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Mastery Feedback Loops

ben-biddle's picture

Mastery Feedback Loops

By Ben Biddle on September 21, 2012

The name "Mastery Feedback Loops" is derived from Daniel Pinks' Drive.  In it, he identifies three intrinsic motivations in the workplace: purpose, autonomy and mastery (to which I would also add identity, to account for the social nature of the human animal, but that's another discussion).  The practice formerly known as performance management needs to be better aligned with these intrinsic motivations.  For that reason, mastery feedback loops would differ in three important ways:

  1. The focus would be on mastery of capabilities - Instead of obsessing on backward looking metrics, the goal would be to constantly improve and make appropriate investments in a firm's talent (even when that means "reallocating resources" away from underperforming talent).  Coaches, rather than managers, would help individuals identify the capabilities that are important to the success of the business (collective, purpose-driven goals) as well as the individuals ongoing professional development (autonomous goals).  Metrics would then be set to monitor progress toward the ideal mastery of those capabilities.
  2. The process would be decoupled from compensation and promotions - Tying feedback to promotions and raises only increases the stress and negative emotion from both receiving and giving constructive criticism.  Taking that out of the equation returns the focus to where it should be - continuous improvement, kaizen for the individual.  Concerns about that next bump up create a distraction and can poison the employee/manager relationship.  Money may also not be the best way to motivate the desired behaviors.
  3. Feedback would be social and continuous - Freed from the strictures of the fiscal calendar, feedback could be delivered with more frequency so individuals can monitor their progress on an ongoing basis, helping to set the stage for flow in the workplace.  Brining in a greater variety of perspectives will improve the quality of feedback and incentives for improving, helping individuals understand how they are perceived by all parts of the organization (social esteem being important to human happiness).

An interesting area for further investigation might also be how to align performance management better to the intrinsic motivations of groups as well as individuals.  As the social behavior of hives and swarms suggest, it cannot just be assumed that the same intrinsic motivations will dominate in a group.

First Steps (extra credit) 

The management hack "Just-in-time Teams" suggests some ideas for how mastery feedback loops might be implemented, bottoms up.

  • Organize into groups of 7-13 individuals, ideally around specific capabilities or competencies that the constituents are looking to develop or that are important to their roles at the company
  • Meet regularly (weekly if possible) for an hour or so over coffee (or other refreshments) in something like a performance support group (hmmm, maybe that's what we should call this hack)
  • Working together without any nominated leader, set mastery goals for each person in the group; maybe assign some at home individual pre-work so the process moves quickly while meeting
  • Help "coffee chat" members set specific metrics to monitor their progress toward mastery and figure out how to take the necessary measurements
  • Each week (two weeks or month), discuss where each person is at and provide advice on how to improve
  • Use an online tool (e.g. wiki, Google Site, etc.) to post metrics of progress and to solicit and provide feedback asynchronously
  • At the end of the year and start of the formal performance review, prepare documentation on each group member, signed collectively by the group, recording how that person's performance has changed over the course of the year; this document can be brought into conversations with management as an additional data point in the review/evaluation/appraisal and help make the case for promotions and raises where appropriate

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nan-mehta's picture

Hi Ben,
I have a question:
These days, unfortunately, there are individuals in an organization that are narcissistic and cannot handle a high performer colleague who quickly becomes liked by the team and management. How does/would your definition, with its emphasis on the feedback received by collegues to measure an individual's performance ensure that a high-performer does not become the target of an under-performer, jealous colleague who has just bullied the rest of the team into submitting negative comments/feedback/documentation on his/her performance? If your defintion does/would not address this, it is worth considering. This may seem far-fetched but it is an increasing trend in workplaces and therefore I think any future Management 2.0 definition needs to have a way of administering and combatting this. Thank You.

ben-biddle's picture

Hi, thanks for your question. It is an interesting hypothetical to consider. In addition to the specific scenario you describe, there are many ways in which office politics can negatively impact performance, especially when it involves the sorts of individuals Bob Sutton calls a--holes (see his book with the same word appearing in the title). The conceptual system of mastery feedback loops and its corollary of performance support groups are designed to minimize, if not nullify, precisely such wasteful politics and toxic interpersonal relationships. Here's how.

Mastery feedback loops depend on inputs from a variety of sources - managers, subordinates and peers. That's the social aspect. As with any sampling, there is a risk of outliers, both good and bad, but on average, the emergent picture should be a much more well-balanced reflection of the actual performance than relying on managers alone. Keep in mind, anyone conspiring against coworkers and trying to cajole other team members are subject to the same feedback loops and run a serious risk of backlash, a built-in disincentive to game the system in that way.

What if statistics were tracked on the ratio of positive to negative feedback provided by each individual (e.g. how often someone submits praise versus recommendations for improvement)? That number could be published, without ever revealing the actual feedback provided to whom. Social pressure would quickly reign in anyone sowing discord for personal gain, and serving as another feedback loop, it might also get more people to participate in the feedback process.

Something that I did not already touch on but had assumed was need for some some guiding principles on how to provide feedback. People probably need some basic training and instruction on providing feedback. While objective metrics for measuring progress toward mastery and building feedback loops may be preferred, some subjective feedback is inevitable. We're social animals, and how we are perceived by colleagues actually impacts workplace performance. Those providing feedback should be required to include specific and actionable recommendations for improvement to ensure criticisms are always constructive.

By diffusing the power and responsibility of providing feedback across the entire organization, replacing managers in the process with coaches concerned with helping you attain mastery, and putting the focus back on professional development, rather than the zero sum game of getting ahead, mastery feedback loops and performance support groups would help fix what's wrong with performance management, including the politics and a--holes. I hope if you agree, you will like this hack and share it amongst your network. Please reply back with additional comments or questions. Thanks again.

nan-mehta's picture

Hi Ben,
Thanks for the thorough and excellent answer. I think you make very good points here and I actually worked in an organization that was implementing an application that enabled exactly your idea/concept. I didn't get a chance to see the results so not sure if it worked for everyone and in the way you suggest here. One of the benefits of your idea is that it addresses the issue of emloyees, especially the younger generations demanding more, frequent and continuous feedback on their performance. Again, thank you and I will share your concept with others.

nan-mehta's picture


rajal-sood's picture

Thoughtful and very well stated.

I like the idea of just in time teams and would like to see this idea evolving in the new era when the work is more distributed (outsourcing to same location or distant locations) and still need to be collaboratively.

Further more, aligning performance management to the intrinsic motivations of groups as well as individuals could be daunting task. I have seen individuals who said that money doesn't motivate them but all their actions depicted otherwise. It would be interesting to see some ideas around this topic

Lastly, I believe that peers are the best people for individual performance feedback and should be incorporated in the process in addition to the coaches.

ben-biddle's picture

Thanks for your comments Rajal.

I agree that balancing intrinsic motivations for both groups and individuals may be tricky. The first question in my mind is whether there is actually a substantive difference in the intrinsic motivations of groups and individuals and if so, what is it? I'm not familiar with research on the topic but have to assume there are some differences to account for. The real trick is to provide proper incentives for the individual to subjugate individual gains for the good of the group - optimizing the system rather than the part - in situations where the two may diverge. I don't have the answer, but it is an interesting challenge to think about.

I also think you are right about including peers in the feedback loops. That's the "social" part of point #3, and in the "performance support groups" I described, peers actually play the role of coaches. I introduce the concept of coaches really to get away from the idea that this should be manager driven at all. A coach could be a peer or a mentor or someone working in training and development; the role is one of facilitator and advocate in the process. Because the process is decouple from compensation and promotions, it doesn't need to be someone in a position of formal authority, and in fact, it would probably be better if it wasn't.

rajal-sood's picture

Hi Ben,

Intriguing topic.I’d like to volunteer to help develop this definition further.


ben-biddle's picture

It would be great to work with you on it in the next sprint, whatever that holds for us. Be sure to like the hack and share it within your network - over Twitter, LinkedIn or whatever the case may be.


ben-biddle's picture

Rather than managing performance, business leaders should be managing a system of mastery feedback loops, appealing to the intrinsic motivations of workers to perform at their absolute best and empowering them with more timely and actionable information on how to improve. As a short term hack for changing performance management, individuals could self organize into performance support groups to realize some of the benefits from mastery feedback loops while the formal performance review processes are still stuck in traditions of the past.

chris-grams's picture

Hi Ben--great to see you on here. Very intriguing suggestion... can you tell me more about why you think it would help to decouple feedback from compensation? I have my own ideas, but I'd love to hear yours...

ben-biddle's picture

Hi Chris - oh that was just a place holder. I've finally found the time to get all my thoughts out in written word. Take a look at the system of mastery feedback loops I came up with and the performance support groups hack for realizing some of the benefits bottoms up in the near term.