There is a great deal of attention given to the terms “formative assessments” and “summative assessments” in education circles. “Feedback” is sometimes substituted for “assessment,” but the principle doesn’t change.
Let me illustrate with something familiar to most of us. When we fly from airport A to airport B, we note that the pilot gets us there safely and mostly on time, which we appreciate. Our recognition of the pilot’s achievement is the summative feedback: we are grading his overall performance based on the end result.
We are not frequently aware that even on the short flights, the pilot is continually changing course: adjusting the altitude or the direction of the plane. The plane commonly veers off course due to atmospheric conditions, but based on feedback from instruments, the co-pilot and air traffic control, the pilot brings the plane back on course and lands it safely.
We don’t berate the pilot because he deviated from his planned course a dozen times or more; we praise him because he made corrections and got us to our collective destination. This is formative feedback: the intermediate evaluations that individually are low-stakes evaluations, but together, they produce a significant result.
In many organizations, an annual review is customary. In some of those organizations, this may be the only assessment that an employee receives from his leader. What a shock it can be to feel that one is on course all year, only to find that a five-degree course deviation eight months ago led to being significantly off course. Now a major correction is needed (unless a crash has already occurred) in order to return back to the planned path. Had intermediate feedback been given early on, the correction would have been more comfortable and less noticeable.
How can a leader give a beneficial formative assessment?
The core of formative feedback for the employee consists of three elements, which can be expressed in three questions:
- Where are you right now?
The employee must have a sense of his destination. Expectations should be clarified, as well as checkpoints.
- Where do you need to be right now?
As above, if clear expectations are given, the employee should already know if he or she is off course.
- How can you (or we) close the gap between the two?
Very often an individual readily recognizes that he or she is off course, but has no idea how to return to the planned path, or must be encouraged to make the correction. This may be the good leader’s most important task!
The desired assessment should occur at three levels:
The leader should empower the employee with the necessary tools and training to self-evaluate. I previously wrote about the Dunning Kruger Effect, which describes the need for an individual to reach a certain level of knowledge and skill in order to properly evaluate their own performance (or others’ performance).
If the leader doesn’t recognize this, then he is failing as a leader. We cannot expect excellence if we do not train for it.
- Peer assessment
In team efforts, the employee should be able to turn to a colleague for a meaningful formative assessment. Again, this requires that both individuals have the necessary tools. Empowering the team is particularly critical to the success of peer assessments. They must know that this is acceptable. In a sense, this empowerment is a delegation of authority to all involved, and relieves the leader/manager of a portion of his burden.
- Leader (manager) assessment
Finally, the leader assesses. If the team has a proper understanding of the tasks being evaluated and the intended results, this assessment will confirm the judgment of the individual and their peers. This can be a powerful morale builder for everyone. It also becomes a checkpoint for the leader to assess his efficacy in directing the project.
Of course, all of this necessitates that the leader have a presence among his team. The principle of MBWA (management by walking around) lends itself well to providing formative feedback. If a leader remains isolated and doesn’t offer correction until disaster strikes, then trust, confidence and morale will be undermined.
I am not suggesting that the leader micromanage. This is not desirable. But the leader should train, empower and monitor personally in order to see that his team reaches their desired destination; that they achieve their individual, team and organizational goals.
A good leader will provide frequent navigational assistance to his team because he wants to see them reach their destination safely.