Feedback: a dish that should not be served cold

Written by
Clare Grist Taylor, Associate Editor, Changeboard

04 Nov 2019

04 Nov 2019 • by Clare Grist Taylor, Associate Editor, Changeboard

Being able to deliver effective feedback is a business-critical capability. So, what exactly makes good feedback?

We live in a world where feedback is all around us. Whether as consumers, businesspeople or simply users of social media, it’s become the norm for us to give, receive and collect ‘follows’, ‘likes’, reviews and a whole host of tech-enabled feedback as a routine part of our everyday life.

At work, too, with a move away from command- and control-style management to a more collaborative, nuanced method, better attuned to the psychological needs of knowledge-economy workers, carefully calibrated feedback, designed to encourage positive performance and behaviours, is more important than ever. 

For example, a 2018 SHRM/Globoforce Employee Recognition Report showed that, for 81% of survey respondents, a supportive feedback environment at work was a key driver for growth and development. It seems irrefutable that, when properly delivered, workplace feedback is invaluable in helping people to understand the contribution they’re making and to navigate their own learning. These are important factors when considering meaning and purpose at work. 

No matter when it’s given, badly delivered feedback is badly delivered feedback.

The key phrase here is ‘properly delivered’; one explanation, perhaps, for the extensive industry and literature that has grown up to help us navigate these challenging waters.

It’s also clear that a range of processes and models for delivering and receiving feedback are increasingly under fire: annual performance reviews and employee surveys that are too process-driven, used infrequently and often in isolation; 360° feedback that can all too easily become an exercise in acrimony and revenge; tech-based, real-time solutions that threaten to tip from feedback into surveillance. It seems that you can have too much of a good thing. 

At a most basic level, feedback is an essential component of communication: in a two-way communication loop, feedback is the only way to assess the success of that communication. But this feedback can only get through if the medium or channel used is appropriate and effective. And that matters. 

Annual evaluations leave employees feeling neglected for the vast majority of the year

In their book, Nine Lies About Work, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall choose at their Lie #5 the received wisdom that “people need feedback”. For them, our contemporary (over-) enthusiasm for feedback is a reaction to the ‘absurd infrequency’ of a very familiar performance management tool: the annual appraisal. While annual reviews make perfect sense in tandem with annual financial-reporting periods, unfortunately, they make much less sense for either manager or managed. 

The case against annual performance reviews has been gathering pace in recent years, with infrequency just one of their many perceived problems: poorly designed processes run inconsistently by badly trained managers; the almost impossible task of setting meaningful and measurable goals for a 12-month period; the very real possibility that annual reviews are used in isolation, leaving people feeling ignored for the rest of the year; lack of coordination across teams; the perennial challenge of rater bias in ratings-based systems; a focus on personal style rather than contribution and context. The list is long and far from enlightening. 

Yet, organisations still plough this thankless furrow, making the most of a process that, like democracy, is perhaps the best option we have, but only in the context of a variety of less good alternatives. 

The answer? Feedback delivered in real-time with complete candour.

No more. Into the feedback vacuum that can arise between annual reviews has flowed much new thinking. Welcome to the world of pulse surveys, Feedback Fridays and a whole new culture of openness and candour. Real-time, tech-enabled solutions have increasingly come to be seen as a feedback solution more in tune with the rhythms and nuances of fast-paced workplaces, more appropriate for today’s feedback-hungry people. 

Perhaps the most extreme example of such new thinking is the idea of radical transparency, instant, real-time feedback championed by founder and ex-CEO of US-based hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, Ray Dalio. In his book, Principles, Dalio shares his view that success depends on complete openness — to the extent of meetings being recorded and shared in a ‘transparency library’ for everyone to view, and staff being encouraged routinely to rate each other on a range of attributes, with ratings displayed on a personalised ‘baseball card’ for each of them. It’s interesting that radical transparency has been adopted by other companies too, including Netflix, Fitbit, Amazon and Patagonia.

That doesn’t mean that it’s easy or straightforward to deploy such a brutally honest, real-time feedback strategy. In principle, it’s true that, when it comes to feedback, regular input is more beneficial than annual input. But just as the feedback in a communication loop can be distorted by an ineffective medium, too much, or the wrong kind of, noise, can get in the way of delivering the message. 

In the revised edition of her book, Radical Candor, Kim Scott is forced to defend and adapt her thesis — about how to give and receive feedback with candour — after concerns that her concept of radical candour was being appropriated by leaders “as a licence to behave like jerks”. Reframing the feedback debate has not, it seems, been enough to lead us to an entirely new dawn. Badly delivered feedback is badly delivered feedback, whether it’s delivered once a year, once a week or every day. 

Scott’s revised model, where the phrase radical candour is replaced by compassionate candour, offers a useful antidote. While not ducking the difficult stuff, compassionate candour engages both the heart (care personally) and the mind (challenge directly), reminding us again that feedback can be an inherently messy business — because it involves people.

Crucially, Scott’s interpretation of candour puts “building good relationships at the centre of a boss’s job”. She outlines three core responsibilities of a manager: 

  1. to create a culture of guidance (praise and criticism) that will keep people moving in the right direction  
  2. to understand what motivates people to keep your team cohesive
  3. to drive results collaboratively. 

This clearly places feedback (guidance) as a core component of what managers do. But, for Scott, feedback is about performance development rather than performance management. She is not against annual performance reviews, but sees them as an entirely separate exercise: company-wide set pieces necessarily focused on results and consequences. In contrast, performance development is about regular, trust-building conversations that function as continuous course correction.

At work, almost all of us want to improve, learn and be better at what we do. To improve, we need to make adjustments and corrections, but it’s not always easy to see or make the right adjustments without external perspective. As the psychological model the Johari Window outlines, each of us has a number of blind spots about how we behave at work that can be frustratingly elusive to us, but painfully obvious to our colleagues. That’s why feedback remains so important and so sought after. And that’s why it’s so important that it’s properly delivered.

In their book, Buckingham and Goodall highlight research from Gallup that asked a sample of US workers whether their managers paid most attention to their strengths, their weaknesses, or to neither, and followed up to measure how engaged each employee was.

Unsurprisingly, the starkest disengagement was found among those employees largely ignored by their managers. Even where managers were focused on fixing their people’s weaknesses, the ratio of engaged to disengaged was two to one. But, for employees given mainly positive attention, that ratio jumped to 60 to one: 30 times more powerful than the negative attention. 

Are you ‘fight or flight’ or ‘rest and digest’ when it comes to receiving feedback?

With engagement a sure-fire indicator of performance, it seems logical that a focus on positive reinforcement, on strengths, is also a certain way to maximise people’s ability to learn and grow. Neuroscience is also a useful guide here. Research by organisational theorist, Richard Boyatzis, has shown that negative feedback tends to stimulate our sympathetic nervous system, triggering a ‘fight or flight’ response which shuts down all but the most essential of the brain’s functions — hardly a fertile environment for learning.

By contrast, positive feedback activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the ‘rest and digest’ system associated with a sense of wellbeing and cognitive openness. In the words of Buckingham and Goodall: “If you want your people to learn more, pay attention to what’s working for them right now, and build on that.”

Taking a positive approach to giving feedback does not mean reverting to Scott’s ruinous empathy, never delivering those course corrections or reducing all feedback to meaningless praise. The trick is to look for the learning opportunities in all situations and to understand that delivering feedback in a positive, future-focused way is much more likely to be received and acted upon by the recipient. 

Corrective feedback is more likely to improve performance. The ability to deliver it is critical to effective leadership. 

Tools such as Pendleton’s Rules or the SBI (situation- behaviour-impact) model, which aims to address issues in a clear-headed way, while remaining warm and compassionate can offer a useful guide, especially where a fourth step is added (agree the outcomes). It also means resisting the temptation to step in and try to ‘fix’ people when things go wrong; mistake fixing might sometimes be necessary to prevent failure, but it does not, in itself, help people to develop. 

But these models shouldn’t imply that if you have nothing nice to say about someone, you shouldn’t say anything at all. In a Harvard Business Review article, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman shared the results of their research into people’s attitudes towards feedback, both positive and what they call ‘corrective’. They found that, by a three-to-one margin, respondents believed that corrective feedback did more to improve their performance than positive feedback — provided, crucially, that it was provided in a constructive manner. 

They also measured how difficult managers found it to deliver corrective feedback. Managers who found it stressful to give negative feedback were also significantly less willing to receive it themselves. Conversely, those who rated their managers as effective at providing them with honest, straightforward feedback tended to score higher on their own preference for receiving corrective feedback. The authors conclude that “the ability to give corrective feedback constructively is one of the critical keys to leadership”. 

Starting from the top, self-aware leaders who enable an environment of reflection and understanding are essential to promoting growth and learning

For organisational psychologist Tasha Ulrich, this capability is also a key component of becoming fully self-aware as a leader. Ulrich’s research has identified two types of self-awareness: internal (how we see ourselves) and external (understanding how others see us). Leaders more skilled in external self-awareness tended to be more skilled at empathy and have better relationships with their staff. 

In Ulrich's view, experience alone does not equate to self-awareness, and introspection does not necessarily mean more of it. Leaders need to build both elements of self-awareness in tandem. When it comes to feedback, they need to walk the walk themselves, practising observation and self-reflection and understanding when to open up to feedback about their own performance and behaviours. 

In the end, the trick to delivering effective feedback may be deceptively simple: feedback is a dish that should not be served cold. It’s part of a manager’s wider — and central — role of building relationships and trust, offering the psychological safety to create open feedback cultures that support learning and growth. 

Many of the tools and models under attack — including the annual appraisal — are not, in and of themselves, the disasters we believe. But they are just that: tools and processes that will continue to disappoint if used in isolation, haphazardly or in the wrong context. What really matters is how leaders and managers develop the self-awareness to master the art of giving regular, forward-facing feedback to their people to help them learn and grow. As with so many aspects of management, trust holds the key.

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