Which one is more like your workplace?

Option 1: Annual review time is like Christmas: employees count down the days, HR plans a party to celebrate, and staff look forward to the meaningful feedback and rewarding exchanges that occur during the review meeting.

Or, option 2: Annual reviews are dreaded as a lot of work for managers and a demotivating experience for staff that culminates with an awkward conversation and an inevitable disconnect in promotion and raise expectations.

In either case, the one thing both situations underscore is the significant impact reviews can have on the work environment. Understanding the link between feedback style and culture is critical to ensuring a successful review process.

Radical Transparency

Bridgewater and Netflix are known for embracing the idea that all feedback should be open, transparent and available to everyone within the organization. It has been hailed as a breakthrough in addressing several common employee complaints, like meaningless performance reviews, the inability to affect change and lack of clear communication.

On the flip side, employees within those environments report being under more pressure, strain and stress as mistakes are aired openly, feedback is given bluntly and publicly and there is no respite from transparency.

To implement this level of transparency requires a strong, long-term commitment from the senior leadership; a complete overhaul of the evaluation tools; and implementation of systems to support the ongoing effort. If the entire system is not embraced and consistently supported, the culture will quickly become toxic as employees either leave or find a way to exploit the weaknesses in the system.

Radical Obfuscation

At the other end of the spectrum is a feedback process common in many organizations: indirect communication. Specifically, instead of telling an employee her actions were below standard, we provide opportunities for her to try again.

Without feedback on the previous performance, she exhibits the same behavior confirming the manager’s suspicion that she just doesn’t get it. The employee senses things are stacked against her, affecting her confidence and attitude. Her co-workers notice her attitude and the cycle she is in with her manager and either become resentful that she is receiving so many chances or annoyed with her attitude.

The employee then ends up with a negative review and is either fired or given the opportunity to fix a problem she does not know how to fix. If she is fired, staff is unclear exactly why but will come up with rationalizations to try to help address their fear they are next.

If she is allowed to stay, co-workers will be unclear but will either continue to alienate her or conspire with her about the communication problems within the organization. All of these add up to an unstable, negative culture.

The bottom line is that it is leadership’s prerogative to establish a feedback process that reflects its style. However, to ensure the feedback loop does what we want it to, we have to make an effort to analyze and understand the impact our style has on subordinate workstyles and decide whether that impact propels our ideas and measurement of productivity and success or undermines our culture.