Employee Engagement with Optimum Performance Feedback Made Simple

April 1, 2011 § 1 Comment

 The greatest challenge for Human Resource Professionals over the next ten years will be the need for obtaining, retaining, and fully engaging human capital.  This is according to a recent poll of HR professionals by the Society for Human Resource Management.[1]

Effective performance feedback can cultivate a culture of trust, open communication, and can create alignment between employees’ work and the organizational objectives. In other words, effective performance feedback is a critical management skill for attracting, engaging, and retaining the talent needed to remain competitive in a global economy.

How does the typical manager deliver performance feedback?   The answer is unfortunately, “It depends.”  Providing feedback to a high performer who is open to growth and personal development is very different from handling an issue with a “bad apple” who is disrespectful and lazy or avoids responsibility.  Typically performance feedback is saved for the annual performance review meeting.  Most organization consultants cringe when they hear this because they know feedback is needed every day and most managers and employee dread the typical performance review process.

If feedback is so desired and so important for performance improvement yet managers often avoid it or are poor at the delivery, how can we improve the results?  That is exactly the question most HR professionals are asking themselves knowing they must address the strategy of attracting, engaging and retaining talent better than their competitors.  There are four steps to make it simple yet not easy.

Step 1: Agree on definitions

First, it is critical to agree on definitions and basic characteristics of feedback before designing a new process.  Feedback is different from criticism.  Feedback is defined as data from a process for the purpose of learning.  Criticism is opinion or judgment.  To make feedback simple we must use data and avoid opinions.  This is one of the reasons why the typical performance review fails to be used properly and fails to deliver predictable performance improvement. 

Because the typical performance review requires a rating or a grade (on a scale) managers are put in a position of an omnipotent judge and the employee is the one being judged.  This context can damage the credibility of the information and can even damage the relationship and trust between manager and employee.

Step 2: Make a distinction between Values Issues and System Issues

The Values and Systems Problem Solving Model is based on research by Rob LeBow and Dr. W. Edwards Deming. Simply stated, this leadership model encourages managers, when faced with a performance problem, to ask: Is this problem a values issue, or systems issue?

A values issue involves a purposeful break in integrity such as lying, sabotage, being disrespectful or failing to follow through on an agreement.  Problems that are values issues are behavioral, which means individuals have choices as to how they can react or behave. For example, telling or not telling the truth is a choice.  Being respectful in the face of disrespect is a choice.  Values issues are very serious because they create an emotionally charged environment, which puts relationships at risk.

Every problem that is not a values issue is a systems issue. Problems that result from systems issues include: mistakes, oversight, forgetting, poor training, poor quality, poor performance or lack of motivation.  More often than not, the root of a problem is due to a problem with a specific process.  These issues must be fixed using quality improvement tools.

For example, if I don’t receive a specific report on time from another employee and that delay prevents me from doing my work I might call the employee and shout disrespectfully.  The disrespectful shouting is a values issue.  The delay in the report is a system issue that requires an improved process to avoid in the future.

Step 3: Decide to deliver only data

As stated earlier, we want to deliver data only.  We want to avoid receiving and delivering unsolicited opinions or judgment.  This requires designing a standard tool that describes specific observable behavior.  This tool is called the “operational values behaviors.”  By describing specific observable behavior we are then able to provide feedback when we see (or hear) behavior inconsistent with the desired standard.

Step 4: Create a safe method to approach anyone with  

 Finally we need a safe tool to provide permission to give feedback instantly when these values behaviors are not being followed.  This tool is called the White Flag®.  A White Flag® is an international sign of truce[i] ceasefire, and/or request for negotiation.  The White Flag® is therefore a metaphor for “Truce! Don’t attack me, I have valuable information and I am just here to help.” 

The White Flag® Process enables everyone to provide feedback about values behaviors. Employees can give feedback to each other, and even to managers, using The White Flag® process.  The American Red Cross uses a similar symbol.  When they go into a dangerous area of conflict, they are always displaying their “red cross on a white background”.  This prevents them from being attacked and allows them to help the wounded. 

When an employee or manager observes behavior that is inconsistent with the standard described in the values behaviors, they approach the person and assume they are unaware of what they did. 

The White Flag® enables feedback in a safe and caring environment for the purpose of learning.  It’s not for the purpose of evaluating the employee but for the purpose of providing insight to the employee on any deviations to the standard for which they are unaware.   Receiving The White Flag® feedback is the consequences of not following the values.  This creates a culture of accountability to values behaviors which leads to performance improvement.


By following these four steps managers and employees can provide instant feedback to each other and work as a team to continuously improve behaviors and processes.  A method like this is desperately needed by HR professionals to address the daunting challenge of attracting and retaining talent in a highly competitive market.

[i] Temporary stoppage of any armed conflict, where each side of the conflict agrees with the other to suspend aggressive actions.


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