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.