5 questions for Kilian Wawoe

25 November 2021
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“People overestimate the impact of compensation and underestimate the value of good conversation.” Based on both research and experience, that’s the conclusion drawn by Kilian Wawoe, Assistant Professor of Human Resources Management at VU and author of popular management books. PROOF talked to him about the importance of feedback.

1. Your research focuses on evaluation and compensation in organisations. What’s one of your most important findings?
"Evaluations and compensation are a means to an end. Usually, that end involves contributing to job satisfaction, improving people’s performance, motivating them and helping them to develop, keeping them happy and treating them fairly. My research shows that compensation, in other words financial rewards, contributes only to the last of these: fair treatment. Just think about it: you always compare your own salary to that of your colleagues or the market level, and check if your salary reflects the company’s performance. For all the other goals, what helps most is a good conversation between employees and managers.”

Employees don’t just want to hear that they are doing well; they also want to hear what needs to be improved. And, because the context and organisation you work in are constantly changing, you need to have that conversation continuously.”

2. What does “a good conversation” actually involve?
"What motivates employees most is progress. Financial incentives, interpersonal support or recognition for good work are less important. So a good conversation between employee and manager always focuses on progress and growth. Employees don’t just want to hear that they are doing well; they also want to hear what needs to be improved. And, because the context and organisation you work in are constantly changing, you need to have that conversation continuously. Our changing world has actually made performance management obsolete, because any performance goals set are outdated within a month. To really help employees to grow, you need to work on a feedback culture."

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3. What would you say is needed for a good feedback culture?
"Three things: enough time and opportunity for feedback, a system that is set up for it, and people who are open to hearing it. Take sport, for instance. If you’re a hockey player, you spend 90% of your week practising and 10% playing matches. Most of your time is spent focusing on improving and growing. You give each other feedback so you can improve as a team. There is enough time for feedback, the system is set up for it, and players want to hear it. That’s not – or much less – the case in organisations. In business, on average, less than 1% of your time is spent on development. Time simply isn’t made for it, the system isn’t set up for it, and people don’t always want to hear it.”

In business, on average, less than 1% of your time is spent on development. Time simply isn’t made for it.”

4. Creating a feedback culture sounds quite complicated. Where do you start?
"You have to start with managers: they too must actively ask for feedback and be open to it. Otherwise, you can’t expect employees to dare to do so. Giving feedback takes guts. It means you sometimes say things that you rather wouldn’t. I’m quick to see poor performance as a failure to give someone feedback early enough. To intervene sooner.”

5. So in a feedback culture, you continuously have a good conversation with each other. You just explained why that is easier said than done. Can you share some tips for having this kind of conversation?
"The basic rules for a good conversation between manager and employee are that it is focused on growth and connection, and never limits people’s autonomy. Those rules are derived from Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s theory of self-determination. These are the things that motivate people in their work. In a good conversation, you look back as little as possible and forward as much as possible. The question is: what can employees do to become better at their job? It's about the opportunities they have or can take to grow. Working on connection is essential: that’s the basis for trust between manager and employee, and it’s what determines how employees accept and deal with feedback.”

Want to know more about how happy employees make change sustainably successful? Read all about it in PROOF's sixth book, Happy change. Order it here.