Why Smart Feedback is Important

Contrary to what popular business writer Marcus Buckingham says in his newest book, feedback does have value when it’s used in smart ways.

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I disagree with Marcus Buckingham. Not a little; a lot. Considering that Buckingham’s work is a foundation for the way I think about management, leadership and relationships, that’s a big deal for me.

In articles and interviews supporting his new book Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World, Buckingham and co-author Ashley Goodall attack the value of feedback, particularly the annual performance review and the aggressive “just being honest” feedback of the radical candor school.

They argue that giving feedback on the behaviour of others — relative to organizational standards or training — is guaranteed to fail.

While performance reviews and radical candor can be as bad as Buckingham says, I believe his approach is intellectually dishonest and, in my opinion, appears to be done solely to support his book.

To suggest that we can’t provide feedback on the behaviour of others (that we should only use “I” to communicate how we experience their behaviour) calls into question all of the coaching and mentoring in performing arts, sports and business, where it has been clearly demonstrated that if you want a growing organization and thriving relationships, you will fail without feedback.

Defining Feedback

Feedback isn’t just telling people what they’re doing poorly or well. It isn’t an excuse for scolding, and it’s not a generic pat on the back.

Instead feedback is arguably the most important dynamic in human communication and learning — and automatic feedback is always happening.

It’s built into the universe: “Behave this way and this happens next.” Pain is biological feedback intended to prevent us from harming ourselves. The spontaneous laughter of an audience is feedback to the comedian that they are on the right track.

We’re surrounded by feedback signals that encourage us to continue or repeat a behaviour — or they warn us to stop.

Even when we don’t provide intentional feedback, automatic feedback takes its place. This kind of feedback connects an action with information about that action. Flick a light switch up and the light comes on.

Here are some workplace examples: When we do a half-assed job and get paid anyway, that’s feedback. When we put our heart and soul into a team project and it isn’t acknowledged, that’s feedback too. Rinse and repeat.

We All Need Feedback

Recently, the CEO of a successful building trades company told me, “I don’t need feedback myself — I just like doing the right thing. I don’t need anyone else confirming I did a good job.”

Yet minutes later, he told me he started in the business as a part-time “guy Friday.” As he tells it, the owner of the company took a liking to him and “One thing led to another and the projects grew, and here I am.”

No feedback in that, right?

In fact, had the CEO looked closely, he might have identified that the feedback was inherent in how “one thing led to another and the projects grew,” even if no one said a word of criticism or praise.

Anti-common Sense

Feedback is also the antidote to one of the most destructive concepts in management: common sense.

It’s not that common sense doesn’t — or can’t — exist. If you’re part of a team in which every member is of a similar age, race, cultural background, gender and educational background — and shares values — then yes, you may have a common sense of things.

But in the real world, thankfully, workplaces are multi-generational (up to four these days), gender-fluid and multi-racial, with people from all kinds of backgrounds and with all kinds of values. In that world, there is vanishingly little sense held in common.

The word common means shared, so to insist you don’t need to provide feedback because a desired behaviour “should just be common sense” is lazy at best and reeking of privilege and cultural assumptions at worst.

Learning and performance happen when we replace the insistence on common sense with clear feedback. They happen when we explicitly set out the right way (the safe way, the profitable way, the respectful way) to do things and provide feedback when a person does them right.

Closing the Feedback Loop

Most of us understand that listening and dialogue are required for real communication.  Listening and dialogue are part of feedback.

When communication in the workplace fails, most of the time it is because it was “half circle communication,” and the feedback loop wasn’t closed. We sent out a memo. We gave a talk. We wrote a manual. But we never checked back (through listening and dialogue) for understanding, agreement, alignment or if people had the resources to do the job.

We just wonder why projects and relationships fail.

In the world of change management, the failure to build formal feedback loops into the stakeholder and communication plans is, in my experience, the most common cause for failure. And failure is a powerful form of feedback.

So how can you set up a successful feedback process? Here are some tips:

  1. Understand the stakeholder map: Who should be in the feedback loop?
  2.   Be transparent and explicit: If something matters, articulate it.
  3.   Create frequent opportunities for feedback: Use surveys, team huddles, regular check-ins.
  4.  Express gratitude (feedback on feedback): You don’t have to have to accept all feedback, but you do have to confirm you appreciate it.
  5.  Make it effective: Feedback is only effective if it’s immediate, frequent, tied to specific behaviours or outcomes and tailored for the person receiving it.
  6. Keep it (mostly) positive: Research and experience clearly show positive feedback encourages winning behaviours more effectively than negative feedback discourages undesired behaviours.

Anti-common Sense

So when all is done, Marcus Buckingham has offered much good advice over the years, but, in my opinion, his research manifesto about feedback is not part of that, and this column serves as my feedback.

Clemens Rettich is a business consultant with Grant Thornton LLP. He has an MBA from Royal Roads University and has spend 25 years practicing the art of management.

This article is from the October/November 2019 issue of Douglas.