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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