Just hearing that word can make someone’s blood pressure rise—and his or her defenses go up. Many people consider it a dirty word associated with bias, politics, resentment, and self doubt. With such a negative reputation that’s been built one lousy experience at a time, feedback definitely has a branding problem. Yet anyone who takes a step back and thinks about the true purpose of feedback will realize that it doesn’t have to be a bad thing and that it can provide insights that are essential to improvement, growth, and advancement.
At the root of feedback’s branding problem are the misconceptions, bad habits, and defense mechanisms that have negatively shaped how people think about and experience it. With a better understanding of feedback, it’s possible to make a fresh start on fixing it once and for all. But this fix will require a fundamental change—a seismic shift in thinking that can’t be achieved with a simple tuneup of current feedback delivery methods or by calls for more direct feedback in cultures dominated by uncertainty, distrust, and outdated ideas. The redemption of feedback requires a movement that moves organizations out of the danger zone of telling others what they need to change and into the collaboration zone where everyone figures things out together.
A New Definition
First, the movement must embrace a new definition of feedback:
feedback (noun): clear and specific information that’s sought or extended for the sole intention of helping individuals or groups improve, grow, or advance
“The sole intention of helping” is key here. If feedback isn’t intended to help individuals or teams thrive and grow, then why give it or seek it? If what’s being offered doesn’t pass this sniff test, then it’s definitely not feedback.
Any effort to develop individuals and build teams that thrive, grow, and operate at optimum levels of performance must start with trust. Trust develops over time (there are no shortcuts!) through kind and supportive human connections that send a strong message: “We’re in this together.” The product of an ongoing process influenced by how participants show up in every conversation, decision, and action, trust forms a solid foundation for the movement to fix feedback.
Call to Action
Every successful movement needs a motto that inspires its followers and keeps them true to the mission. The motto of the movement to fix feedback is “Fairness, Focus, and Frequency!”
- Fairness goes hand in hand with trust and is therefore vital to setting the scene for successful feedback. Feedback won’t work if a perceived lack of fairness taints a relationship or exchange. Given the human tendency toward bias, ensuring fairness requires both the giver and the receiver of feedback to accept their own imperfections. It also requires giving and receiving feedback without judgment by bringing what’s witnessed and experienced to an open conversation. Finally, welcoming more voices into the feedback ecosystem is a powerful way to mitigate bias, connect ideas and themes, and build a trusted network of support.
- Focus is a way to deliver a big idea in small bites. Giving focused feedback is like snacking on positivity and possibility, as opposed to gorging on performance reviews and banked-up lists of strengths and weaknesses. Focus lies at the heart of the “clear and specific” part of the new definition of feedback.
- Frequency is the accelerator of feedback: whereas fairness and focus fuel the engine, frequent connection is where the rubber truly hits the road. Frequency improves the quality of relationships and accelerates learning by telling others, “I’m paying attention, and what you do is important and notable.”
Feedback that fulfills all three parts of the motto is light and easy. Quick observations delivered frequently and without pomp and circumstance have far more impact than infrequent, formal, contrived conversations. Feedback that embodies fairness, focus, and frequency strengthens connections and builds trust, thus freeing everyone involved to take more risks and seek greater growth.
An Army of Seekers
The movement must start with people who seek feedback. These “seekers” play the most important role in fixing feedback for several reasons:
- Seeking is the ultimate trust generator. It demonstrates humility and placing a high value on the input of others.
- Seeking helps people build connections with others and nurtures trusted relationships.
- People who seek feedback are more likely to act on it.
- Seekers are in control. They can request the insights they need to grow and advance according to their plans, not someone else’s.
The movement to fix feedback can create cultures in which feedback flourishes. In that new world, all employees and managers will feel safe to be authentic and transparent about who they are—and just as open about the work they still need to do to be who they want to be.
Tamra Chandler is the CEO and cofounder of PeopleFirm and the author of How Performance Management is Killing Performance—and What to Do About It. She’s spent the majority of her career thinking about people, researching how they’re motivated, and developing new and effective ways for organizations to achieve the ultimate win-win: inspired people driving inspiring performance. Chandler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.