Feedback and performance reviews

Feedback and performance reviews

Just about every manager has to give feedback at some stage. Because of the nature of appraisals in business today, this almost always involves filling in an appraisal form. Some people dread having to do this even in their own language, so it can be quite a daunting task to have to write in English for cross-cultural appraisals – and send a copy to each employee in advance, for their comments. They then have to write these in English too.

Case study A native English-speaking senior manager of a global multinational company experienced unexpected problems when writing and receiving feedback on and from his cross-cultural teams.

C o p y r i g h t 2 0 0 9 . K o g a n P a g e .

A l l r i g h t s r e s e r v e d . M a y n o t b e r e p r o d u c e d i n a n y f o r m w i t h o u t p e r m i s s i o n f r o m t h e p u b l i s h e r , e x c e p t f a i r u s e s p e r m i t t e d u n d e r U . S . o r a p p l i c a b l e c o p y r i g h t l a w .

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132 Executive writing skills for managers

Although clearly expert in using English that would be understood by NE speakers, he realized that some non-native English-speaking staff did not understand his evaluations. What was more, he did not understand some of their feedback either. Together we identified the problem. It was that the lack of a common parlance was causing outright confusion. Like was not being compared with like. That is never good in business. In view of this, I devised a glossary of English terms for feedback ratings, which you will find set out later in this chapter. And what was the manager’s verdict? This is worth its weight in gold. He was able to eradicate the wide variation in writing and meanings that had caused the problems. And he spread the message throughout the company, wishing that this diagnostic writing tool had been identified years ago.

When ‘fair’ might equal ‘bad’

When giving feedback in writing, non-NE speakers often write perfectly constructed sentences – but the English words they choose don’t always give the full and accurate meaning of their thoughts. For example, they may write that somebody has made a ‘good effort’ where a native English speaker may write ‘excel- lent effort’. This difference may, at first sight, seem minimal. But there can be an unexpected and unwanted knock-on effect where people’s efforts or achievements are understated – just because an evaluator chose the wrong English word. Your staff can feel bad about it. And understandably, it can affect performance.

When ‘quite’ might equal ‘very’

Even UK and US English can vary significantly. I remember one American head teacher referring to the fact that he was ‘quite proud’ of a pupil’s outstanding academic achievement.

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To a native English reader this qualification ‘quite’ can dilute the degree of pride. The expression then appears to mean ‘slightly proud’ – although I have no doubt the teacher was very proud indeed of his star pupil.

‘On the right track’; or have you reached your destination?

A non-native English senior manager once wrote in an ap- praisal of a first-class management trainee (who was a native English speaker) that the employee was ‘on the right track’. Their intended meaning was ‘This employee is doing well.’ But the meaning understood by the native reader was ‘This employee is not yet where he needs to be.’ The bright young trainee felt aggrieved that his boss had written in his performance review that he was only ‘on the right track’. He felt that he was much further on than being ‘on track’. In his opinion, he had just about reached his destination – and was ready for promotion. Ironically, his boss agreed – but his English had not expressed this. His writing had unintentionally alienated the person he had meant to support.

Lose (or quit) your job because of the wrong English word?

Let’s discuss this point further. What if job cuts are to be made? All things being equal, who goes first? Should it be the people who have arrived at their destination, ie who are where they want to be, at the top and performing strongly, as the company wants them to do? Or are the people more likely to be ‘let go’ (made redundant) those who are straggling, even struggling to ‘get there’ and, by inference, to achieve their goals?

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134 Executive writing skills for managers

As a senior executive using English, you will understand the significance of what I am saying. But you have probably never seen it in a self-help book on English before. It is about time it was – because imagine losing your job just because your boss used the wrong English word! Or imagine feeling like quitting because of that same wrong choice of English word. Use of English impacts on performance and results. In the box is another real-life example to show you the importance of getting your English right.

Case study In the sales and marketing division of one international business association, an employee who excelled at her job unexpectedly quit, giving the minimum of notice. Why? She knew she was great at her job and expected highly positive feedback when her boss was reviewing her performance in sales and customer service. She knew that she was better than ‘good’ and would have been seriously offended by being rated as ‘quite good’. But what her boss did was even worse than this – to her way of thinking at least. Even though he knew she was a first-class member of staff, he did not express this to her. Instead he wrote ‘satisfactory’ for her rating in these two areas of performance. It is a correct English word – but it was exactly the wrong word in this context. She was incensed when she read the rating. Rather than argue her case, she decided that enough was enough. She sought and secured a job elsewhere, within weeks. The company lost a star employee for entirely the wrong reasons. What is almost worse is that that particular boss has not learnt he should change his approach and choice of written English. So a similar occurrence is likely to happen again in that company.

Can your company afford to risk the kind of occurrence des- cribed? It shows how different nationalities may overstate or

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understate things. It can help cross-cultural readers to know the nationality of the writer. Native English speakers might look for subtle nuances and clues from fellow native speakers, and understand how to read between the lines. But when readers know that non-NE writers are involved, they will not expect the same clues and are likely to make different allowances. It is important for your business to understand this. Problems need not arise if you evaluate the right English for your audience. For example, consider whether you have come across terms that irritated or confused you. If so, write down as many as you can think of in the box below, and learn to avoid them. Check with colleagues to see if they feel the same way about them.

Feedback terms that irritate or confuse

Feedback ratings: other differences


Ratings go from 0 to 5, where 0 = poor and 5 = excellent:

0 = poor, unsatisfactory

1 = adequate, satisfactory

2 = quite good, room for improvement, reasonably good attempt

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136 Executive writing skills for managers

3 = good

4 = very good

5 = great, excellent, outstanding, first class, role model

Even within a single culture (take the UK as an example) there will be a split between people who:

 are comfortable with describing first-class performance using the words I attribute to the top rating, 5;

 are uncomfortable with so doing, and will use the words I attribute to the second-to-top rating, 4;

 feel that ‘room for improvement’ must apply to all levels (because we cannot ever reach perfection).

Improvement ratings

This is another area where ratings expressed in English might help you. The ratings go from 0 to 5, where 0 = not improving and 5 = improving strongly:

0 = not improving, no improvement

1 = not improving adequately, no satisfactory improvement, no discernible improvement

2 = slight improvement

3 = improving adequately, satisfactory improvement

4 = improving well, good improvement, marked improvement

5 = improving strongly, strong improvement, impressive im- provement, outstanding improvement

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Feedback and performance reviews 137

Star ratings

Here is another example of how ratings in English can confuse when interpreted differently by different readers. Each year the UK Audit Commission assesses the performance of UK local authorities and the services they provide for local people. This is called the Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA), against which a local council or other public service is given a rating. Now bear in mind that the ratings are all about seeing services from the public’s perspective. Thus the ratings have to be expressed in a way that the public can easily relate to. The Commission decided that the following ratings would fit the bill nicely:

4 stars (excellent)

3 stars (good)

2 stars (fair)

1 star (weak)

0 stars (poor)

This is the system that has been operating for a number of years now and councils that achieve the 4-star rating are de- lighted to do so. But some members of the public (their target audience) are less proud of them than you might think. Do you know why? It is because a 0- to 4-star rating makes many of the target audience think of hotel ratings, where 5 stars (or, as I write, the bar is being raised to 6 or 7 stars) are the badge of excellence. And whenever we write English in business, we must keep in mind why we are writing and who our readers are. So in this instance, target readers’ expectations might well be that, for their councils to be excellent, they need to achieve a 5-star rating.

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138 Executive writing skills for managers

Can you imagine how all these issues can become even more complicated when differing cultures are involved? Every time we write, we need to see things from our readers’ perspective and make sure that the system we use is as foolproof as pos- sible. Put simply: are our words in English really saying what we mean them to say to our readers?

Your checklist for action

 Be aware that some words may have different nuances for native English and non-native English readers: this may have unintended effects in the sensitive area of cross- cultural staff appraisal.

 Design a glossary of ratings terms in English for each scen- ario where these are needed.

 Use this as common parlance in business English – to re- duce misunderstandings and avoid causing unintentional offence.

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