Feedback: The Subtle Engine of Growth & Satisfaction
Updated: May 11
Feedback is not something that mankind invented; that honor goes to Mother Nature. Virtually every successful living organism, from amoeba to mankind, has a feedback system built into it. It is what tells our bodies to shiver when cold, perspire when hot, eat when hungry, etc. Human physiology depends on dozens of feedback systems operating successfully, many of them on the molecular level!
If you are good at any sport, your success is predicated on a feedback system and your ability to interpret and respond to it. If you are good at dancing, the same feedback system applies. In fact, virtually every human activity in which the individual interfaces with his or her environment is dependent on a feedback system for a successful outcome.
Feedback systems can be very simple: you have an itch, so you scratch it. Feedback systems can also be much more complex where the “simple” act of catching a ball, in fact, is anything but simple. Consider that if a robot were to attempt such a feat, it would need the capability to perform dozens of sophisticated calculations concerning trajectories, gravity, wind speed, direction, distance, mass, drag, and foot pounds that must be performed in a micro-second before the ball can be caught. Yet a 10-year-old child can do it. With neither the cognitive understanding of a trajectory nor the calculus required to calculate it, a child can still easily learn to catch a ball.
How is it that the child, without cognition or any method, can still easily learn to catch a ball? As the child attempts to perform the task, his or her brain and body register the results, adjusting the human variables (e.g. muscle fiber) until he or she can successfully perform the catching action.
This is a prime example of the power of a feedback system. It is precisely why “practice makes perfect.” The feedback system allows the child to “know” how he or she is interacting with his or her environment and how to adjust to it.
The reason that organic feedback systems exist and persist is simple: they work. They ensure survival—and very effectively. Without them, we could have never advanced to our present state.
The feedback we receive and give as employees and managers is an attempt to provide the same benefits to our work performance. To distinguish this type of feedback from our native feedback systems, let’s call this human feedback.
Why Human Feedback is Important
Imagine a world where feedback from others is no longer available to you. Imagine the only feedback you experience stems from your interactions with the physical world. A world without any human feedback is a world without any confirmation about what difference you make, what value your efforts have, and what value you have as an individual—a world without knowing whether you are valuable to anyone and whether you create value for others. Feedback is essential to a satisfying life.
Human feedback is an attempt to fulfill a very human need. It is this feedback that allows character and talent to develop to their fullest. With very few exceptions, people need and want human feedback. For virtually all employees, human feedback is required in order for them to improve. Feedback helps people be more connected and their ideas more readily accepted by others. It also affirms the need for validating their course of action and strategic trajectory. People need feedback from multiple levels including their supervisors, peers, family, and friends.
The Need to Know
It is a very human need to know. We need to know whether we are loved, valued, and respected or on the path to becoming so. And it is through feedback that we learn how to know! Feedback is the mind’s third eye. It allows you to see yourself outside of yourself, as others see you.
Feedback is a process that facilitates continual improvement and growth.
Imagine a world where you have no human feedback available to you; imagine that there are no mirrors either. Your perception of how you appear would be completely based on your own observations and intuitions. And it would be inaccurate. And incomplete.
Feedback provides the “mirror” we need to complete our vision of ourselves. Without effective feedback, we are flying blind when it comes to understanding ourselves and being able to improve our value to others.
What Constitutes Effective Feedback?
Relevant and Accurate: To be valuable, feedback must be relevant and accurate. Otherwise, you create a disconnect and lose the attention and interest of the recipient. Feedback is accurate if it is honest, objective and devoid of malice. It is relevant when the topics of discussion are related to performance objectives and outcomes.
Past Oriented and Time Forward: Effective feedback should be a review of past performance: based on facts and actual behaviors observed. The Past Oriented feedback allows for a candid review of what worked and what did not. Time Forward feedback projects and then establishes future performance expectations. It is an analysis of strengths and weaknesses to enhance strengths while neutralizing weaknesses. Time Forward feedback is improvement focused and goal focused.
Negative and Positive: Giving negative feedback is an activity that most managers shy away from. They find it uncomfortable to look another person in the eyes and tell them the truth. Instead, managers will gloss over, sugar coat or even ignore issues in employee performance in order to protect themselves from challenging conversations. The impact is multifold. The employee remains ignorant and likely will continue with an unsatisfactory performance, which could lead to a very unexpected dismissal. What makes negative feedback particularly valuable is the fact that it allows others to learn from their mistakes. It helps the individual know what they are not able to see for themselves. Properly given, negative feedback provides the individual with opportunities to become better by reducing or eliminating negative behaviors. Positive feedback is equally important for the individual to know what they do well and should continue doing. It also instructs them on how they can further improve or leverage their strengths. Positive feedback is what humans desire most, accept readily and thrive when receiving. Positive feedback confirms the individual’s accomplishments and reaffirms their sense of self-worth. Effective feedback must include the positive and the negative aspects in order to present a clear and honest picture that facilitates the fastest route to performance improvement and job satisfaction. Using only one is like navigating a map by only making right turns; you may get to your destination but it might be too late.
Understood and Accepted as Intended: We can measure how effective feedback is by the ability and willingness of the receiver to make course corrections. In order to do so, the receiver must comprehend what is expected and must accept its veracity. The feedback provider should verify that his message was received as intended. Likewise, he must also ascertain the willingness of the receiver to comply. Both of these can be accomplished by having the recipient paraphrase the message back to the provider during the discussion.
Clearly Actionable: The danger inherent in giving generalized feedback is that it is left to the interpretation of the receiver as to what course corrections are necessary. Feedback that is specific, measurable and doable within the designated time frame is feedback that garners results.
Continual Process and Not an Event: Feedback is required on a regular basis in order to achieve the desired change. Imagine sailing across the ocean and only checking your location once a week. The odds are stacked against your safe arrival in a timely fashion. The more frequent the feedback, the more often course corrections can be made. This shortens the time to goal. Frequent, informal feedback is key to driving the performance improvements specified in the formal review. Such informal feedback may be given right after a relevant behavior is observed or it might be a well-deserved compliment. Coaching is something else that should be done on a high-frequency, informal basis.
How to Create Effective Feedback
Objective and Subjective
Feedback should be based on quantifiable measures whenever feasible. In the case of Formal feedback, the measures could be those encompassed in an individual’s annual performance objectives. With Informal feedback, the objective measures would include those embodied in the annual/semi-annual performance review as well as those that become pertinent over time. In either case, the feedback provider must issue the most objective assessments possible.
It is an unavoidable fact of life that not everything important or valuable can be measured objectively. Much as we might prefer otherwise, not everything can be represented as black or white. There are times when grey must be evaluated.
The accurate evaluation of qualitative performance is dependent on the feedback provider being able to assess behavior subjectively, albeit as a professional while keeping his own personal biases and preconceptions at bay. In essence, the attempt should be to remain as objective as possible even while assessing qualitative behaviors.
Valid and Focused
Giving identical feedback for identical performances to different personality types may yield different results. The results will differ in the way in which the feedback is interpreted, accepted and integrated into their future performance.
The greatest factor in determining how effective feedback is will not be the receiver’s personality, but rather how well the feedback provider crafted and delivered the feedback. Of utmost import will be the accuracy, relevance and timeliness of the feedback coupled with the provider’s willingness to engage in candid dialogue with the receiver.
Studies show that the affectivity of feedback is directly proportional to the receiver recognizing it as being both valid and focused. In other words, the more specific and accurate the feedback, the more value the receiver will place on it and the more likely it is that she will embrace it. Above all, the most significant ingredient is not what is said or written, but more so, the integrity of the person providing the feedback. Individuals will more willingly accept critical feedback and performance reviews from people they trust compared to those they do not.
Unjustified critical feedback is given in the form of advice or feedback that serves more to promote the selfish interest of the giver than to improve the subordinate’s performance. Critical feedback may act as an effective cover for the critic’s more deeply held feelings such as jealousy, fear, insecurity, or arrogance. This sort of critical feedback suggests more about the critic than it does about the person being criticized.
Your immediate reaction might be one of defensiveness because of the personal nature of this kind of feedback. Protecting your self-esteem and confidence is a critical step in dealing with unjustified feedback. Once you effectively ward off the initial impact, you will need to create an effective strategy to deal with this individual. What follows is an example of how to do exactly that.
Formal and Informal
Feedback can take either of two forms. Formal feedback is most frequently used for regularly scheduled performance evaluations. It may also be used in conjunction with a promotion, demotion, termination, or coaching. Formal feedback, due to its financial impact, must always be in written form and ideally is given face-to-face (or via an electronic equivalent). The biggest benefit of formal feedback to the recipient is in his ability to ask questions where he needs more information for clarification.
Typically, formal performance reviews are Past Oriented. Because they are focused on previously set performance objectives, they should be Accurate and Relevant. Effective reviews cover not only the past but must also be Time Forward in providing recommendations for performance enhancement i.e. maximizing strengths (Positive) and neutralizing weaknesses (Negative).
Preparing Formal Feedback
Formal feedback is an event, a snapshot evaluation in time of an individual’s performance against a set of objective performance targets. Preparing Formal feedback is a rigorous undertaking. The provider of Formal feedback must have written supporting facts of the feedback they are preparing to provide the individual. These facts are collected between performance evaluations, often including more than one evaluation period. This is particularly true when the feedback provider is taking a long-term view in managing the business as well as the talent of the team under supervision. Formal feedback is time consuming to prepare and also to deliver. It is, after all, a process that involves managing the most valuable organizational assets. Take the time and do the job right.
Preparing Informal Feedback
Informal feedback is the perfect complement to its formal cousin. It should be verbal and should be face to face to be most effective. Email is not the ideal manner in which to provide informal feedback; it does not allow the recipient to understand the nuances of speech nor the non-verbal cues provided in personal conversation.
In the informal process, feedback is provided on a more casual basis and it is typically ad hoc. Although it generally is unsolicited, informal feedback may be given as a response to an individual’s request for guidance.
Informal does not mean optional. Quite to the contrary, it is the informal feedback that is most valuable to the recipient. It is particularly valuable because effective feedback is extremely time sensitive since memories of events and details fade quickly, frequently to the favor of the recollecting party. Informal feedback that is delivered immediately after the occurrence of the behavior has the greatest impact in reinforcing desirable/reducing undesirable behaviors.
Informal feedback is not only the perfect complement to its formal cousin, it is a mandatory requirement. In order to support the recommendations for improvement provided in the formal written review, informal guidance must be provided as often as possible.
Informal feedback should ideally occur as often as needed to keep course corrections from being too large. The more frequently feedback is received, the smaller the deviations from course will be (assuming the receiver is willing to change behaviors). Much like attempting to sail across the ocean, frequent navigation adjustments will keep you on course for time and destination. Conversely, making navigational checks say once every week will put you in jeopardy on every level.
You know you have provided too little informal feedback or provided it too infrequently when an employee is legitimately surprised by any unfavorable ratings you assign.
Happily Receiving Feedback
Giving feedback also invites the other person to share their perspective on all the dimensions mentioned and provide you feedback in return. The willingness of the receiver to engage in giving feedback is a sign that the process works as intended.
Negative Feedback can be Difficult
Accepting negative feedback gracefully and graciously is a sign of great leadership and maturity. Remember, though, other people may not know how to give negative feedback diplomatically. So take a deep breath and listen.
Listen without interruption. Be inquisitive and genuinely curious. If you hear something you don't agree with, simply say, "That's interesting, let me think about it for a minute.” Discuss it at the end. Summarize, Paraphrase, Reflect to Clarify, Confirm, and Correct. Acknowledge what is true, and along the way, you may or may not change your initial position.
Agree on a Plan of Action
If you need to think some more, ask for more time and then get back together to confirm the plan. The more self-confident you are and the more self-esteem you have, the more readily you will accept and benefit from feedback. To esteem oneself is to establish your value independent of any one success or failure. Esteem is a result of a lifetime of feedback received from many sources.