Behavioral benefits from employee feedback at GlaxoSmithKline

Janine Milne Profile picture for user jmilne June 28, 2015
Context is everything when it comes to employee feedback at GlaxoSmithKline.

ben chambers
Ben Chambers

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has been on mission to change how it encourages and measures performance. For an organization with 110,000 employees any change on a global scale is a massive undertaking.

As Ben Chambers, global leadership development director at GSK, observes:

Everything I do has to be done to scale in 12 to 13 languages.

It also has to contend with all the cultural differences and time zone issues of being a global company.

GSK is the global healthcare brand behind so many of the everyday products we all use, from Panadol to Horlicks, Zovirax to Sensodyne. It’s a competitive market, and improving performance of its workforce is key to keeping it ahead of its rivals.

With this aim in sight, Chambers explains:

What we’ve been going through recently is a change in how we look at how to drive performance across the organization and how to create a more proactive performance culture across GSK.

One of the key planks of this is the creation of the GSK Expectations, which as Chambers explains is:

A behavioral framework across the organization and the 110,000 people, which pretty much sets out all we require of leaders and our definition of a leader is everybody – everybody has the potential to be a leader.

GSK’s previous competency framework had become a bit like “leading by numbers”, says Chambers. The framework had 12 behaviors that leaders needed to follow, but leaders became too focused on meeting those prescriptive behaviors rather than thinking for themselves. Says Chambers:

It kind of took all the responsibility out of the hands of the leader and kind of divested their brains to this framework. We hypothesized and then discovered that our leaders weren’t really leading, they were just following this framework and saying that’s what we should be doing.

In the new model, the number of behaviors has been reduced to six, and there are two levels, in recognition of the fact that active leaders and those not yet with leadership responsibility have slightly different requirements.

Each of these behaviors is a statement, which details what happens when that behavior is in evidence and what happens when it isn’t.

So far, says Chambers,“it’s been really positively received”, but it has required a lot of support to move from a prescriptive to more open-ended framework.

Performance benefits

Alongside this overarching performance framework, GSK is rolling out Workday across the organization and has reduced about 1,000 bonus schemes to one. And in partnership with IBM, it has just introduced a 360 degree performance feedback tool.

This tool is aimed at helping leaders form an objective judgement of their individual team member’s performance. Chambers was clear that it had to something that could be used in a timely fashion rather than just once or twice a year, as the previous system had done:

We had this irritating, universally hated system where at the end of the year and to a lesser extent the half year the whole place would go email mad in terms of feedback.


At those times, people would send off loads of emails, asking for feedback, which were then sent on to managers. Chambers explains:

It was largely hated, particularly by senior people who used to get asked by a million people to give them feedback.

The result was work paralysis as the requests for feedback were dealt with. What the company needed was something that didn’t clog the email system and something that related more closely to specific work done.

Working with IBM, GSK has come up with a quick and simple feedback system comprising five behavioral observations for coworkers to look out for.

The first big difference is that feedback must be contextual and related to as specific piece of work, project or activity. It also includes a frequency rating scale, designed to show how many times you see someone exhibiting one of those five behaviors.

Dr Nigel Guenole, researcher at the IBM Smarter Workforce Institute and a senior lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, says:

We find we get better validity when we ask people what they actually saw – did they actually see the person perform this activity?

In phase 1, in 2014, the system was rolled out to group of middle management in one language. Towards the end of the year this was expanded to a wider group before going global just a few weeks ago.

Longitudinal analysis

The company is doing some longitudinal analysis of people’s performance and any changes the new system creates and it will also examine the relationship between the scores from the performance feedback tool and the overall GSK assessment.

Chambers says that they have to be really careful over the questions to prevent any bias. For example, that means looking at whether adjectives have a male or female bias – the word ‘powerful’, for example, could be seen as a masculine adjective and affect how people rate someone’s behavior.

Chambers admits that it was a "fairly painful" process and not one he’d care to repeat any time soon, but he’s confident that the hard work has repaid the effort.

With the system in place, GSK is now looking forward to being able to exploit the potential of analyzing the data it produces, according to Chambers:

The email system was hated but also there was an awful lot of rich data that wasn’t being captured. When you think about 110,000 people and ideally use this tool two or three times a year and each expectation has 5 constructs or items behind it, so we can really pinpoint data.

For example, the new system can compare the performance between groups of people who’ve been through a leadership program and those who haven’t. Chambers enthuses:

There’s so many way we can cut the data and it’s a selling point for the HR leadership team and gives them really good useful insight.

Disclosure - at time of writing, Workday is a premier partner of diginomica. 

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