Using Feedback for Management Control

I have been spending a lot of time on airplanes and in airports recently, which gave me the opportunity to catch up on some reading. I came across an interesting article in the July 2011 “Wired Magazine” on the power of feedback. (I really liked the picture of the brain!) I thought I would share their insight and some other random thoughts on this powerful management tool.

Thomas Goetz authored the article, “Harnessing the Power of Feedback Loops,” describing an experiment to encourage people to slow down in school zones in Garden Grove, California. Having tried the usual speed limit signs and aggressive ticketing of violators with limited success, they decide to put up devices called dynamic speed displays. These displays are not punitive. You do not get an automatic ticket for speeding; all you get is feedback. “YOUR SPEED IS XX MPH” with text colored red if you were exceeding the speed limit.

Lo and behold, drivers slowed an average of 14 percent in areas with the dynamic speed displays. Hmmm. To quote the author,

“The signs leverage what is called a feedback loop, a profoundly effective tool for changing behavior. The basic premise is simple. Provide people with information about their actions in real time (or something close to it), then give them an opportunity to change those actions …. the simplicity of feedback loops is deceptive. They are in fact powerful tools that can help people change bad behavior patterns, even those that seem intractable. Just as important, they can be used to encourage good habits, turning progress itself into a reward. In other words, feedback loops change human behavior.”

Formal Feedback
The mandatory performance review, given to employees by their immediate supervisor, differs markedly from the feedback mechanism discussed above. For example, as described in “Effective Performance Reviews,” published by, formal feedback reviews follow corporate content guidelines, are conducted in private and use data that may be weeks or months old. Follow-up of behavior-change recommendations is scheduled months later.

In research done awhile ago by Clinton O. Longenecker and Stephen J. Goff for the “Advance Management Journal,” (Performance appraisal effectiveness: a matter of perspective), managers and employee’s opinions about performance reviews found that

1. Managers and subordinates agree that the appraisal process DID

  • Let employee know where he or she stood and
  • Establish work-related goals.

2. Managers and subordinates agree that the formal appraisal process DID NOT

  • Link pay to performance
  • Improve employee motivation
  • Improve employee performance
  • Improve work relationships

I believe that changing workplace behavior and employee’s motivation may be accomplished more effectively using informal, real-time, non-punitive feedback than waiting for a formal performance review.

Real-time is Important
As anyone who has trained a puppy or a toddler can attest, real-time feedback is essential to managing behaviors, good ones and incorrect ones. When a manager observes an exemplary employee behavior, she should comment immediately and specifically, preferably in front of witnesses. “Karen, thanks for staying late to help that customer; Mary, I can tell you put a lot of thought into that excellent presentation.” In fact I have used a techniques called “On the Spot Rewards” on several projects and allowed managers to carry certificates for American Express gift cards around. When they saw exception behavior they not only praised the person — but issued a gift reward “on the spot.”

Corrective feedback should also be immediate. You can pull the employee aside or comment to a group without naming an individual’s indiscretion. “I need weekly status reports by noon on Friday.” “Sam, there were several typos in the customer briefing.”

Non-punitive Feedback
Just like the dynamic speed display, real-time feedback does not include rants about appropriate behavior or threats about future punishment. Your goal is to restate expectations and the employee’s action as a fact. It is up to the employee or staff member to recognize the impact of their behavior and integrate the feedback into future actions.

Reward Change
The goal of formal and immediate feedback is to change behavior. By acknowledging Karen’s extra effort to help a customer, you hope to motivate others to follow her example. When an employee has received feedback intended to align his behavior more closely with expectations, it is essential to recognize and reward them when they succeed — in REAL TIME. Giving feedback a week later does not work as effectively.

Speaking of rewards, I was pleased to receive notice from Project Management Training that they have included Fear No Project as a PM resource. Thanks to Andrea Contreras for giving us feedback on our blog!!

Staffing for Success – How to Interview

I am really getting lots of questions about staffing and it is seems to be really hot topic on the web these days.  I wrote a white paper on the subject a few years ago (you are welcome to download a copy of Cognitive Technologies’ whitepaper, “Staffing for Success – Back to Basics” by registering in the library).  I also gave some simple tips on interviewing back in May 2009 (Interviewing tips for PMs) but I am not really an expert on that subject, so I’ve asked a well know practitioner, Dr. Karen McGraw, to give us all tips on how to interview candidates in order to make sure we hire the right people.

Using the Interview to Find and Select the Right Candidate

Guest Post by Dr. Karen L. McGraw, CEO, Silver Bear Group

The “how to get a job” industry is booming! Go into your neighborhood bookstore and count the number of books that tell people how to interview to get the job. For people who find the job interview a very nerve-wracking experience, these advice books certainly have a place. Of course you want to make the best impression you possibly can as you vie for your dream job and hope to stand out from the crowd of other applicants.

But what does this mean for the project or program manager who is hiring to staff an upcoming project, or for the operational manager who needs staff with special skills in order to successfully implement a new process? I think it means that it can become even more difficult to select the best candidates, because they are likely to be well-prepared for the interview.  Similarly, we need better preparation to ensure that the time we spend with an interviewee produces the data we need to make the right decision.

Much has been written about the use of behavioral interview questions to help discern the interviewee’s role in a particular achievement.  The typical behavioral interview consists of using the following kinds of questions, followed by secondary questions that enable you to drill down and reveal what the interviewee really did and what their role really was:

  • Tell me about a time when you …
  • Give me an example of how you …
  • How did that turn out?
  • What did you do next?
  • What would you have done differently?

The answers summarize how the individual approached the situation, what they did to address and resolve it, and the outcomes or results produced. These types of questions give you more insight into the candidate’s capabilities. In addition, the interviewer gets a better feel for how the candidate communicates and presents ideas, confronts problems, makes decisions, and learns from events. But the data you gather is only as good as the questions you ask and how you respond to the answers. But the real secret to effective behavioral interviews is preparation before the interview, followed by appropriate use of the response data and revelations after the interview is over.

Before the Interview

Behavioral interview questions are all about what the person did—the actions they took, the decisions they made—and the results produced.  But if you are asking about minimally important tasks and ignoring others, you won’t have good data to help you determine if this candidate is a good fit. To improve the questions you ask, conduct a planning meeting with a small team of key performers either in the job role for which you are hiring, or who interact with that job role in a team setting.  Discuss topics such as, “What are the most important outcomes this role must produce?” “What facilitates success in this job role?”  “What competencies or capabilities are essential to avoid failure?”

Use the information discussed to produce a prioritized list of the key position requirements and the special qualifications, traits, and experience the ideal candidate would have. Work from the list of key position requirements to construct 5-7 critical behavioral interview questions. Then review the special qualifications (e.g., certifications, training, etc.) and traits (e.g., results-oriented, collaborative decision maker, etc.) to develop other questions that will help you judge the candidate’s appropriateness for the job. Finally, use the information discussed and the list of behavioral questions to construct a Job Evaluation Form for the position. Provide interviewers with a form like this and ask them to rate each candidate against the factors and provide comments to capture examples or other information that should be considered.

After the Interview

How many times have you called an interviewer to get their feedback after they interviewed a candidate only to hear “I really liked him (or her).” For many jobs it is important that an individual is likeable. But now is not the time to be swayed by “likeability.” It should be but one factor in the equation you use to determine the best candidate for the job.

To improve your odds of success, gather the Job Evaluation Forms completed by your interviewers. Compile the ratings and comments for each candidate and compare the findings across candidates to help you make your final decision. Combine the rating information and comments with other data you have, such as personality test results, to help you make the optimal decision.

In the end, there is no perfect technique—we’re all human and are affected by a candidate’s likability and preparedness. But careful planning can help you ask the questions that matter most and will enable you to use the data from each interview to choose the candidate most capable of producing the results required by the job.

Do you have special tips to help you successfully fill job roles? Please share them!

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