Feedback — Do It Right or Not At All

October 21, 2009

I had the rare pleasure of spending a weekend in Bermuda with six talented and dynamic friends.  Our ambitions vary widely at this point in our lives, despite the similarity of our professional DNA (we all met as thirtysomething women at Harvard Business School). Some of us are gunning for top spots at some of the world’s most competitive companies.  Some, like me, are still searching for the right voice and path.  Some are embracing motherhood as a vocation.

Some are doing all of the above.

I had three clear takeaways from the weekend.  One, I need my friends.  I need a strong team around me to have any hope of taking the ride of modern living with sufficient grace.  Two, I need a better plan for declaring my marital status in countries that don’t recognize my marriage.  I was really stumped when the border guard asked for clarification when I couldn’t decide whether I was a “Miss” or “Mrs,” which is a disservice to the screaming toddlers in line behind me.  And, three, feedback systems are not working very well in most organizations.

All of us had had frustrating recent experiences giving or receiving feedback within the structure imposed by an organization, and the pattern seemed material.  In many cases, formal reviews were incredibly resource-consuming (measured in months of corporate effort, not weeks or days), with an often shockingly unclear payoff.  Informal feedback was regularly ad-hoc, clumsy and unproductive.

In this focus group of seven, the examples where feedback worked had occurred in organizations with the following characteristics:

  • Improvement was an integral part of the culture, in all areas.
  • People were considered the firm’s primary strategic asset.
  • Investments had been made in feedback training – how to give, receive and solicit effective feedback — not just in compliance with the appropriate tools and forms.
  • Feedback was actually incorporated into the incentives and promotions structure, not just rhetorically incorporated.
  • The feedback model reflected the firm’s strategy and values, as well as the skills needed to perform a particular role.  As a result, the process connected participants to the organization’s larger purpose.

All of us, at some point, had endured feedback in organizations that lacked these characteristics.  These experiences were, at best, harmless and distracting, and at worst, damaging for participants both professionally and personally.  The consensus, non-scientific view from the group?  It may be better to have no formal feedback system than a bad one or even a mediocre one, which I would argue describes too many organizations today.  Too many are checking the box on a review process, then getting on with the real business of the firm.  This choice, it seems, is not free.

Feedback and Trust

September 4, 2009

I want to revisit your discussion on feedback, Frances, because I think the topic often gets lost in the race to do things that feel more important organizationally.

The ability and willingness to communicate honestly is often framed as a soft contribution, nice but not critical in these serious times.  I take the opposite view.  I think feedback is the central act in building organizations since it creates the raw material that matters most:  trust.

Trust is necessary for any task that involves more than one person, which includes most of what an organization does all day (deciding things, making things, selling things). Trust persuades your employees to give you their best ideas and most productive hours.  Trust convinces your customers to believe your brand promises.

Trust gets built when we do what we say we will do. This is a fairly straightforward concept, but somehow gets highly complex in practice.  Calls get dropped.  Guitars get broken. Bonuses go unpaid. Companies who are competing on strong relationships with their stakeholders – think Google, Zappos, Whole Foods — work hard to prevent these violations, big and small.  They understand that trust dies in the space between talk and action.

But here’s the thing — we’re not reliable observers of these gaps in our own behavior. This is where feedback enters the story. We often don’t know when we’re letting our constituents down.  We often don’t know when we’re under-delivering on commitments, spoken or unspoken.  Feedback gives people the chance to address the variance, to close the distance between chatter and truth.

Customers give you this gift when they pick up the phone to “complain.”  A complaint identifies the weakness in the relationship, the place where trust must be built or rebuilt.  Frustrated and articulate customers are the competitive equivalent of Christmas morning, but they’re more likely to be treated like a nuisance or distraction.

The same dynamics play out in all human relationships.  Trust gets eroded every day between reasonable, well-intentioned people, and it can’t be restored unless we talk honestly with each other.   The reason feedback can change lives, as you suggest, is not just because it makes someone else better in a vague sense. Feedback changes lives because it creates the opening for greater integrity in our most important relationships. Feedback builds trust. And trust builds everything else.

How to Give Feedback that Changes Lives

August 26, 2009

I loved a quote I read recently in the NYT by Maigread Eichten, president and chief executive of FRS, a maker of energy drinks:

One of the most memorable things one of my bosses at Pepsi told me was that if you really care about somebody, you give them constructive feedback. And if you don’t care about somebody, you only say positive things.

In my experience, a deep sign of respect is to help someone overcome the obstacles to their effectiveness.  These obstacles usually show up in the form of small, but persistent personality tics.  I find it heartbreaking when these things go unaddressed because of some kind of social norm.  We need our colleagues at their best.  Helping them to sweep away the pebbles on their path to impact, pebbles that are often visible to everyone but them, is a gift we can give, an obligation we have.

Much has been written about how to give feedback.  The advice that has stuck in the popular imagination is to be careful about sequencing the hard messages.  Sandwich the bad between the good.  I’m largely indifferent to these kinds of tactics, and I’m predisposed to be more direct than most.  I’ve found that it’s the intent that really matters.  If you show up to the conversation truly committed to helping someone become more effective, then the structure and content will take care of itself.  You won’t be inclined to make the most common mistake, which is to focus on managing your own discomfort with the interaction.

I often get asked about timing difficult feedback.  When should you do it?  When it is truly in the best interest of someone, when your input can make them better.  When should you not do it?  When it is more about you than it is about them.  How do you know the difference?  When you’re dreading it.  Feedback is your chance to change a life.  When you honor it for what it is, the task is trust-building and restorative.