Feedback: It's Not About The Tool, You Fool!

Pim
Written by in Practices
- 5 min read

Many organizations believe that, to give helpful feedback, you need the perfect tool. "That's complete and utter bullshit", say many workplace pioneers we have visited.

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Feedback is a hot topic. Organizations want to get better at it. And it’s clear why. Helpful feedback can aid the development of employees, boost performance and decrease, for example, attrition.

However, the way many companies approach it is dead wrong.

Tools, tools, tools

Around the globe, HR staff search the prolific landscape of tools for the perfect feedback formula. It is easy to get lost in options, specs and promises.

What is often misunderstood is that it does not really matter which tool you use. Whether or not you use a fancy app, an elaborate form, or a ‘scientific’ survey – that is not what it’s about.

Let me explain via a personal example.

360 degree feedback

In my years in the corporate world, I went through a yearly appraisal. Part of the process was so-called 360 degree feedback. This process – familiar to many – is about gathering feedback from people working ‘around’ you. For example, one’s manager, colleagues, subordinates and, potentially, customers and/or suppliers.

To gather their input, I had to ask the people I worked with most often for three tops and three tips. Tops are the aspects they valued most about how I worked, and tips being those they felt I should improve on.

All the tops and tips were taken to the yearly appraisal meeting with my manager. Together we discussed them. All of this resulted in a neatly completed appraisal form that turned a year’s work into a simplistic rating (somewhere on a five-point scale from poor to excellent). That rating determined my pay rise.

360 degree frustrations

The process felt frustratingly rigid, unnatural, and constrained. Here is why:

  • The feedback gathered is discussed, but with the wrong person! My manager and I were interpreting written feedback from other colleagues. We made all kinds of assumptions based on our perspectives, and not from the perspective of the person who gave the feedback. A common yet stupid mistake.
  • There was no transparency whatsoever. The person who gave the feedback never heard about what happened with those insights. It seemed the feedback was gathered only for making an overly simplistic judgement of performance, not to support personal development.
  • The same happened the other way around. Giving feedback was nothing more than sending in your tips and tops for a colleague, never to hear of it again. Not really the kind of stuff that builds high performance cultures (or engagement).
  • It felt the feedback always came late. Colleagues were not encouraged to give prompt peer-to-peer feedback. All frustrations, opportunities and praise were stacked up and divulged at the year end. It is like driving a car, hitting the brakes, and waiting an hour for the car to slow down.
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Simplification

The idea behind 360-degree feedback is great: it’s feedback from colleagues on how to improve. But what is clear from above is it’s not so much about the tool as about how it is used. It does not make sense to spend lots of time, money, and effort to find the right tool if you don’t learn how to use it well.

In the end – whatever tool you use – it’s all about quality conversations. Giving and receiving feedback takes practice. You can use tools to gather input, or guide the conversation, but do not overthink it.

We are big fans of simplification. Like, we love how Netflix abandoned annual performance reviews to replace them with regular peer-to-peer sessions. How? By simply sitting with colleagues on a regular basis to informally discuss what someone should “stop, start, and continue” doing.

Just do it experiment

When we wanted to get better at giving and receiving feedback at Corporate Rebels, we started – as always – by experimenting. To begin, we held irregular sessions whenever someone felt the need. That resulted in very few sessions.

When we found that did not work, we set up a new experiment. We included monthly feedback in our first-Monday-of-the-month team day. More regular sessions worked. And with every experiment, our feedback sessions have become more profound, more honest.

To me, that has a few causes:

  • First, because of Ellen and Bram. They pushed for this and took the initiative in making us all better.
  • Next, continuous practice. You simply get better the more you do it. Including it in our monthly meetings has helped a great deal.
  • Last, we admitted that we were not good at it as a team. All involved admitted we were not good, which gave us the perfect opportunity for an experiment in psychological safety.

Through experimentation we found an approach that (at this time) works for us. Our rhythm looks like this:

  • Immediate (or close to) feedback on things you see, hear and experience ‘in the moment’
  • At the end of each week, a round of praise and sharing of personal fuckups
  • Monthly sessions to take a wider view. During these, everyone sits together, shares feedback with each other and (preferably) links it to a specific situation.

For us, that balance between immediate feedback and more reflective sessions works—especially the immediate feedback and monthly sessions. These are all about quality conversations which probe real feelings, behaviors, and perceptions.

We are no way near where we want to be, but happy with the results so far. In just a few months we have significantly improved at giving feedback.

Talk. Don’t tool!

To all those out there looking to improve feedback in their organization, stop wasting time finding the perfect tool. Experiment to get better at what it should be about: good, quality conversations.

If you really need a tool, you will figure that out along the way. Chances are you won’t need one.

For more inspiration on feedback at some of the world’s most progressive organizations, check out what we discovered at UKTV, Netflix and Spotify.

And, as always, share your firsthand experiences and questions in the comments below.

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Replies (9)

Dawn Sowerby

Dawn Sowerby

Straight to the point and spot on!

| | 3 | Flag
Jorn_Verweij

Jorn_Verweij

It helps to have a clear idea of what to look out for in providing feedback. What kind of behaviour or ethic is in support of the culture you want to achieve. This allows the substantiation of feedback provided. A tool can still be very helpful once you have determined what your feedback is supposed to achieve. But only then.

| | 5 | Flag
Tom

Tom

Narrow focus, maybe too interested in "making a point"? Don't mistake your single bad experience of a single 'tool' (or actually, approach: yearly limited 360s) to mean that all possible non-F2F approaches are equally flawed.

You miss several issues:

1) How to capture meaningful actionable team feedback in an organisation whose general organisational culture doesn't support in-person feedback - for whatever reason. Cultural change is hard and slow, and while a leader can gradually change a team or group's culture, a tool allows for asymmetric offline feedback capture, psychological safety, and a degree of anonymity not offered by F2F.

2) A tool can definitely facilitate feedback in teams which are spread across multiple locations and timezones.

3) In-person feedback is valuable, but by nature can't be easily recorded or quantified, and as such can't be tracked longitudinally to explore trends. Also therefore not usable as 'evidence' - e.g. for promotions.

| | 3 | Flag
Pim

Pim

1) How to capture meaningful actionable team feedback in an organisation whose general organisational culture doesn't support in-person feedback - for whatever reason. Cultural change is hard and slow, and while a leader can gradually change a team or group's culture, a tool allows for asymmetric offline feedback capture, psychological safety, and a degree of anonymity not offered by F2F.

Tom

Good point, Tom. Definitely true that if a culture is not ready for transparent feedback a tool can help by giving feedback anonymously. For most organizations - however - I believe starting with the conversation is possible. Adding a tool in case of challenges that otherwise cannot be overcome, could certainly help.

Also agree with most of your other remarks, as I don't ignore the potential benefits of feedback tools. It's just that too many organizations focus on the tool itself, and not on moving towards a good conversation.

| | 3 | Flag
Pilar

Pilar

Do not rely on quatifying feedback. If you interested to assess if your feedback culture progresses positively, you don't need specifically to implement a feedback tool with complex analytics. It is so simple as asking professionals on a regular basis if they receive / ask for meaningful feedback that helps them further develop. Learning by doing, setting and promoting the basics of meaningful feedback and safe environment for practicing quality conversations that help us grow professionally and personally.

| | 0 | Flag
Daniel

Daniel

Narrow focus, maybe too interested in "making a point"? Don't mistake your single bad experience of a single 'tool' (or actually, approach: yearly limited 360s) to mean that all possible non-F2F approaches are equally flawed.

Tom

I actually disagree, Tom.

I've seen too many transformations stop after implementing a tool (which was meant to be just a step).

Pim's point is indeed a bit black and white, and certainly taking a co-located perspective that's just not what most organisations have or need.
That being said, the underlying issue is corporate mediocrity: relying on too many easy "solutions" and then not coming back to an issue because it has already been invested on. It's kind of like putting bandaids everywhere until you have a mommy, instead of doing the deeper work.

The performance management and organisational model of most big organisations means that people have too many fronts to focus on. People have to do a bit of everything, averagely, instead of doing one thing at a time really well. The problem is touted as a need for 'alignment' by the strategy people or 'leadership development' by the L&D people. But it comes down to a broken model of hierarchy, where the people at the top do all the sense-making and culture embodiment, and visioning, and strategy, and coordination, and technical excellence, and coaching their people, and and and.

In most cases, the tool feels like progress but ultimately distracts from what really needs to happen, which is actually giving culture change the sort of importance that is given to M&A. And that means not relying on "scalable solutions", "easy to implement tools", and "measurable insights". But instead going into the weeds, starting small, doing things that don't scale but do make a big difference. And only after that, figuring out how to scale and measure properly.

Call it an entrepreneurial approach to culture change, or VC approach, or something trendy.

The tricky thing is getting the politics right. A dip in quarterly results to build for the long term? no one? anyone? ...crickets... (and a banker looking the other way as they sign a check for some charity to feel good).

| | 1 | Flag
Daniel

Daniel

Narrow focus, maybe too interested in "making a point"? Don't mistake your single bad experience of a single 'tool' (or actually, approach: yearly limited 360s) to mean that all possible non-F2F approaches are equally flawed.

Tom

I actually disagree, Tom.

I've seen too many transformations stop after implementing a tool (which was meant to be just a step).

Pim's point is indeed a bit black and white, and certainly taking a co-located perspective that's just not what most organisations have or need.
That being said, the underlying issue is corporate mediocrity: relying on too many easy "solutions" and then not coming back to an issue because it has already been invested on. It's kind of like putting bandaids everywhere until you have a mommy, instead of doing the deeper work.

The performance management and organisational model of most big organisations means that people have too many fronts to focus on. People have to do a bit of everything, averagely, instead of doing one thing at a time really well. The problem is touted as a need for 'alignment' by the strategy people or 'leadership development' by the L&D people. But it comes down to a broken model of hierarchy, where the people at the top do all the sense-making and culture embodiment, and visioning, and strategy, and coordination, and technical excellence, and coaching their people, and and and.

In most cases, the tool feels like progress but ultimately distracts from what really needs to happen, which is actually giving culture change the sort of importance that is given to M&A. And that means not relying on "scalable solutions", "easy to implement tools", and "measurable insights". But instead going into the weeds, starting small, doing things that don't scale but do make a big difference. And only after that, figuring out how to scale and measure properly.

Call it an entrepreneurial approach to culture change, or VC approach, or something trendy.

The tricky thing is getting the politics right. A dip in quarterly results to build for the long term? no one? anyone? ...crickets... (and a banker looking the other way as they sign a check for some charity to feel good).

| | 0 | Flag
Jeff Anderson

Jeff Anderson

A commitment to giving and (more importantly for positional leaders) receiving feedback with authenticity and grace will trump any tool hands down.

Organizations that think an anonymous tools and a bureaucratic process can replace an in person, genuine dialogue are fooling themselves.

Also, chances are that if your HR group designed your feedback process for your team, it likely is going to suck, for the same reason using a process defined by someone other departments always sucks.

Leaders need to work with their teams to figure how to share feedback, and not rely on some centralized department to make it up for them.

| | 1 | Flag
Emma Abrahamsson

Emma Abrahamsson

It's so true and I believe these points can be made for any process. We look for tools to solves our problems all the time before even knowing the root cause or getting the basics right.

| | 0 | Flag
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