Micro-Surveys: Moving Performance Management from Good to Great

Matthew Tonken and Jurgen Bank
October, 2015
by Matthew Tonken, Head of Virtual Assessment Tech Solutions, BTS, and Jurgen Bank, Senior Director, BTS

It is a well-established fact that the traditional performance management process does not work as well as it could. Only three out of ten US workers agree that their company’s performance management program actually improves performance, and only two out of ten workers say their company helps poorly performing workers improve, according to a survey by Watson Wyatt, a leading human capital consulting firm. Yet the performance management program represents a lost opportunity; when designed and implemented properly, these programs can “have a strong, positive impact on individual performance and financial results – our studies suggest possibly a 20 percent improvement in shareholder value,” says Scott Cohen, Ph.D., expert in performance management and national director of talent management at Watson Wyatt.1 So why do we keep these programs in place?

One of the flaws of the typical performance management model is the limited nature of the feedback, as it generally comes from a single source: the boss. Feedback can, and should, come from multiple sources. The 360 degree survey, for example, is a more comprehensive approach as it includes a broader range of feedback sources – yet the 360 degree survey still is, as Marcus Buckingham writes in the Harvard Business Review, “at best, a waste of everyone’s time, and at worst actively damaging to both the individual and the organization.This stems from a variety of reasons – the questions are too vague, or no follow-up plan is set following feedback, to name a couple. Overall, however, the main underlying reasons that 360s and performance management programs fail are threefold:

  1. They occur only at set times of the year – and often at the worst times, such as the closing of the fiscal year – rather than being frequent and responsive. Because of this infrequency and poor timing, they effectively gather feedback based only on an evaluator’s most recent impression of someone, or on the parts of one’s behavior that stand out the most (which may not be representative of their overall performance).
  2. They are laborious and time consuming, so people strongly dislike doing them and have little incentive to put the energy and time into giving accurate, thoughtful feedback.
  3. The standardized set of behaviors on which competency models are based and employees are universally rated de-personalizes the nature of the feedback, while simultaneously discouraging people from negatively rating others with the fear that the same will be done to them.

So what should we do? Flawed as they may be, the 360 and performance management processes are in place for a purpose – a purpose that actually needs to be served.

First and foremost, you cannot improve your performance management model if you are not assessing people on the right criteria. Rather than basing employee assessments on behaviors outlined by generic competency models, you need to first define what “great” looks like for the people in your organization. After building this “Great Profile,” you can then assess and develop your organization’s talent according to an accurate set of behaviors and requirements specific to your organization.

While it is absolutely necessary to pinpoint what behaviors make someone “great” in your organization, it is equally critical to gather accurate data about each individual’s performance when evaluating these behaviors. With the need to accelerate development amongst your high potential populations, for example, it is essential that you identify high potential candidates based on accurate, comprehensive data about their performance, not on one manager’s subjective opinion. As such, the best way to ensure accuracy in assessing talent – and thus set up your leadership development programs for success – is to leave your traditional performance management model or 360 behind.

Imagine instead a digital-enabled type of ongoing feedback that is immediate, easy to give, and happens the way feedback should happen – in response to exhibited behaviors and with the intention of enabling the recipient to improve. Feedback is requested and submitted immediately after a specific instance occurs – a meeting, a presentation, etc. – and giving it takes such little time that it becomes an easy, routine habit, not a daunting task. Similar to a 360 but with an even greater range of feedback providers, this feedback can come from anyone with whom the employee interacts. Through gathering feedback via these “micro-surveys” from many more people much more frequently, you can look longitudinally at behavior and map an individual’s progress over the course of time. Evaluations are based not just on the impression an individual holds of another at one point in time, but rather on a broader picture painted by a wide range of data-points. Rather than looking back at someone’s performance and taking the things that stand out the most – the outlier behaviors – to be representative of their whole performance, you can instead look at the tale told by this compilation of small instances to accurately depict the norm of someone’s behavior.

It comes down to this: By increasing the frequency of your performance reviews, you are actually taking the inconvenience and stress out of the process – thus allowing these reviews to truly have an impact, and setting up your people and organization for success. By taking these “snapshots,” you are actually gaining a bigger-picture, more accurate view of a person’s performance over the course of time. Keep an eye out for more to come about BTS’ digitized performance management solution.

Learn more about BTS’ Assessment Centers and Leadership Development solutions.


Buckingham, Marcus. “The Fatal Flaw with 360 Surveys.” Harvard Business Review, October 17, 2011. https://hbr.org/2011/10/the-fatal-flaw-with-360-survey

“U.S. Workers Give Performance Management a Failing Grade.” Watson Wyatt, P.R. NewsWire. April 19, 2004. http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/us-workers-give-performance-management-programs-a-failing-grade-watson-wyatt-survey-finds-72532067.html

[1] “U.S. Workers Give Performance Management a Failing Grade,” Watson Wyatt, P.R. NewsWire, April 19, 2004. http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/us-workers-give-performance-management-programs-a-failing-grade-watson-wyatt-survey-finds-72532067.html

[2] Marcus Buckingham, “The Fatal Flaw with 360 Surveys,” Harvard Business Review, October 17, 2011. https://hbr.org/2011/10/the-fatal-flaw-with-360-survey


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