FacebookFacebook icon TwitterTwitter icon LinkedInLinkedIn icon Email

CEO Circle

Rethinking personal development at GE

Published 21 February 2023 in CEO Circle • 6 min read

Anand Narasimhan, Shell Professor of Global Research at IMD, and Jennifer Jordan, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior, with Research Associate Shih-Han Huang, consider the role of wider cultural change in the introduction of GE’s new performance-management system.

General Electric (GE) is one of the oldest companies in the US. Rather than dwelling on its history, however, it has made a point of living in the present – albeit with one eye on the horizon. For decades, it has built up a track record of adoption of innovative management practices that earned the admiration of its peers. The start of the new millennium brought new challenges such as protectionist policies, slowing growth, and disruption from both industrial peers and start-ups. In response, GE shifted the focus to innovation and added value for its customers. Then CEO Jeff Immelt realized that to be more innovative, GE needed to listen carefully to its customers and become more responsive, lean, and agile.

In 2013 GE piloted FastWorks, a framework built on the “build-measure-learn” principle advocated by Eric Ries in The Lean Startup (2011). While FastWorks vastly reduced time to market, it meant pivoting from being an efficiency-focused organization to being a learning-focused one, supporting employees in adapting to new challenges and gaining new skills. Rather than leaders having all the answers and employees simply following directions, GE implemented a looser working structure, wherein leaders set the overall direction of innovation and allowed teams to explore it. Processes evolved continually as problem solving became an integral part of daily work – with collaboration, feedback, and information sharing part of routine workplace interaction.

When this shift occurred, it was clear that the company’s legacy employee management system (EMS) from over 40 years earlier was no longer fit for purpose. The system was based on an annual review cycle, with goals set at the beginning of each year, and employee performance evaluated at year end against the agreed objectives. This outdated approach gave rise to a common complaint from FastWorks pilot project participants:

As I apply the FastWorks methodology, I’m actually invalidating some of my original assumptions and learning that I should be pivoting. Yet, I am not going to do that because, at the end of the year, I’m being held to these prior objectives
- FastWorks pilot project participant

With goals changing every few weeks, setting targets for the whole year became meaningless.

Launch of a new system

Janice Semper, then Culture Transformation Leader at GE, decided the most appropriate tool with which to realign the performance management protocol with FastWorks was FastWorks itself. Semper designed a new process incorporating feedback from focus groups and one-on-one discussions with employees. This new process incorporated features that employees had requested, such as the ability to give and receive feedback from peers and managers, including real-time feedback, allowing people to adjust and improve their current activities.

The new system was called Performance Development (PD), in recognition of the shift in emphasis from accountability to support. Semper knew she had to create a new mindset: “If you keep calling things the same thing, it’s really hard for people to look [at something] through a new lens,” she explained. To underline the importance of transparency and clear communication within the organization, PD provided non-anonymous feedback.

The new system, providing feedback via an app, was trialed by 50 trainees and managers. Unfortunately, the results were hugely disappointing. At the end of the trial period, not one of the test team had used the app.

Although PD addressed the weaknesses inherent in EMS, the trial team felt uncomfortable giving feedback to each other, particularly employee to manager. They required a less confrontational, repercussion-free environment, where they felt comfortable giving non-anonymous feedback, and a simple, intuitive framework in which to do so. In order to address this requirement of psychological safety, a wider cultural change was necessary.

Other perceived problems were that significantly more time would be required for employees to give and respond to feedback, there would be a disparity in adoption rates due to culture, personality types and age, and getting senior management buy-in to remove the rating process would be challenging.

Supporting a cultural shift

Semper and her team sought to address the various challenges by implementing a series of changes:

A shift in vocabulary

“Feedback” was reframed as the less  judgmental “insights”; colleagues could label behaviors they considered to be positive as “continue” (i.e., they should be continued going forward) and label behaviors that may need to be discontinued, modified, or substituted for others as “consider”. Fixed annual goals and objectives were also replaced by “priorities.” Performance reviews were replaced by more positive coaching sessions with managers, known as “touchpoints.”  

A new review process

Unlike goals and objectives, individual priorities could be adjusted and shifted amid ongoing discussions with managers. Employees could also provide upward insight to managers. Holding regular discussions throughout the year meant that, at year-end, there were no pent-up recriminations; rather, employees and managers held a more forward-looking discussion around increasing the formers’ role impact. By giving employees a say in setting and adjusting their priorities, managers gave them a sense of empowerment and of contributing to overall strategy.

No ratings

Ratings were also abolished, boosting employee confidence. Previously, those who failed to achieve the top rating (by definition, the majority) felt undervalued. Dispensing with ratings also helped reinforce the sense of psychological safety by dispelling the perception that errors and failures were being monitored and totted up. As a result, people were likely to feel safe to experiment, fail, and admit to errors, and to voice dissent about initiatives with which they disagreed. The frequent touchpoints helped facilitate this more relaxed system, as the continued dialog kept managers aware of employee progress and activities without a need for formal assessment.

Use of app

To support PD’s new insights, priorities and touchpoints features, the team developed an app called [email protected] Millennials took to the app readily, while older employees often preferred to speak with the other party before submitting their insights via the app. Given that the goal of PD was to encourage dialog regardless of medium, GE’s management regarded either approach as positive.


PD was rolled out in waves, allowing the team to iterate and improve the process. A sense of anticipation built up among those yet to transition and virtual training sessions were held, where employees with PD experience shared their stories. HR teams set up confidential, anonymous web chats, allowing employees to ask any questions they had and making them feel more comfortable with the system.


One of the largest challenges GE faced was making employees feel comfortable with giving feedback. Culture, personality, and seniority were all factors in adoption rate of PD. In Brazil, where relationship building is an important part of the culture, the new system was adopted seamlessly. In Italy, employees found giving and receiving insights harder, as culturally this could be considered a personal attack. There were also fewer upward insights given to managers. Workshops were facilitated during which employees were shown how to deliver their feedback and leaders were trained actively to ask for feedback. During “team touchpoint” sessions, individual teams were guided through the process of providing insights to their direct leaders.

In just over two years, PD had grown from preliminary investigations into a monumental change that affected all GE employees, regardless of region, business area or position. Much has been learnt, but it is an evolving process. As Semper says, “We are still iterating… we are still learning.”

Key takeaways

  • In a culture where giving upward and peer feedback is not the norm, there should be a broader culture change that reinforces an atmosphere of psychological safety before a tool as such as [email protected] can be successfully implemented.

  • Removing ratings, implementing regular coaching sessions, and creating a new, more positive vocabulary around provision of feedback can all boost psychological safety.

  • Communication and feedback styles vary across companies and geographies. It is important to build awareness of these difference and be mindful of potential misunderstandings when transitioning ideas to different cultures. Similarly, there may be a generational difference in relation to level of comfort with the use of mobile technology.

  • Staggering the introduction of new processes helps managers to understand user needs, achieve incremental buy-in, adapt flexibly, and resolve issues as they came up, rather than allowing them to build up.


Anand Narasimhan - IMD Professor

Anand Narasimhan

Anand Narasimhan serves as Shell Professor of Global Leadership and Dean of Faculty and Research at IMD. He is also Director of the Team Dynamics Training for Boards program. He is an expert in leadership development for senior executive teams and boards, and his research focuses on institutional change, organization design, social networks, and emotions in the workplace.

Jennifer Jordan

Social psychologist and Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at IMD

Jennifer Jordan is a social psychologist and Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD. Professor Jordan’s teaching, research, and consulting focus on the areas of digital leadership, ethics, influence, and power. Professor Jordan has received specialized training and certifications in lie and truthfulness detection, as well as in conflict resolution within organizations. She is Program Director of the Leadership Skills for the Digital Age program, the Leadership Essentials Course, and the Leading in the Digital Age program.


IG&H: Finding a new way to lead

IG&H: Finding a new way to lead

17 February 2023 • by Susan Goldsworthy in CEO Circle

When senior employees at Dutch firm IG&H walked away in frustration with the company’s leadership, founder and CEO Jan van Hasenbroek realized that things had to change. Susan Goldsworthy, Affiliate Professor of Leadership,...

Learn Brain Circuits

Join us for daily exercises focusing on issues from team building to developing an actionable sustainability plan to personal development. Go on - they only take five minutes.
Read more 

Explore Leadership

What makes a great leader? Do you need charisma? How do you inspire your team? Our experts offer actionable insights through first-person narratives, behind-the-scenes interviews and The Help Desk.
Read more

Join Membership

Log in here to join in the conversation with the I by IMD community. Your subscription grants you access to the quarterly magazine plus daily articles, videos, podcasts and learning exercises.
Sign up

You have 4 of 5 articles left to read.