end abruptly. In three out of four such meetings, none of the fabled agreements on the areas of improvements or personal action plans happen. Some sessions add insult to injury. The hurt is amplified for either the one who gives the feedback or the one who receives it, depending on who is more fragile.

The more senior you are, it is less likely that your boss will engage you in a meaningful feedback session. The stakes are very high here. No one wants to rock the boat, at least not until you want the senior person to go.

Why is this process such a sham? To examine this, we should be prepared to question some of our holy cows.

The assumption is that we all have blind spots and we need assistance to be aware of them. Otherwise, to be aware of our most obvious strengths and weakness, we don’t need any feedback.

That I am temperamental or that I call a spade a shovel or that people can feel intimidated due to my pushy and direct engagement, I have known for the last 35 years. To expect that I need to be made aware of it year after year through a feedback process is a stupid expectation. Just like me, people who are adults, know 99 percent of what makes them succeed and what lets them down.

Yet, we all play along eulogising the holiness of the feedback process.

Is it not useful to help me be aware of my blind spots? Of course, yes. But here’s the catch: It is the blind spot that makes it difficult for me to relate to what the feedback-giver is drawing my attention to.

I often see people who move up the hierarchy struggle. They get there because they were good in execution. Suddenly, they are required to be conceptual, if not strategic. Many are not up to it.

How do we help them accept that they have a problem with thinking without offending them? We get into the classical, ‘You are a great guy but you know, if only you can be more strategic or conceptual….” pitch. I usually see the receiver feigning ignorance and innocently asking you to help him understand this. He will seek evidence, some will challenge and others will betray a sense of incredulity. It hits the self-worth of a person, especially if it is a blind spot. That is where this stalls.

Even worse is when you have to tell someone that he is disruptive with his colleagues or that he is not collaborative or he is self-centred and individualistic.  How do you handle this? If you try one of the daft techniques that coaching manuals tell you to do, you will fall into the same trap as I fell 20 years ago buying a book to learn Bengali in 30 days.

If the receiver is aware of these chinks, the session at best becomes an ultimatum or at worst a free-for-all. It is not in the character of this personality to take it lying down. That is why he is disruptive. If this were to be the blind spot, can you imagine the hurt and shame it will cause to the individual?

Can this discussion be unemotional, clinical and evidence-based? Remember, you are dealing with an emotive and deeply personal issue. Even if you are very adept in handling this, it is very unsettling to the recipient. It is HR mumbo-jumbo to separate the person from performance. Not possible, we are talking motives, attitude, ability and behaviour here. Sure you can be sensitive, but the core of the discussion is the person. The person is the cause and performance the effect.

Can you imagine what an unemotional and objective session will feel—like being in a court room or before a shrink. Because there is every possibility of the session being emotional, many feedback-givers shirk it.

The main reason why any feedback, which involves substantive issues, does not proceed beyond the technical tick in the box or a well-intentioned half-hearted evangelism is the fear the feedback-giver has about hurting the other person or a breakdown in relationship. Many cannot handle emotions or people who become emotional.

Isn’t it the reason why, despite being in such close relationships for years, spouses dread to candidly give feedback to each other or adult children and their parents or in-laws struggle to sort vexing issues? Are we not naïve if we ask for greater comfort and trust in workplace relationships?

Some abilities and characteristics are difficult to acquire or change. At best, one can moderate it. I know this will sound pessimistic. But that is the truth.

Does our PM not know that his private, introverted and silent personality is denting his image and efficacy? In much the same way did George Bush Jr not know that he was being perceived as a person with thinking limitation and a cow boy? Or is Imran Khan unaware that he is seen as vain and arrogant or Sachin Tendulkar that it is time to go?

Why do such intelligent people falter? Because acceptance of feedback disturbs the equilibrium of living, however uncomfortable the present may be. It unsettles one’s self-image, identity and motives. It demands change to give up the present for the slim probability of a better tomorrow—no guarantees makes it harder. This is not like rearranging your cupboard or asking whether your dress is pretty.

I can personally vouchsafe that the period of transition is excruciating, especially if you are dealing with substantive issues.

David McClelland, the 60s Harvard professor, says a very few with strong achievement orientation take the risk of asking feedback and disturbing their living status quo. Most of the material about feedback reduces it to a system metaphor or oversimplifies a complex human process. This then raises expectations to unreal levels. The gullible then look for this manna and do not find it, leading to disillusionment. The more strident the assertion about the divine and inevitable nature of feedback, the less the possibility that the process will deliver even what is realistically possible.

Can the feedback process make you aware of your strengths and chinks irrespective of whether you know it already or are blind to it? Yes, it can. Can it help someone place the consequences of not attending to the chinks? Of course yes, provided he is willing to see the writing on the wall. Can it make you see the writing on the wall? Doubtful, it is a hit or a miss. Does it improve performance or abilities? Mixed results, loaded more towards some people sometimes—especially when it is behavioural or thinking abilities.

  • Amelia Dodgson

    The feedback process does not need to be such a sham. I am an HR professional with some 17 years of experience, and I have seen a real turnaround when the leaders in our company attended workshops and were coached on how to offer real, meaningful feedback. It’s all about empathy and communication. I’d suggest taking a look at the leadership development training's offered by

    on Feb 25, 2014
  • sai prasad somayajula

    As we all know, performance is the "object" and feedback receiver is the "subject". However best we may strive to separate the person from the performance, honesty requires that we tell the subject (receiver of the feedback) that the object (performance) is his/her own reflection. Assuming the feedback giver is honest, candid and truthful, the greatest limitation to the effectiveness of feedback as a performance improvement tool is - the judgemental, egoistic mind of the receiver. If we have to chose between the risk of reducing feedback session to a mandated ritual vs. its limited effectiveness, I guess the later strengthens the argument for retention of feedback as a performance management tool.

    on May 22, 2013
  • sai prasad somayajula

    As we all know, performance is the "object" and feedback receiver is the "subject". However best we may strive to separate the person from the performance, honesty requires that we tell the subject (receiver of the feedback) that the object (performance) is his/her own reflection. Assuming the feedback giver is honest, candid and truthful, the greatest limitation to the effectiveness of feedback as a performance improvement tool is the judgemental, egoistic

    on May 22, 2013
  • Kosta

    Completely echoed my thoughts :). I feel it is difficult to accept the opinion of you from another person, especially if the relation between that person and you is at best cordial. I would rather see these being taken care of by carefully designed psychometric tests for the specific levels of employees. That result would be unbiased and unemotional. Also, feedback is good if that feedback can motivate you to improve & grow and achieve your goals but if the growth is limited within the company, feedback can easily lose its importance. I believe the idea of having one person dictate someone else's earning/growth is open to biased behaviour and thus will always have it's detractors. :)

    on May 21, 2013
  • arun raman

    Very well written Ram. Again like the performance appraisal process, for lack of anything better, this is the best tool available to make the person aware of his strengths and weakness and work towards becoming better. As the feedback mechanism relates to emotional human beings, the good piece is well taken and the not so good part is often dismissed as being one sided or biased. However, this by itself does not negate the process as even if there is an iota of change, the tool has done its effect.

    on May 21, 2013
  • K.Ramkumar

    Thanks once again to all the friends for their views. Chandra and Sanjeev I am not placing the argument that feedback is useless. I am tempering the unreal faith we have on this. Over the years we have hyped up many such processes. Whatever we come up with will have limitations. It is wiser to accept the limitations and make the best out if it. Instead we look for unreal and idealistic solutions. Marcel even 360 feedback has been overly hyped up. Last 15 years of using it has made me wiser on its limitations. At ICICI we advise the recipients to see 360 feedback understanding its limitations. To start with it is an average of average of average. There are certain attributes only seniors have the perspectives and others peers and a few others subordinates only have the perspective and experience. When we lump all these it becomes impressionistic and add to it the average menace. Recall our own experience of filling a 360 feedback form. Even the best designed one at best evokes broad impression based responses. Nearly for 50% of the attributes we respond with dated or hearsay information. Add to it the problem of the sampling. Most of us respond for a lot of people and this makes responses jaded. If we are true we will accept we respond with the pressure being put on us to turn in the form by a date. 90% of us start responding only after 5 follow ups and an ultimatum. Imagine the quality of application of mind under these circumstances. I realise that I might evoke a sense of futility and all of you will scream at me asking me to give a solution. The 360 in its current form is useful and workable. We should leave it there and not overstate the infalliability of it. These are human limitations. We should accept it and not over engineer anything. The marginal utility of any over engineering is grossly diminishing.

    on May 21, 2013
  • Marcel R Parker

    Ram-outstanding as always and incisive and certainly challenges most organizational holy cows. A 360 combined with a self-review moves the Manager into the counselling mode [rather than playing God] and puts the onus onto the employee to make changes which benefit him!

    on May 20, 2013
  • Valance Quadros

    Excellent Article Ram. Feedback session with all its limitations is a great way of identifying one’s blind spot. Hence it should be taken like a gift, the receiver to evaluate the worth of the gift by making an unemotional assessment. If the gift is worth it, accept the feedback and make the changes required, if not discard the gift.Once we internalize and accept the feedback the journey of change becomes enjoyable…

    on May 20, 2013
  • Sanjeev Sehrawat

    Ram, feedback is indeed a difficult emotional experience for both senior and subordinates. This is particularly true in the Indian context where (1) the age and competence gap in many senior- junior equations is quite low leaving little difference in the 'wisdom' levels (2) companies themselves are very young and are still to reach to acquire maturity and appreciation of HR practices. Having said that, this is a baby-and- bath- water issue! I think that the feedback process is also serves as an engagement tool between the employee and the larger sytem to define "this is how we work here" - in other words, this process seeks to reinforce the cultural dimensions. Secondly, it allows (forces?) the company, seniors and juniors to articulate expectations of future behaviours and creates a contract of performance. Thirdly, given that organisations also change their DNAs over time, it allows organisations to re-articulate their new priorities and judge each of the individuals against them. Separately, one believes that while feedback process may be limited in getting people to alter themselves completely (our PM or Bush Jr examples), smaller adjustments having good results will be easily achieved (getting athletes to learn better diet or workout habits). If one were to combine your opening thoughts about feedback being essential part of the performance process and that feedback is 'emotional', it leads us to train ourselves to be more objective and empathetic at the same time.

    on May 20, 2013
  • Tina Singh

    Dear Sir, A very thought provoking article... I must admit that I have rejected feedback in my younger days as I did not have the maturity to understand or process it. Peers also had a lot to do with it as when you are younger, they influence your judgement and perception of environment. One fails to see the bigger picture. I now see the same happening to some of my colleagues who are in early years of their career. Any attempts of mentors or senior advisers are stonewalled as the person thinks that the 'system' is against him or her. Not realising that everyone is part of the same 'system'. And this realisation sometimes may never come.

    on May 20, 2013
  • Chandra ( @IBM)

    Ram, Enjoyed reading. Great piece. Will not give any feedabck -for I agree there is no point as you rightly say.. However we have to think,if not feedback ,what are the other effective options ,we have, in influencing workplace behaviors...

    on May 20, 2013
  • Ester Martinez

    Dear Ram, very interesting and honest read as all your previous columns. Most of us can visualize the situations you are describing and it is painful to come to terms that yes, it is difficult for people to change. In my experience, there are some professionals who got to a position because of having a particular set of strengths but those could become weaknesses at the next level, as the saying goes "what got you here, will not take you there"

    on May 20, 2013
  • Anish Shah

    As highlighted correctly by Mr. Ramkumar, most of feedback sessions are done as per the classical method where forcibly feedback is given. Another issue faced is that just before the appraisal, feedback is given to justify the rating. According to me feedback should be a spontaneous and instantaneous process. It should be given immediately on any achievement or improvement area so that it is effective. The formal sessions could just be a compilation of the spontaneous feedback given and take stock of the actions taken after the feedback.

    on May 20, 2013
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