Jeff Bezos – an Amazonian chief

With my last blog “Warren Buffett – Not your average billionaire”, I kicked off a series of posts we are dedicating to some of the most successful leaders of our time.

There has been a lot of media coverage lately regarding the imminent launch of an Australian branch of – the world’s biggest online retailer. Not surprisingly, the talk of them setting up shop here has sent local retailers into a spin.

Given its power to disrupt markets and change the way the world shops, I thought it would be timely to take a look at the founder, Chairman and CEO of this tech giant – Jeff Bezos.

Worth an estimated $72.7 billion, Bezos is painted by biographers as part dreamer, part quantitative analyst. As a teenager he imagined himself becoming an astronaut but instead went on to major in computer science at Princeton, before putting his skills to use on Wall Street. In 1994, despite having a successful career and a six-figure salary, he left Wall Street behind to create, a start-up retail business in the emerging and largely uncharted world wide web.

Jeff Bezos quickly proved himself a ‘wunderkind’ with great instincts. He survived the bust of the late 1990’s and continued building Amazon on the back of his own ingenuity, self confidence, and propensity to think big.

Jeff Bezos

Think like the Chief

As he transitioned from a start-up boss into a leader of tens of thousands of people working across multiple businesses, Bezos became renowned for demanding nothing short of excellence from everyone around him. His expectations are captured in Amazon’s 14 Leadership Principles, and it is said that those who do best at Amazon are those who have internalised these principles and think like Jeff. And when they don’t meet his exacting standards, Bezos doesn’t mince words. For your horror (or amusement) I have included some examples of brutal one-liners that have been attributed to him

  1. “Are you lazy or just incompetent?”
  2. “I’m sorry, did I take my stupid pills today?”
  3. “Do I need to go down and get the certificate that says I’m CEO of the company to get you to stop challenging me on this?”
  4. [After reviewing the annual plan from the supply chain team] “I guess supply chain isn’t doing anything interesting next year.”
  5. [After an engineer’s presentation] “Why are you wasting my life?”

Survival of the fittest

Under Bezos’s direction, Amazon is reported to ‘manage out’ a certain percentage of its work force annually, with leaders required to rank staff and dismiss the least effective performers. [1]

Bezos has been accused by critics of lacking empathy and treating workers as expendable resources, but he has also never hidden the fact his priority is and always has been to create value for the customer.

Cohesion – the enemy of innovation?

A questioning and analytical atmosphere is characteristic of Amazon’s culture. Bezos expects his leaders to openly disagree and argue their perspectives, regardless of how uncomfortable it may make them may feel. [1] To this end, Amazon were early adaptors of an agile feedback system they call the “Anytime Feedback Tool” that enables staff to receive real time input from colleagues who have something to say about their work.

At Cognology we know from our own research that team sizes are expanding and companies are striving to find ways to facilitate greater connection, collaboration and sharing of ideas. In this respect, Amazon seems like a bit of an anomaly. Bezos is famous for his two pizza rule: no team should be larger than can be fed with two large pizzas. Bezos believes that smaller teams guard against groupthink and promote innovation. He has also suggested that cross-team communication can be disastrous for innovation as agreement between teams can limit the creative tension required for new ideas. [2]

Keeping his fingers on the pulse

Sharing his time across various ventures, Bezos cannot physically be present for every key decision Amazon makes. Being a number cruncher at heart, he puts his faith in the company’s enormous data resources and analytics, and expects leaders to use metrics to make almost every important decision.

But Bezos doesn’t just rely on cold hard data. The entrepreneur is also said to regularly scan random customer emails for feedback and complaints. And when an email is forwarded to a leader accompanied by a simple “?” from Jeff, the recipient knows to act. [3]

The heart of a Warrior

Adventure and discovery appear to be in Jeff Bezos’s very DNA. However, his passion for progress goes far beyond selfish interests or the financial benefit of shareholders. Bezos seems driven by a self-imposed higher calling to advance the welfare and development of the whole human race. His vision for the future has compelled him to commit hundreds of millions of dollars to a number of ambitious yet noble ventures like carbonless energy, advancements in neuroscience, and Blue Origin – an enterprise aimed at making space travel accessible to millions of people so that they may one day live and work in space.

Leadership involves choices. Jeff Bezos understands that to be truly great, you must be prepared to make choices that are neither popular nor easy. Without apology Jeff challenges his people to use their gifts, follow their convictions, and walk the path less travelled.

It is perhaps unfortunate that we get many of our insights into business leaders through the media, who (let’s face it) have a tendency to emphasise the sensational aspects of a story. Bezos has certainly received his share of bad press in recent years and if you believe the anecdotes of former staff who claim bad experiences, Amazon is a tough place to work. But given Bezos’s accomplishments and endeavours I can’t help but wonder how balanced the narrative has been.

I watch with interest for if and when comes to our shores.


  1. B. Stone, 10 10 2013. [Online]. Available to subscribers:
  2. D. Baer, 18 03 2014. [Online]. Available:
  3. R. Sanghani, 15 10 2013. [Online]. Available:
  4. Jeff Bezos image by Yolo0906 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Top Research Takeaways of 2016: Performance Management

Performance Management Takeaways

Those of you who caught my October article on Upgrading Performance Management will be familiar with the trends and changes that shook up the field in 2016. Since Human Resources is constantly evolving, I thought I’d give you a jump on your 2017 planning with a quick run down of the three studies that, for me, turned up some of the most important insights into our field this year.

The Impact of Performance Management on Performance in Public Organizations: A Meta-Analysis.


If you want an overview of how performance management (PM) works across different organisations, a meta-analysis is the way to go. The authors looked at data from 49 studies evaluating PM in the public sector to see what worked, what didn’t, and where improvements can be made.

Key Findings:

To measure their effectiveness, the report graded the 49 individual studies on everything from data collection to performance management structure. Now, we’re managers not academics, so not every measure is of interest to us. However, if we focus on the assessments of benchmarking (its absence, limits, and structure), performance measures, and feedback; we unearth some valuable insight.

Top of the list, measuring performance doesn’t improve it. That’s not to say it’s time to ditch the performance metrics, but it does mean we can’t let them drive our performance management systems.

What this analysis shows us is that PM success hinges on management. Systems with a dedicated performance leadership team, that provided regular actionable feedback, increased organisational performance by as much as three times that of systems that simply measured objectives. Interestingly, organisations that used benchmarking to rank employee performance also performed better, probably because leaders could see who was learning well and tailor their approach to individual needs.

Top Takeaways:

  • Management practices have a significant impact on the effectiveness of PM practices.
  • Managing performance is more important than measuring it.
  • PM systems with poor benchmarking are associated with lower performance.

Full study available from:


Regular feedback statistics

When Employee Performance Management Affects Individual Innovation in Public Organisations: The Role of Consistency and LMX.

Firstly, let’s address the concept of ‘LMX’. An abbreviation of Leader-Member Exchange, it is basically a description of the relationship an individual has with their line manager, a relationship that impacts their experience of management and PM practices. High LMX means employees will experience management as supportive rather than controlling.


This study took a detailed look at the working environment of 1095 caregivers in 68 care homes across Belgium. The data was collected with self-assessed questionnaires, and workers asked to grade performance management, LMX, and individual innovation on scales designed for each variable.

(For those of you who are wondering, ‘individual innovation’ in this study refers to the tendency of workers to generate and implement new ideas).

Key Findings:

The long and short of it? Continuous monitoring and feedback in an environment where leaders and employees trust and respect each other leads to great LMX, and drives organisational performance by allowing individuals to innovate and improve workflows.

A word of warning: new employees were found to experience higher LMX than their long-serving counterparts. So don’t overlook those individuals who’ve got their roles down – good performance management practices are just as important to them, arguably more so since it encourages individual innovation.

Top Takeaways:

  • LMX has the biggest influence on employee perceptions of performance management practices.
  • Great LMX creates high performing employees with a strong inclination to innovate and improve services.
  • The best performance management systems are on-going, consistent, and personable.
  • Employers have a tendency to undervalue the importance of performance management to long-serving employees.

Full study available from:

Do Similarities or Differences Between CEO Leadership and Organizational Culture Have A More Positive Effect on Firm Performance? A Test of Competing Predictions.


The authors of this study set out to quantify the interaction between the CEO, organisational culture, and performance. They collected data from 119 CEOs in the software and hardware industries, and 337 members of their top management teams (TMT – think board executives). The TMT rated CEO leadership, the CEO and TMT rated organisational culture, and the unbiased Technology Consortium provided an objective measure of company performance.

Key Findings:

As the captain of the ship, the CEO’s impact on performance is multifaceted and far reaching. It is not, however, a case of one-size-fits-all. CEO behaviours that reduce performance in one organisation optimise it in another – and it’s organisational culture that determines which.

There are two prevailing theories on this phenomena. The first is Similarity Theory, and it states that leaders who align their actions with organisational values send out a unified message to staff. Theoretically, these consistent cues drive everyone towards the same objectives and enhance performance.

The alternative is Dissimilarity Theory, which suggests that leaders mirroring organisational values create redundancies. Rather than parroting the same values, CEOs take a contrasting approach, providing the support and frameworks missing from the organisational culture.

The findings of this study suggest Dissimilarity Theory best describes the interaction between CEO behaviour, culture, and performance. Organisations where social interactions were not valued, were seen to benefit from CEOs with strong interpersonal skills and a social focus. Businesses that lacked strong performance-based goals performed better under results-driven leaders.

Top Takeaways:

  • CEO leadership behaviour has a significant impact on organisational performance.
  • The interaction between CEO leadership and company culture has a critical impact on performance.
  • CEOs are most effective when they provide the support missing from the organisational culture.

Study available from:

To Sum Up…

What these three studies (and the host of others published on their heels) demonstrate is that, as an industry, we’ve still got a lot to learn about how our employees, leaders, and organisations interact with each other.

With each year we gain more valuable, actionable insight. It’s up to us as managers and leaders to make the most of it, optimising our performance management systems to create processes that deliver tangible results at an individual, team, and organisational level.


Organisations that implement regular performance feedback have 15% lower turnover rates than those that don’t. Source.
43% of highly engaged employees receive regular feedback. Source.
80% of millennials say they prefer on-the-spot recognition over formal reviews. Source.

Management Mistakes 101: Managing Missed Deadlines

We’ve all seen it. Everyone in the team is working flat out, their eyes fixed on an impending deadline they can’t miss. Everyone that is, except one. This individual may be working just as hard as the others, or they may be actively disengaged, but their failure to meet defined deadlines is dragging down the rest of the team.

At this point, most managers call a team meeting. Rather than singling out the underachiever, they address the whole team, hammering home the importance of meeting deadlines. That’s a kick in the teeth for those who gave it everything to deliver on time – and you can bet your last dollar they know exactly who the conversation is targeting. The obvious solution is to go directly to the source and tackle the problem one-on-one. So, why isn’t that our go-to response?

Managing missed deadlines

Why do managers avoid one-on-one conversations?

“From an evolutionary standpoint, it is natural to do things that make people like you. It enhances your chances of survival. Yet to be a good CEO, in order to be liked in the long run, you must do many things that will upset people in the short run.”

– The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz

We all like to be liked. However, as leaders (and I don’t believe this is exclusive to CEOs), it is a mistake to put this natural desire above the needs of our teams.

A one-on-one conversation may be unpleasant – and potentially damaging to your personal relationship with an individual – but by putting it off, you are failing in your role as a leader. In fact, a 2010 study found that every crucial conversation managers avoid costs businesses an average of 8 hours of productivity and US$1500¹. To put it simply, we can’t always afford to be liked.

Mindful managers are good managers

There is a lot riding on your ability to manage an underperformer. Studies have shown that supportive leadership and a high quality team climate have a significant impact on individual morale, helping to protect employees from work-related stress².

Great managers are mindful of the impulse to avoid a difficult situation, but they don’t let it stop them from addressing the problem and finding a solution.

Getting to the root of the problem

“We need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.”

– Bill Gates.

Poor performance and missed deadlines are caused by many issues. A lack of ability and a lack of motivation are two of the most common. However, misunderstandings and poorly defined expectations are just as likely.

Regular readers will know I’m a huge fan of SMART goals. Sustainable, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound, these objectives make it clear to an individual what is expected and how they can achieve it. If employees are missing deadlines because of a lack of skills, poor organisation, or unclear expectations, then setting SMART goals is a great way to identify and address the problem.

How to deliver constructive feedback

One-on-one conversations can be stressful, particularly if an individual knows they are failing to meet expectations. I have addressed the issue of reducing stress in feedback conversations before, here are the key takeaways:

  • Include emotions: Linking feedback to your emotions increases its impact. ‘When you do x, I feel y.’
  • Reduce the threat: Individuals who are concerned about job security, your personal opinion, and their status can feel threatened. Make sure feedback conversations are two-sided and plan ahead to reduce these threats. Give the individual a chance to evaluate their own performance and devise a solution together.
  • Be fair: An employee who consistently underperforms can be frustrating, but it is important to exclude your personal opinions from feedback conversations. Base your comments on facts rather than assumptions so individuals can see that your assessment is fair and unbiased.
  • Focus on the future: Yesterday’s missed deadline is in the past. Keep performance conversations forward-focused and ensure individuals have the tools and support they need to deliver on their next objective.

The role of performance management

Performance management must be ongoing and integrated into workflows. These one-on-ones are not one-offs, and are just as important for star performers as underachievers.

All employees need a sense of purpose, and performance management is key to aligning individuals with organisational goals. Clear direction at every level increases creativity, organisational performance, and individual engagement.

Meeting one-on-one with team members gives them a chance to be heard. This means you can stay abreast of any potential performance issues at an individual and team level, and address them before deadlines are missed.

That said, you can have too much of a good thing. Those of you who caught my article on the science of feedback will know that monthly feedback strikes the right balance between overloading and underwhelming employees. In fact, detailed monthly feedback on areas of weakness was shown to improve individual performance by as much as 46% (if you missed that article, now is the perfect time to check it out).

To Sum Up…

Individuals who consistently miss deadlines are detrimental to the health of your team and organisational growth. The only solution for managers is to address the problem head on. If we want to avoid cynicism within the team, reductions in individual morale, increases in employee turnover, and reduced organisational performance, we need to overcome our personal distaste for difficult conversations and provide employees with the feedback they need to improve.


¹Maxfield, B., 2010. Cost of conflict: why science is killing your bottom line. VitalSmarts

²Deakin University, 2016. A manager’s role in the risk management of workplace stress. Deakin University

Walt Disney and the 4 Performance Management Tools

Walt DisneyThe Performance Management King

I recently picked up the very brilliant The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a colourful investigation into the origins of our favourite Disney characters. Written by two of the nine animators who made Walt Disney into a household name, it very aptly demonstrates what a visionary Disney was – and not just in the field of animation.

Way back in 1923, when performance appraisals, 360 feedback, and employee evaluations weren’t established (and certainly weren’t Googleable), this guy was blazing a performance management trail that leaves many modern businesses in the dust. It’s an approach that took his fledgling studio from two employees to over 1000 in only sixteen years¹. Let’s take a look at exactly how he did it.

1. Alignment

“Of all the things I’ve done, the most vital is coordinating those who work with me and aiming their efforts at a certain goal.” – Walt Disney

Over the last 20 years, we’ve seen a huge amount of research published on the topic of employee alignment. We now know that employees who are aligned with organisational goals and objectives have higher engagement and job satisfaction, while their employers enjoy significant advantages over competitors². Disney was way ahead of us, using three key practices to actively aligning his workers:

Leading by Example

Disney had a firm creative vision, and he made sure his animators shared it. In story meetings he would act out the scenes, demonstrating the gestures and attitudes he wanted to see in the final cartoon. It’s a philosophy the Disney Company maintain today, and leaders are expected to behave according to their values and vision, which must align with organisational values³.

Team Effort and Ownership

‘Everyone has to contribute, or they become laborers.” – Walt Disney

Disney believed that each person connected to a film had to feel that they were vital to its success. As such, he involved everyone in the collaboration and evaluation process throughout production.


To get his team excited about an upcoming production, Disney would bring in a well-known artist to create unique drawings or paintings long before any actual story work began.

2. Transparency and Collaboration

When animation was in its infancy, skills gaps were commonplace. Studios did not share techniques, and it was difficult for beginners to learn the skills and tricks other animators had already discovered, even within their own studios.

Disney turned this model on its head. He insisted on an open atmosphere and encouraged each artist to share their views and discoveries. The studio effectively created a mentoring program which, by pooling insight from newbies and experienced professionals, allowed Disney animators to remain at the cutting-edge of their field.

Believing that good ideas came from everyone⁴, Disney did away with the concept of seniority. All the animators worked together in one large room to encourage discussions and problem solving. It wasn’t until 2012 that knowledge management (the process of transforming individual knowledge into organisational knowledge) was proven to contribute positively to organisational performance. At the same time, we also discovered that a collaborative culture enhances the benefits of knowledge management⁵, something Walt Disney had recognised nearly nine decades before.

Regular feedback infographic

3. Recognition

With the power to increase engagement, encourage development, enhance alignment and reduce turnover, recognition is critical to talent management (check out my article on recognition programs for a re-cap). Disney knew this only too well and made sure to praise great work – calling everyone together to discuss a drawing he particularly liked.

Recognition still plays a pivotal role at The Disney Company – Florida’s Walt Disney World alone boasts 180 different employee recognition programs. One of the most coveted at the park is the Spirit of Fred Award. Named for a long-term employee who made his way up the ranks by exemplifying Disney values, Fred makes the awards himself, which include The Lifetime Fred Award and the annual Spirit of Fred Awards⁶.

4. Frequent Feedback and Training

Quality was everything to Disney, but so was skill. If an animation was clumsy or poorly staged, he wouldn’t delegate the work to an animator with more proficiency. Instead, he would pair the original artist with a more experienced teammate to provide guidance.

Despite this focus on mentoring and on-the-job training, by the 1960s, Disney’s studio was suffering from a skills gap. His original nine animators – trained in 1929 at the Chouinard Institute – were starting to retire, and those coming up lacked the technical expertise to take their place. He needed a new approach to training, and his long-term association with Chouinard provided it.

Disney’s vision for a specialist college led to the incorporation of CalArts (a merger between Chouinard and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music) in 1961. There, students studied animation under the tutelage of his nine retired animators, and the company cherry-picked the best graduates⁷. It’s an approach we see more and more of in China and India, where companies sponsor existing colleges or create their own to guarantee the graduates and skill sets they need⁸.

To Sum Up…

One word crops up over and over again when investigating The Disney Company’s people management processes; genuine. Disney genuinely cared about his business, his worker, and his product. His understanding of alignment and company values ensure his attitudes to training, recognition, and collaboration are still at the heart of the company today.


¹Disney Institute. Undated. Leadership excellence.Disney Institute

²Gottschlag and Zollo, 2007. Interest alignment and competitive advantage. Academy of Management Review. 32 (2). pp. 418-437.

³James, 2014. Leadership lessons from Walt Disney: how to inspire your workforce.Disney Institute.

⁴Jones, 2013. Leadership lessons from Walt Disney: building relationships.Disney Institute.

⁵Rasula, et al., 2012. The impact of knowledge management on organisational performance. Economic and Business Review. 14 (2). pp. 147-168.

⁶BH Engagement, undated. Exploring employee incentives. Black Hawk Engagement.

⁷Wikipedia, undated. California Institute of the Arts. Wikipedia

⁸Capelli, 2014. How Disney solved its skills-gap problem. Human Resource Executive Online.

What is a feedback mechanism?

If you’re interested in delivering better feedback, there’s an interesting contradiction that might give you pause to think: Why is it that video games can deliver real-time feedback, but staff performance decreases if a manager provides face-to-face feedback fortnightly instead of monthly? 

Delivering better feedback

It doesn’t seem to make sense that in one environment we thrive with constant feedback, but in the other we tend to experience feedback overload at even a fortnightly frequency.

The answer lies in something called a “feedback mechanism”, which automates and depersonalises feedback. In this piece I’m going to explore what feedback mechanisms are, and how they can work in an office environment.

1. What is a feedback mechanism?

If you’ve ever played a video game, you’ve experienced a feedback mechanism. When you’re playing the game, you have a score that provides constant feedback on your progress and strategy.

Depending on the game it may be a score, badges or a strength meter. Regardless of the specifics, you’ve got some sort of visible indicator that’s telling you whether you’re succeeding. That’s a feedback mechanism.

At a basic level, a feedback mechanism provides a means for you to track your personal performance. Importantly, because the feedback is depersonalised (in this case, automated) and not up for debate, there’s no potential for feedback overload.

2. A feedback mechanism is forward focused

The purpose of a feedback mechanism is not to provide a review of your past behaviour. Feedback mechanisms are naturally forward focused because they connect your current actions to your future results.

A good feedback mechanism should either affirm or alter your course of action. A good example is the score in any individual sport, i.e. golf or tennis. The score gives immediate feedback, which allows the player to change their behaviour (a more accurate service game, stronger returns, longer drives, sharper puts etc) to achieve their desired result – an uptick in performance.

3. Does a feedback mechanism give real-time feedback?

A feedback mechanism doesn’t have to be real time, but many common examples do provide quick feedback – if you think of a sporting score or a video game.

In a business environment, a good example is a Net Promoter Score. For someone working in a call centre, the feedback isn’t exactly real time – but it is fast, highly objective and not up for debate. The number is a fact, and the individual can quickly understand whether they need to take action to improve the numbers.

4. What does a feedback mechanism looks like in the business environment?

Another clear example of a feedback mechanism in business is a sales quota. If you’re a sales person, you will be given a sales goal every year. There’s no debate at the end of the year as to whether you succeeded or not. The P&L provides a natural feedback mechanism to measure that goal. You don’t need someone to tell you whether you’re meeting expectations or not.

A good feedback mechanism allows you to post those results live on a big board. Feedback mechanisms can also build to a team goal where you combine everyone’s quotas together. That sort of ‘big picture’ or aggregated approach can work really well as a feedback mechanism that motivates group performance.

In conclusion: Where have you seen feedback mechanisms at work?

Feedback mechanisms provide one of the most effective ways to change behaviour. As the business environment accelerates, we’re hearing more and more calls for ‘real time feedback’. It’s never been more important for managers to understand what feedback mechanisms are, and how they can be used for great results.

I’d love to hear about where you’ve used feedback mechanisms in your organisation. What feedback mechanisms do you use to improve performance? How effective have they been? What have you learnt?


Jon Windust

Jon Windust is the CEO at Cognology – Talent management software for the future of work. Over 250 Australian businesses use Cognology to power cutting-edge talent strategy. You can follow Jon on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Why new managers should always start by managing freelancers

Learning how to manage is difficult. Overnight, you’re given responsibility for a bunch of people and somehow you need to deliver a result. It’s stressful, scary and can end in failure – for the manager, the project or both.

I don’t think the process needs to be this difficult. There’s only a few skills – though I admit some will want to differ – that you need to be an effective manager of people. And all of these skills can be learnt and honed very effectively through managing small-scale projects with freelancers. With more freelancers in the economy than ever before, there’s plenty of opportunity.

What is the role of a manager?

At the core of a manager’s responsibilities is helping their employees to learn.

Employee learning is critical, because fundamentally every business result happens as a consequence of employees learning and refining their behaviour over time. Happy customers, financial results and high performance are all consequences of successful managers facilitating employee learning.

Put simply, you cannot be an effective manager if you can’t help your employees learn. (Or, if you can’t facilitate learning, you will be an ineffective manager).

As a result, the critical success factor for a new manager is how quickly they can build the skills to help their team learn effectively.

How do you help others learn?

Facilitating learning doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to ‘teach’. But it does mean that you must partner with employees to foster, and even drive their learning. Doing this requires two things:

  1. Setting expectations, and
  2. Giving feedback

When you break it down, this two-part ‘expectations / feedback’ process (repeated frequently over time) sits at the heart of all employee learning.

The learning loop and process

So in terms of skills, the first two things that a new manager needs to learn are:

  1. How to set good expectations, that are easily understood and actioned; and
  2. How to give good feedback, to make sure that expectations (and relative performance) are understood

In my view, an A1, gold-medal way to learn these two skills is through managing freelancers on small projects.

Why freelancing is such an effective tool for teaching managers how to drive learning

In order to deliver a successful outcome with a freelancer, you must set clear expectations and provide frequent feedback. Because there’s no broader context, the success of the entire project is contingent on the manager’s ability to communicate expectations that can be well-understood, and feedback on the project deliverables. Put another way:

If the project manager fails to set good expectations (that are easily understood and actioned) – then the project will fail.

If the project manager fails to provides good feedback (that make clear actual performance versus set expectations) – then the project will fail.

The success or failure of the freelance project provides an immediate feedback mechanism for the new manager. In a relatively safe and quarantined learning environment, the new manager can see the consequences of feedback and expectation setting for learning and project delivery.

In conclusion

At the simplest level, to manage means you must be able to bring out the best performance in others, and drive learning in those around you to do so. In teaching someone how to manage, you must first teach them how to facilitate learning.

As I’ve mentioned in this article, teaching emerging managers how to drive learning is extremely effective when they are managing freelancers on small projects. To deliver the project, new managers must learn how to drive learning through the expectations / feedback loop. It’s an investment that you’ll see pay off for the rest of their management career.

Have you used freelance projects to teach new managers how to drive learning? I’d love to hear about your experiences. Jump into the comments below or join the conversation on Twitter (@cognology).

Jon Windust

Jon Windust is the CEO at Cognology – Talent management software for the future of work. Over 250 Australian businesses use Cognology to power cutting-edge talent strategy. You can follow Jon on Twitter or LinkedIn.

The science of feedback: What is the right frequency for workplace feedback?

New research suggests the right frequency for feedback is monthly. Surprisingly, it shows more frequent feedback (weekly) overloads employees and reduces performance.

What is the right frequency for feedback?

If you’re a regular follower of this blog, you’ll have noticed that I’ve been writing a lot on feedback recently:

Since we published the research piece looking at Is more feedback always better? I’ve been asked a number of times: “How often should I ideally provide feedback to direct reports?”

It seems that there’s a real desire from across the market to understand just how often managers should be giving their individual performers feedback – that is, what’s the optimum frequency to provide feedback.

This hasn’t exactly been an easy question to answer for a long time. There’s been a lot of research, but not much conclusive evidence on the best frequency for providing feedback to your direct reports.

Monthly feedback frequency

Employees want more feedback, but you can overload them. Where is the sweet spot?

In answering this question, we’re helped significantly by a recent study (March 2015) of 800 insurance professionals.

The study is a relatively comprehensive look at the changes in performance of insurance professionals in response to feedback. Researchers varied both the frequency and detail of feedback that the employees received in order to assess the impact.

As we’d expect, more feedback doesn’t always help to drive better performance (largely because employees reach a state of feedback overload, as we discussed last week on the blog).

The researchers found that professionals receiving detailed feedback on a monthly basis outperformed all other groups involved in the study. Those receiving detailed monthly feedback improved performance on their key complaint measure by an impressive 46% relative to the control group over the course of the study.

For comparison, the performance of the groups receiving the more frequent weekly feedback was not statistically different from those in the control group.

Interestingly, researchers found that the employees receiving weekly feedback tended to overweight their most recent performance. Over the longer term, this hampered their ability to learn. This phenomenon is discussed in detail below (it’s fascinating and worth reading in full):

“The results… suggest that providing more detailed feedback is useful for improving performance. However, that is only the case when feedback is provided sparsely. Detailed feedback loses its usefulness when provided very frequently. Similarly, providing more frequent feedback, even when it is less detailed, does not seem to help professionals improve their performance.

Taken together, the results suggest that professionals fail to process the additional information rationally. The recipient of frequent feedback may fixate on the most recent information, leading him or her to underweight or ignore evidence that is more distant in time and thus limiting the amount of information actually used in decision-making.

This leads professionals to make the wrong inferences, reducing their learning and hampering performance improvement. By providing detailed but less frequent feedback, [The Company] communicates richer information in a single report, allowing professionals to identify true trends and ignore noise in the metric.”

It seems like employees receiving weekly feedback tend to overthink recent results, and fall prey to feedback overload. As the researchers noted:

“As soon as professionals stop receiving weekly information, their performance improves, and the deterioration of performance after receiving a bad report disappears.”

All in all, it’s a comprehensive and well-structured piece of research that has big implications for best-practice feedback and performance management.

Monthly feedback frequency as best practice is broadly supported by current Cognology data

This feedback frequency is supported by the data we have available to us at Cognology (our software powers performance and talent management for over 250 Australian businesses). Looking across our client base, a monthly feedback frequency appears consistent with what we’re seeing from best practice clients.


Frequency of feedback

As a quick reminder, when we most recently looked at Cognology product data on feedback frequency on the blog, we found:

“For the average employee, the number of annual feedback events has risen from just under three in 2011 to nearly nine in 2014. That’s an increase of over 3x in four years! Spreading this feedback out across the year, this increase means that employees received feedback roughly every six weeks in 2014 (compared to once every four months in 2011).”

Whilst the amount and frequency of feedback continues to rise across our entire client base, our best practice clients are on track, hitting an equivalent monthly feedback frequency in 2015 (12 feedback events across the year).

In conclusion: Best practice feedback happens monthly

In the absence of further studies, I think it’s safe to say that best-practice feedback frequency for professionals is monthly. At a monthly frequency, you get all the benefits of enhanced performance through regular feedback, but don’t risk the ‘feedback overload’ that seems to happen with a weekly feedback frequency.

I’d love to hear about your experiences setting the best frequency for detailed feedback. Have you tried weekly, monthly or quarterly conversations? What works best for your team and organisation? Understanding the right feedback frequency to get the most out of every employee is an exciting frontier as we move towards talent management for the future of work – so I’d love to get your input and thoughts.

As always, you can join the discussion in the comments below or on Twitter (tweet your thoughts to @cognology).

Jon Windust

Jon Windust is the CEO at Cognology – Talent management software for the future of work. Over 250 Australian businesses use Cognology to power cutting-edge talent strategy. You can follow Jon on Twitter or LinkedIn.

The science of feedback: Is more feedback always better?

Is it possible to give too much feedback?

A few weeks ago, I had an interesting conversation with a client discussing about whether it’s possible to give too much feedback. While I don’t think the ‘feedback overload’ scenario is common, I do think this is a really interesting topic worthy of further investigation.

Feedback is a complicated process. Employees need time to process feedback, take action, and consolidate new skills – humans can also only do so many things at once. So it seems intuitive that there must be a real state of ‘feedback overload’.

I was interested to jump into the research and understand if the science shows that employees really can be overloaded by feedback. And if so, what are the warning signs that you might be overloading employees with feedback?

Most employees will benefit from more feedback

One caveat: Feedback overload isn’t an issue for the majority of employees or workplaces

Most employees aren’t getting enough feedback. We recently looked at some research that showed nearly 65% of employees want more feedback than they’re currently getting. While you’re reading this article, it’s worth keeping in mind that it’s much more likely that your employees are suffering from not enough feedback, rather than too much.

As the Journal of Applied Psychology put it: “While employees should be aware of the fact that upper limits on the frequency of feedback exist, in most work settings feedback tends to be much too infrequent.Therefore, while we feel it is necessary to be aware of the frequency effect, in most situations more frequent feedback would be beneficial.”

How does feedback overload happen?

Until recently, most academic thinking on feedback has suggested that more frequent feedback leads to better learning and performance on tasks.

However, recent study results have showed that feedback frequency exhibits an inverted-U relationship with task performance. Put simply, this means that feedback produces better performance until the individual gets to a state of overload.

The most recent study done in this space was by University of Michigan researchers, who engaged participants in a 70-minute simulation exercise. Here are the details of the experiment:

Each participant was given feedback at a frequency of 35, 17.5, 10, or 5 minutes. In this case, the impact of feedback overload kicked in between a 10 and 5 minute feedback interval. Performance rose with the amount of feedback, peaking when feedback was given every 10 minutes. When feedback was then increased to every 5 minutes, performance significantly dropped.

Interestingly, the biggest negative effects of feedback overload happened during the early learning phase when the research participants were busy trying to get a feel for the task.

Feedback overload happens at a different point for each employee

A different study looking at 342 call centre employees showed that each individual has their own threshold for feedback overload.

All employees in the study received feedback 27 times a year, based on electronic and physical monitoring of each employee’s calls with clients. Although everyone received the same amount of feedback, some employees felt overwhelmed by the feedback, while others didn’t.

Demonstrating again the impact of feedback overload, researchers noted:

“The greater the “feedback overload” employees reported, the more stressed they were, the less they wanted to respond, and the lower their performance as rated by their bosses.”

So how do you get it right?

I’ll state again that for most employees, you’re at a far greater risk of not providing enough feedback than providing too much feedback.

In any case, there are three common warning signs that can indicate feedback overload:

Warning sign one: Employees are getting frustrated and seem to be ‘overthinking things’

The effects of feedback overload tend to be most pronounced when you’re in an early learning phase trying to get a feel for the task. You’ll know what this feels like if you’ve ever been coached on how to ski, surf, play golf (or any other reasonably complex sport) by someone who’s reasonably good, but isn’t an instructor.

The untrained instructor can tell you plenty of things that you’re not doing right. But you’re so busy trying to fix your grip that you’ve forgotten about your feet. And what was it you were meant to be doing with your hips?

In this scenario it’s easy to get into a state of overload where you’re simply ‘overthinking’ things.

Fundamentally, employees should always feel that they know which ‘levers’ they can pull to improve their performance. Good feedback should reinforce the most effective ‘levers’ that employees have to improve their performance right now. Feedback overload complicates this by introducing too many new potential ‘levers’ to be prioritised and thought about simultaneously.

Warning sign two: Employees are focusing too heavily on the most recent feedback/data

Today’s business environment features a huge amount of random noise. In this environment, giving too much feedback at short intervals can lead employees to over-focus on the most recent (and noisy) data, and miss the longer-term trends.

This is important because employees will always treat their most recent feedback as the most important. (If you’re interested, you can read more about the salience and incorrect prioritization of recent feedback here).

Because employees will prioritise based on their most recent feedback, a typical sign of feedback overload is rapid swings in priorities, even on a weekly basis.

In this scenario, you’re just not giving employees enough time to understand what’s truly important and change their behavior, before you impose a new priority in your next feedback session.

Warning sign three: Employees are losing the ability to self assess their own performance

Whilst managers should have a significant role in performance ‘calibration’, it’s never your job to judge employees own performance for them.

I’m quoting from Consequences of individual feedback on behavior in organizations (the emphasis is mine): “For those in the position of giving feedback, it is necessary that they realize that very frequent feedback may connote a loss of personal control to the recipient, and also that frequent feedback from others may lead recipients to rely on external sources and not develop their own skill at judging their performance. Neither state is desirable.”

If your employees become completely dependent on you to assess whether they’ve done a good job, it’s a sign that you might be overdoing it with feedback.

In conclusion: More feedback is better, and will improve performance (up until a point)

As I’ve discussed in this piece, feedback overload is real. It is something that all managers should be aware of. But fear of feedback overload should never stop you from delivering regular and meaningful feedback (unless you’re seeing clear signs that you might be overdoing it).

One final test if you suspect that you might have overdone it with the feedback – simply ask your team. If your people are genuinely suffering from more feedback and guidance than they know what to do with, they’ll almost certainly tell you. People are generally pretty honest about whether you’re helping or hindering their performance.

Jon Windust

Jon Windust is the CEO at Cognology – Talent management software for the future of work. Over 250 Australian businesses use Cognology to power cutting-edge talent strategy. You can follow Jon on Twitter or LinkedIn.

The psychology behind better workplace feedback (15 surprising facts)

I’ve been writing a lot on feedback recently (See here, here and here for some of my recent feedback thinking). One of the reasons for my recent focus on feedback is because it’s such a simple yet powerful tool for improving performance. As I’ve been quoted saying previously: “feedback is probably the most cost effective performance management tool available”.

Delivering great feedback is cheap, easy to learn, and there’s no shortage of expert advice out there on how to do it well. But still nearly 65% of employees want more feedback than they’re currently getting. So it’s clear that there’s still a lot of room for improvement.

As a result I’ve been digging through some of the recent research on workplace feedback for practical insights. The piece that follows below isn’t a beginners guide to feedback (see here for the 101 guide to giving better feedback), but what I’ve done here is highlight a range of facts on workplace feedback. These are interesting discussion points that you can use to get your managers engaged in a broader discussion about just how powerful feedback can be.

I hope you enjoy reading these 15 feedback facts as much as I enjoyed pulling them together – I’d love to hear which facts have got you thinking in the comments below or on Twitter (tweet to @cognology)

1. There’s no such thing as valuable feedback from someone you don’t trust

When receiving feedback, employees don’t separate the content of feedback from the person delivering it. In other words, there’s no such thing as valuable feedback from someone that you don’t trust.

Before any feedback will be effective, the recipient must see you as a credible source of development advice. Critically, the person you’re giving feedback to must believe you have their interests at heart. If not, your feedback won’t be effective in driving behavioural change – no matter how well intentioned.

Read more: American Psychological Association

2. Struggling employees already realise that they have a problem

It’s easy to think that the role of negative feedback is to educate your employees on issues that haven’t come to their attention. But most of the time, that’s just not the case. In a study of nearly 4000 people who had just received constructive feedback, 74% of respondents indicated that they already knew about the problem and were not surprised to get negative feedback.

Most often, it’s not that employees aren’t aware of the issue – it’s that they don’t know how to respond. So just pointing out that they have a problem isn’t enough to be helpful. To improve performance, constructive feedback must go one step further and provide specific feedback around potential causes and solutions.

Read more: Harvard Business Review

3. The more you listen, the better employees think you are at giving feedback

If you want to give great feedback, the most important thing you can do is listen.
This is somewhat counter-intuitive: Many people typically about the feedback conversation as an almost one-way discussion where the manager provides advice and guidance.

But as the data shows (see below), more time spent listening has a strong payoff. The more you listen to employee views before giving feedback, the better the employee experiences and understands the feedback. It’s all about making sure employees understand and agree with the basis of the feedback, and buy into the course of action.

Listen more to feedback

Read more: Harvard Business Review

4. Most employees prefer corrective feedback to praise and recognition

A majority of employees prefer corrective feedback to praise and recognition. In this survey of 900 global employees, 57% of respondents stated that they prefer corrective (negative/constructive) feedback, whilst only 43% stated that they prefer praise or recognition.

Read more: Harvard Business Review

5. The more confident you are, the more likely it is you prefer negative feedback

Interestingly, the more confident you are, the more likely it is that you prefer corrective feedback. As clearly shown in the graphic below, confident individuals are more likely to prefer corrective feedback relative to positive praise or recognition.

Confident people prefer negative feedback

Read more: Harvard Business Review

6. Almost everyone loves receiving feedback, but hates giving it

It turns out that most people like getting feedback a lot more than they like giving it.

As shown in the visual below, most employees love receiving feedback (especially of the constructive variety). However, the same employees tend to dislike giving feedback (again, more specifically negative feedback).

Negative feedback

Read more: Harvard Business Review

7. Older workers want more feedback than younger generations

Older workers have a preference for both more positive and negative feedback than younger generations. As shown below, older generations were also much more likely to give positive feedback.

Whilst this is interesting and provides a strong counterpoint to the millennial feedback myth, it’s worth noting that the research didn’t control for rank or role – so some of this effect is likely to be explained by seniority.

Older people want more feedback

Read more: Harvard Business Review

8. Star performers need extra affirmation after setbacks

Recent research from London Business School shows that star performers need more positive affirmation after setbacks.

Researchers looked at the performance of top talent after they’ve had a major setback that involves loss of status. The findings show that when previously high performers lose status, their performance suffers. And the very best performers suffer the most. The mediocre performers, by contrast, barely suffer at all.

The research also shows that it was possible to mitigate the effects of this performance drop with targeted affirmation. The academics suggest that this reinforces just how important it is to give your star a break after they’ve bungled something or lost face. As a manager, you have a critical role here in helping your star performer regain status by letting them know how you value their work.

Read more: Harvard Business Review

9. Positive feedback should praise effort, not ability

When giving positive feedback, it’s important to praise effort rather than ability.

Stanford psychology Carol Dweck has showed that focusing individual praise on talent rather than effort leads to poor performance. In a number of studies, Dweck has showed that praising individuals for their natural talent leads to increased risk aversion and those individuals exhibiting being more disturbed by setbacks.

This contrasts with individuals who are consistently praised for their effort (rather than ability). These individuals are more likely to build determination and resilience, leading to better performance over the long term.

Read more: Harvard Business Review

10. Strong team engagement is built on a culture of honest feedback

This recent study of over twenty thousand leaders showed that strong team engagement is built on honest feedback.

In the study, leaders ranking in the bottom 10% of feedback givers saw team engagement scores that averaged just 25 percent.

In contrast, those leaders in the top 10% for feedback giving saw team engagement scores average 77 percent.

Team engagement is built on honest feedback

Read more: Forbes

11. Improving performance requires both specific goals and specific feedback

Most of us know from our own work experience that specific feedback is significantly more helpful in improving long-term performance (compared to general platitudes).

But it turns out that specific feedback isn’t helpful unless you have specific goals as a frame of reference (see the visual below for easy explanation).

Improving performance with feedback

Read more: Journal of Applied Psychology

12. To improve effort, focus on relative feedback

Fascinatingly, the most motivating kind of feedback is finding out you’re just behind someone else. It’s most motivating knowing that you have the chance to ‘win’ (but aren’t currently doing so).

As the researchers in this study stated: “Managers trying to encourage employees to work harder, for example, might provide feedback about how a person is doing relative to a slightly better performer,’ they said. ‘Strategically scheduling breaks when someone is behind should also help focus people on the deficit and subsequently increase effort. This should lead to stronger performance and ultimately success.’”

Read more: BPS Digest

13. Following-up feedback is critical for improving performance

This research study showed the power of following up feedback in improving long-term performance.

With 252 managers over 5 years, researchers found that: “Managers who met with direct reports to discuss their upward feedback improved more than other managers, and managers improved more in years when they discussed the previous year’s feedback with direct reports than in years when they did not discuss the previous year’s feedback with direct reports. “

Significantly, it seems that the more action you take to follow-up and truly understand feedback, the larger the performance improvement.

Read more: Personnel Psychology

14. Withholding negative feedback is really about protecting yourself (not the recipient)

The reason you withhold feedback isn’t to protect the recipient, it’s to protect yourself.

In this research study led by Carla Jeffries, researchers tested how the content of feedback changed based on the medium of delivery (face to face or anonymous) and the self-esteem of the person giving feedback.

As the researchers described: “The findings provided strong evidence that we mostly withhold negative feedback to protect ourselves, not to protect the person we’re judging. If people’s motives were selfless then arguably the feedback provided should have been just as positive regardless of how it was delivered. In fact, students in the face-to-face condition provided the most positive feedback” 

Read more: BPS Digest

15. The more you ask for feedback, the more effective you are as a leader

Leaders who ask for feedback are significantly more effective. In this study of leadership effectiveness across 51,896 managers, there was a strong correlation between the tendency to seek feedback and leadership effectiveness.

The survey results showed:

  • Leaders in the bottom 10% of asking for feedback were also rated in the lowest 15th percentile in overall leadership effectiveness.  
  • Leaders in the top 10% in asking for feedback were rated in average in the top 14% for leadership effectiveness.

Effective leaders ask for feedback

Read more: Forbes

Jon Windust

Jon Windust is the CEO at Cognology – Talent management software for the future of work. Over 250 Australian businesses use Cognology to power cutting-edge talent strategy. You can follow Jon on Twitter or LinkedIn.