Reacting to negative feedback : a referee case study

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Referees have been on my mind a lot recently.  At a recent football (soccer) game the West Bromwich Albion fans (for those overseas think of a team perenially struggling to make it into the big time) took considerable offence at how the referree – Rob Styles – handled the game against Manchester United.  Ignoring the fact that the fans were right (yes, I’m biased) what was interesting was the referee’s response.

The feedback he received was loud, personal, direct and no doubt intimidating.  By the end it was sarcastic and very unpleasant.  I was not partaking in this feedback I should probably add – well not most of it.  Styles’ response appeared to become increasingly beligerant – he dug his heels in, sending a West Brom player off (later rescinded on appeal), booking players for minor indiscretions.  He appeared determined to prove he was not going to be intimidated.

I recently heard another referee – Graham Poll – speaking on radio.  He said that if he got a decision wrong at a large stadium and the crowd starting to turn against him he found it difficult to not let it affect his decision making.  Often, he said, he would give a close decision back in favour of the upset team which would of course be derided and only make matters worse.  This was quite an admission of a World Cup referee.

Although this is an extreme example, it is interesting to see how both referees reacted to negative feedback.  Neither one improved in the moment (they may later have reflected on the decisions, but we can be sure that the feedback didn’t help with that) and instead the intense negative feedback changed their behaviour for the worse.

Some – not all – managers create this problem by giving a stream of negative feedback whether as part of a formal performance review process or through day-to-day performance appraisal.  A stream of negative feedback only has the recipient desparately trying to avoid more of that feedback or determined not to bend to the will of it.  Constructive feedback – or even better a building on the good parts of someone’s performance offers a much better route to improvement.

I understand that all referees are subject to a referee’s assessor after the game.  I hope the assessor at the West Brom game had great coaching skills.  It was some of the most intense "360 feedback" I had seen at a game in a long time.  Drawing out the learning could have been difficult.


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Managerialism and appraisals

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In some recent comments on a performance appraisal post that I wrote, a strong anti-managerialism line came back from a particular commentator.  Quoting Skinner and others, the commentary showed some frustration and anger with HR and managers.

I am sure many of us have experienced bad management practice and all systems and processes can be manipulated.  I have a simple belief around this topic.  If the values of the organisation or a manager are wrong then that is what needs to be dealt with first.  Once that is achieved, then good processes and systems have an opportunity to take hold.

It is too easy to group all management as bad, all organisations as corrupt.  Rarely do I meet people with bad intentions.  Much more often I find people implementing a process that is likely to lead to unintended poor consequences through a lack of knowledge, experience, or time. 

Bowland Solutions was created because of a set of beliefs and values.  I do believe that organisations who have good intentions listen to advice, consider how they can best implement that advice in their organisation and create better processes than they otherwise would have done.  I can honestly say that it has been a pleasure working with the HR and Senior Managers that we have worked with.

360 feedback and performance reviews can be done badly.  But, great feedback does help people to make great choices.   Whether you have a current project or just want to discuss this, I would be delighted to receive your comments through this blog or email me on


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Balancing organisational and individual needs in appraisals

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There can often be a conflict between what the organisation needs and what an individual wants from performance review or 360 degree appraisal.

The organisation is often looking to evaluate individuals to determine pay increases, promotions, or in the current climate discriminate between people to determine who should be made redundant.  The individual may know that game and be seeking to ensure their success within it but they are also seeking feedback on their performance for developmental purposes. 

This particular difficulty struck home in a recent debrief.  The individual scored themselves very highly.  When challenged on this they described the inner work game and how they believed they needed to present themselves to win the game.  But, they were highly self-aware and used the 360 feedback very effectively to understand the impact of their behaviours.

I also saw a dilemna posted to a forum where a HR person was wrestling with ensuring scoring was calibrated across managers.  A particular manager appeared to be lenient.  But, that manager had a high performing team.  At a developmental level it is clearly unimportant how that manager is scoring – and their approach was being successful with the team.  But the organisation was paying wage increases from the scoring – and so uniformity of scoring was essential.  Somehow the best manager had become a problem!

When designing appraisal processes of any description I would work hard to avoid creating these conflicts between the organisational need and the individual – for example, I would not normally link 360 feedback to pay reviews.  If that conflict is unavoidable then recognising it early and putting in place mitigation strategies will make a big difference to ensuring both the organisation and the individuals benefit from the process.


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Reviewing the Performance Review process…

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A recent conversation with a client who were unhappy with their annual performance appraisal format reminded me of the critical need to review the appraisal process and the form before any thought is given over to how to implement an online performance review system to enable the process to run more efficiently.

The old adage of ‘start with the end in mind’ is very apt as always in these situations – for example, consider what data you really wish to capture about your employees and how it will benefit them and the organisation in equal measure.

Often very complex forms can be found with organisations that have developed over time or been lifted from a bank of generic forms, with the result that the form and hence process is viewed negatively by line managers and staff alike.

They see the form and process as irrelevant and counter-intuitive to the role and company they work within, and this will invariably lead to them disengaging from the process.

Sometimes, a simple review of the form and process may yield some great insights; depending on the company culture, you may discover that a simple form with a few free-text comments sections is sufficient at this time - no ratings, complex formula or competencies, just an opportunity to record the thoughts of both the individual and their boss.

And if this gets a meaningful conversation going between them about performance, development and career aspirations, then it’s a job well done.


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360 degree appraisal and statistics

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This is a continuing theme of mine and I will undoubtedly write more on it.  For the faint-hearted where math(s) is concerned – look away now – and come back in the paragraph that starts "If anyone is still with me…".

Statistics works on "confidence levels".  If I have 5000 people whose opinion I would like to know and I ask 1000 of them a few questions, how confident can I be that I have the correct answer?  The answer is you can be 95% confident with a 2.8% error level.  I know, its horrible but that is the way it works.

So, what has this got to do with 360 degree appraisal?  Well, let’s say you have 15 people working for you and you can’t help yourself but want to know a score for your ability to "Delegate effectively".  Typically, we would ask, say, 6 direct reports to give feedback.  If they all give feedback then you the error level you would now have on your 95% confidence rate is 31%.  That is, it is a wholly unreliable number.

But, if you read most 360 reports you will see scores of 4.23 on Delegate effectively as if there is some amazing precision in the responses.  There just plain isn’t.  Add in all of the issues around rater selection, halo effects, and getting good questions and the chance of needing two decimal points is remote!

If anyone is still with me – and I welcome those who skipped the above – 360 should be used to aggregate responses not average them.  A simple report that lets you know how people answered each question has all of the information you require.  There is some merit in getting averages over a group of people to determine trends – indeed we use this widely ourselves.

Here is one that we use

360 feedback example report

I would argue that this tells you everything you need to know.  (Note, this person had 4 managers!).

360 degree appraisal is very powerful – people read a lot into their own 360 feedback.  Statistics can be useful but we need to be careful we don’t overuse them.


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“Good enough” 360 degree appraisal and performance review software

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In the latest Economist there is an article on "good enough" computing.  The concept is best explained with the same example that they use of Google Docs compared with Microsoft Word.  We use google docs for most of our documents.  There are two key reasons

  • The documents are easily shared
  • It has just the right amount of functionality we require

This latter point is what is referred to as "good enough" computing.  While you may want to change the wording if you were using it as part of your marketing campaign it accurately reflects Bowland Solutions‘ long standing philosphy on providing our 360 degree appraisal and performance review software.

To provide "good enough" software you should provide just what people need in a simple effective way.  Providing more and more functionality that is rarely if ever used just complicates things, alienates non-techys, and drives up cost.  There are menu options in Word that I haven’t used or looked at having used it for nearly 20 years (yes, I was around in the DOS days of Word).  And when I try to use outline or insert a table in a certain way I lose hours to what was a simple task.  Google docs is plain simple.

When we demonstrate our software we are always listening out for "it looks really easy to use".  That is when we know that we have got it right.

To get a demonstration of what I am describing click here .


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Performance Management…Performance Appraisal every day?

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Performance Appraisal every day sounds slightly ‘nightmarish’ in concept to most people, but let’s consider it in the context of effective Performance Management.

An appraisal is simply a method of assessing performance; typically this is an annual affair, sometimes with an interim review at the 6 month mark.

Traditionally, it encompasses a review of objectives and progress towards their accomplishment, any obstacles that may be inhibiting performance, learning & development needs in support of meeting goals and career progression, a future look at any new goals, and a final comments section.

Reviewing these elements every day may not be practical, but a review once a week perhaps? Once a fortnight? Once a month? Once a quarter?

I suspect, as with many people I have spoken with, there is an underlying feeling that whilst once a week or fortnight might be deemed excessive or impractical, but that as you consider once a month or quarter, one starts to muse “Hmmm, maybe once a month/quarter would be sensible….perhaps once a year is pretty ineffective..”.

No great scientific study to say what is the optimum number of appraisals one should have over the course of the year, just a common sense instinct that tells most of us to say to our team members……”We really should meet more often, you know?”.

More of our clients are adhering to this approach of more regular appraisal meetings supported with a simple online form to capture the conversation….as Tesco would say “Every little helps”.

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How different roles write 360 degree feedback

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I hadn’t thought about this for a few years – I once wrote my MBA thesis on an analysis of narrative feedback in 360 degree appraisal.  I was giving some feedback last week and I was struck by the use of different language by the different roles – supervisor, peer, self and direct reports.

So, I dug out the thesis – the dust is still settling.  Much of what the analysis demonstrated has shown itself empirically over the last few years of working in the field.

First, bosses use business speak more than the other roles.  Essentially, they transfer the behavioural statements into business related issues.  Not right or wrong – but worth knowing.

Second, bosses are directional – they tell the recipient what they should do using words like “must”, “should”, needs to”.  Other roles tend to not provide advice on the solution to the identified development need.  This can also follow from differing standards which can lead to bosses scoring lower than other rating groups.

All roles use the narrative to contextualise the ratings they have been giving.  Often they explain why a certain score was given (and demonstrate why using averages is pointless for most 360 feedback) and in many cases they counterbalance their rating with an insight into the situation where it happens and how they have seen improvement or otherwise over the last few months.

Rater bias is a rich subject area in 360 degree appraisals.  I would strongly recommend working with people that understand it, the dangers of averaged reporting because of rater bias, and the power of narrative feedback to allow a trained debriefer to recognise it.


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New Year Resolutions and 360 Degree Feedback

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When one reflects on the previous year and then comes to make some new resolutions for the coming one, it is a rare person who notices that the same items sometimes crop up on their list, year after year.

Each resolution is usually a desired change in behaviour, as one might wish to commit to after receiving some 360 degree feedback – but changes in behaviour, habit, attitude, etc can take time, not always (and there are methods in making ‘step change’ in terms of performance/behaviour), but generally it is a commitment to adopt a new habit.

What makes for a succesful change? First, a realisation that the change is required, be that through your own thoughts on the matter or though the feedback of others (or both).

Secondly, there needs to be a real motivation to make the change; considering ‘What’s in it for me?’ is important.

Thirdly, you need to then set in place a series of milestones, goals, tangible measures that keep you on track, with consideration of the resources and support you will need.

This list is not exhaustive, but a start when considering how to support people trying to ‘change’ their performance at work after receiving their appraisal or 360 feedback.

Help them realise, help them connect to their own reasons for change and, as an organisation, support them as much as you can.


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Giving feedback the appreciative inquiry way

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I met with two people on Friday (their organisation websites are here and and they were discussing work they had been doing around Appreciative Inquiry.  The essence of the approach is to help organisations build from what they do well rather than focusing on what is going wrong.

In organisational change I can really see this approach working – any time I have consulted with organisations or worked with a team – most people feel under threat / defensive of the current way of working.   To actually start with what is going well would be fantastic and build from it would be a wonderful way of building trust.  I’ve written previously on the benefits of describing what is going well rather than pointing out failing as a method of coaching.

When appraising someone – and in particular when debriefing 360 degree appraisals we always recommend starting by drawing out the strengths.   Most people find this very hard when talking about themselves and immediately add "but" to most positive sentences.  Appreciative Inquiry strikes me as an interesting model to follow for appraising / debriefing and clearly fits well with a coaching model of the world.

I’ve added this to my list of things to read up on and I’ll write up any areas that I feel this field can contribute to 360 feeedback and performance appraisal.




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Performance Appraisal of GPs…there is a right way and a very wrong way

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I read a very interesting article in the Guardian at the weekend which highlighted a plan announced by the health minister, Ben Bradshaw, to allow patients to rate their GP on an NHS website.

This would allow them to post comments on anything from their ‘perceived competence to bedside manner’.

The article outlines the dangers of such an approach, whereby any anonymous person, with invariably little knowledge of good medical practice, could take exception to their treatment.

There is already an established method of appraisal and revalidation of GPs, as part of a mandatory process which ensures they are subject to the scrutiny of peers, supervisors, junior staff and patients where appropriate.

This is based upon a recognised and agreed framework of competencies, with due diligence given to performing a managed 360 degree feedback process, complete with a debrief with the GP/Consultant.

Not suprisingly, we feel this is the best method in which to approach appraisals; carefully implemented and managed with all consideration given to the recipient of the feedback.

Better this way, than a ‘open season’ on GPs, where any feedback can be posted and given weight – these are real peoples jobs, not game show contestants.




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Finding someone better than you

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I’m on a run of conducting a number of 360 degree feedback debriefs.  I have been completing those debriefs in quite different industries.  But I have hit a common thread.  Nearly every person I have debriefed is working punishing hours.  Within the 360 feedback peers, direct reports and managers are advising the individual to delegate more and work less.

When discussing this feedback I hit a number of themes.  Effective delegation is a skill that most of us struggle with.  Under-resourcing makes delegation difficult.  Clients, users, or other managers expect the person themselves to attend.

One particular theme is emerging though that interests me as a co-owner of a business.  Often I here – "I wouldn’t ask someone to do something that I wouldn’t do myself" and "I am the only person who can do the work".  I have heard or read these phrases across finance, IT, and law people in the last 2 months.

If you read the literature on how to "grow your own business" or other similar airport reading there is one key recommendation.  Recruit people that are better than you.  Good advice.  But that advice requires that you accept 1) that you won’t be the best person at some tasks in the company and 2) that people will be able to do things that you cannot, let alone will not, do.

In thinking about this topic more and more I’ve come to a conclusion that part of the challenge is in how you measure yourself.  If your measure of success is being the best / working the most / being the expert then it takes you down a route where developing or recruiting people past your expertise is against your internal measure.  Rather, you need a measure of success that is broader and recognises your leadership or management position.  What makes that hard is the previous measure is probably what led to your senior position and extrinsic reward.  It is the measure by which you and others have valued you for quite some time.

More pondering to be had.



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360 feedback and supervisors

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I have a google alert that tells me when people write about 360 degree feedback.  It throws up some really interesting articles from people I would never come into contact with otherwise.

Over the break, I read this post on “are you measuring the things that really matter“.  Within it is a section on supervisors.  It is a great insight into how supervisors (team leaders in may organisations) are the key to an organisation improving.  I used to manage a call centre and this is a mantra in those organisations.

I really like Mel’s focus in this article and he highlights how simply 360 degree appraisal can be used as a method of getting feedback from direct reports (supervisees in his terminology).


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Constant feedback does improve performance….just ask a new father!

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A brief post and slightly personal one which finds me musing on my first day back after an eventful Xmas break about what I might blog this week.

I became a father for the first time over the holidays and the last two weeks have been something of a blur to say the least (I am sure all the ‘Dads’ out there will be nodding and chuckling to themselves at this point!).

With the sound of baby crys and whimpers ringing in my ears as I headed back to the office, I considered how much ‘feedback’ I had been given by our new baby during these early days!

Nappy/Diaper changing, rocking, comforting, feeding; thoughout all of these activities, if I wasn’t doing it right…I soon knew about it! A baby cries at exactly the right pitch to make you want to do something different to make it stop crying…and fast!

I became very, very fast at changing him….I changed the position, speed and method of rocking time after time, I quickly recognised when he needed feeding or comforting…or both!

This constant performance appraisal helped me to change behaviour, improve my technique, strive to be ‘better’ at what I was doing..

It has also given me a healthy respect and admiration to those parents who have more than one child….I can only begin to imagine what it would be like to have 360 degree feedback from 2 or 3 bundles of joy!


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