In HR, business, and life, people search for answers when they should be looking at questions.
There are few places this is truer than in the case of the employee performance review.
If you're a regular here on the PerformYard blog, you know that we often cover performance management language, phrasing and general philosophy. This time, we're going to take it a step further by looking at the two fundamental types of questions (namely, open-ended and closed-ended questions) to see where each one belongs in your employee appraisal form.
Why you should love open-ended questions
There's no shortage of performance coaching experts who swear by open-ended questions.
Leading executive coach David Brendel is one of those experts. David even goes as far as to say that “failure is rare when managers use open-ended questions thoughtfully.”
Why the love for open-ended questions? To boil it down, you don’t know what kind of answer you’ll get — and when it comes to performance management, that's a very good thing. With a typical closed-ended question, both you and the ratee know what’s coming. There is a range of set options (yes/no, strongly agree/strongly disagree, etc.) and everything else is left unexplored.
Open-ended questions, on the other hand, create an opportunity to discover completely new ideas and problems that might have otherwise flown under the radar.
Experts like David also point out that open-ended questions inherently exhibit more respect for an employee’s opinion. According to a survey from Right Management, showing that you value an employee's knowledge and insight can translate into increased engagement. The HR consulting firm found that 53% of employees named 'respect for their knowledge and experience' as their top expectation from leadership in defining "success at work", just above mutual trust.
What's the value of closed-ended questions?
If open-ended questions are so great, why even bother with closed-ended questions?
The answer: Data measurement.
As awesome as open-ended questions are, they can’t be as easily absorbed and "crunched" as closed-ended questions. Closed-ended questions are perfect for making manageable data out of thousands of responses to different questions. As the experts at SurveyMonkey, one of the world’s leading survey platforms, say, “[closed-ended questions] are designed to create data that is easily quantifiable.”
Actionable data is the main goal of the closed-ended question. It's also why, despite the growing emphasis on performance coaching and transparency, many employee appraisal forms are heavily weighted toward closed-ended questions.
But closed-ended surveys require the asker to really know their stuff. The reviewer needs to know not only what the company’s metric for success is — but also how to track and measure that metric or datapoint.
Taking Google’s managerial survey as an example, the closed-ended questions go after the kind of smart, targeted data that can identify whether a manager is succeeding in keeping the team on task, e.g., "My manager gives me actionable feedback that helps me improve my performance." They ask the reviewer (in this case, the employee) to Disagree or Agree using a 1-5 point scale because they know this is how they will measure their feedback across the organization — an end that a simple "Yes" or "No" answer couldn't achieve.
Google can now get a statistically relevant idea of how well or poorly the manager is performing and follow up with both the manager and the team to learn more. The University of St. Olaf sums it up well, saying, “a single closed-ended question can tell a researcher how,” but “it cannot tell the researcher why”.
How to strike the right balance
No matter how much performance data you accrue, you will inevitably hit a point where you need to know more about why things are they way they are within your organization. That's where open-ended questions come in.
But the main issue with open-ended questions, is practicality.
While it's easy to read the latest article in Harvard Business Review and agree that we should all be asking our teams open-ended questions regularly as part of continuous feedback, team brainstorming, and more, actually asking (not to mention sorting through!) a slew of open-ended questions is much more challenging and time-consuming.
Example 1: Open-ended follow-up questions
One way to hit the right balance of open and closed-ended questions is to use open-ended questions on a smaller scale review, after the bigger review has identified your problem spots.
For example, let’s say Company A finds out that overall, people feel engaged and satisfied at work, but their web design department is struggling. Company A can send out a smaller, much easier to parse, set of open-ended questions tailored directly to that department in order to learn more.
Example 2: Add a respondent outlet
Another option is to mix your open-ended why-seeking questions in with the closed-ended questions on the same appraisal form. This could be what SurveyMonkey and other experts call a “respondent outlet" — an open-ended question at the end of the survey (or sections of the survey) that gives respondents an outlet to say what they feel and fill in the blanks for you.
You’ve probably seen this method yourself on at least one customer survey. And there’s a decent chance you left the open-ended question blank — especially if it felt too generic. Unfortunately, many businesses use respondent outlets for show, which risks making them useless.
Google’s upward review is a great example of how to use a thoughtful respondent outlet to your appraisal form. They end with two simple, open-ended questions that specifically ask for one strength and one weakness of the ratee.
If your business is small and high-touch, you may be able to work with mostly open-ended questions in your employee appraisal forms. If not, using a mix of open and closed-ended questions could be the way to go in order to not only get performance metrics you can track, but also shed a light on the kinds of insights you can act on.