Imagine setting out on an important journey towards a place we have never been to, on a road with no signposts? How sensible would that be? Where would we go? How would we drive?
Drawing on this metaphor, road signs and indicators are similar to external feedback in the journey of career and/or personal development. If there are none and if we seek none, then how would we know where we are going?
External feedback at work is information about our behaviour or performance from the outside world: the ‘cause and effect’ of an event or a situation as per our managers, peers, direct reports, customers and anyone who may come into contact with us. Feedback at work relates to why our role exists, whether or not we are achieving our goals, how we impact on others, what aspects we perform well and what areas require further improvement.
Feedback is an intrinsic motivator and links strongly with employee satisfaction, energy, enthusiasm and productivity. It is also associated with career progress and goal-achievement. In our endeavour to develop ourselves, we would have to take responsibility for the information that is known by others but is unknown to us. How? The only way we could shed light onto this blind spot is to ask for feedback and to allow people to constructively review our behaviour. Even though we may not always agree with their perceptions, it is important to be aware of what people think about us, as this would be useful in strategising and decision making.
When we are faced with little feedback, we tend to be overly self- congratulatory or exceedingly self-critical, too ‘mightier than thou’ or too insecure. This could be because of our selective reliance on the overall success or failure of particular events, rather than on specific details (such as, ‘how did I really achieve the target’ or ‘what were the other factors involved in the process’) from these events.
The same error could occur when we evaluate someone’s performance after a long time. Feedback in some organisations could be institutionalised to annual or semi annual reviews, that it is usually too far off from the occurrence of the original target behaviour. What is the use of a corrective agent when the incident is well forgotten?
A solution to this problems may lie on specific, timely and informal feedback that requires little time and effort. But first, creating a culture conducive to ongoing feedback is crucial for this purpose. In one of the companies I worked with, we implemeted something called ‘the speed feeds’ somewhat similar to ‘speed dating’, where teams were asked to go around and talk to others about two basic aspects: their greatest strength and their greatest improvement area with brief examples. We had a setup similar to musical chairs and every time the music stopped, the members would move to the next person. We also had ‘feedback days’ where people would socialise and exchange handmade greeting cards hallmarked ‘feedback from someone who cares’.
Feedback enables us to see ourselves in the mirror and to get a reality check. However, like everything else, since we all have a tendency to forget the importance of it, feedback should be treated as an internal-brand or a product, and feedback initiatives should be launched and re-launched, so that we are reminded of its significance, meaning, value and necessity.
No matter how robust our annual 360 degree feedback systems and appraisal schemes are, most employees in most organisations suffer from a ‘feedback shortage.’ It occurs in both small and large organisations and at all levels of the hierarchy. Why? As humans we tend to feel defensive before any sort of analysis of our behaviour; it is as if everyone is suddenly finding fault with us, thereby pulling us out of our comfort-zone of who we think we are. It is even worse when our manager points it out from nowhere, our manager who does not even say hi to us or ask us how we are once in a while.This is why the person who gives feedback has a key role to play in establishing a relationship with the recipient, who should feel that it is reasonable, fair, unbiased, non-judgemental and a part of natural conversation.
Trust is number one in an effective feedback loop. Trust comes from a chain of interactions where people have made agreements, spoken about how things should work and then lived up to what they have agreed to fulfil. Trust is about considering what the other has to say when something goes wrong. It helps employees talk about what to do differently and how to do it differently next time around. It also helps them to realise that they are not alone, and that others care enough to bring it up and do something about it. A good manager at work is someone who would tell the truth about us: both good and bad. He/she would provide encouragement if it is good and offer to work with us to sort things out, if it is bad.
Keeping in mind that we are prone to feel self-protective, as recipients of feedback, we should realise that feedback is not criticism or judgement, but information for development and take it in the spirit it is given. Even if feedback comes with a tone of destruction, we should be wise enough to focus on what is relevant to our development. After all, why waste time feeling down because our manager could not word the message differently?
We are a collectivist society and culturally speaking, we are generally high in our need for maintaining harmonious relationships with our colleagues at work. We can’t say ‘no,’ we don’t like to displease others, we don’t want to hurt others, we don’t want them to think badly of us, we think it is rude if someone says that we need improvement; these are some reasons why giving and receiving feedback is not so easy for us. However, ‘ambition should be made of sterner stuff’- whether we like it or not, we need feedback to fine tune our products, our services, and our people.
Aspiration without assertiveness: innovation without openness: growth without food for thought- it is time we wake up. We are both the road workers and drivers on the road ahead. We need to signal those signposts for others and we also need to look around for more direction.