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10 people to listen to when it comes to workplace feedback

Feedback is the driving force behind employee development, and one of your core responsibilities as a manager. And poor feedback reflects badly on your business's wider communication practices. But don't panic, because we have ten people for you to listen to about the importance of workplace feedback!

Broadly speaking, good feedback accomplishes three things. First, it allows managers to guide and critique employee performance. Second, it lets employees voice criticisms and ask for support. And third, it's your best opportunity to use recognition as a form of motivation.

Feedback and how you go about it heavily influences the employee experience. Almost 70% of employees would work harder if their efforts were better recognised, for example. Then there's the fact that strengths-based management can boost profitability while lowering attrition. So, now we've enlightened you on the importance of workplace feedback, here are ten people you ought to listen to!

1: Managing Director of Semaca Partners, Joe Hirsch

For the longest time, top-down, hierarchical feedback was pretty much the universal standard. But that seems to be less so with each passing day. If you want employees to engage with feedback, then as Joe Hirsch will tell you, it needs to go both ways.

'Rather than relying on a feedback hierarchy, managers should consider a partnership model that distributes power and increases two-way conversation with their employees — leading to more authentic and revealing feedback experience that fosters trust, flows with the rhythm of work, and sets the conditions for positive, lasting change.'

He illustrates it as the difference between "window-gazing" and "mirror holding." In window-gazing, two people provide two equally valid descriptions of what they see. But Hirsch suggests that this can't work in the workplace due to the imbalance of power between manager and employee.

So two-way feedback is more like mirror holding. Instead of telling the employee what to see, you show them where to look. This is done by guiding the conversation into constructive areas and promoting self-reflection.

'If the sign of a good leader is someone who creates other leaders, then mirror holding is the mark of transformational leadership.'

2: Former Netflix Chief Talent Officer and TED talk pro, Patty McCord

Having spent 14 years at Netflix experimenting with new ways to work, Patty is an expert in what helps people be their best. She's a big champion of open and frequent feedback, which she discussed in an excellent 5-minute video for TED's 'The way we work' series.

"You know why people say giving feedback is so hard? They don't practice." 

"Let's take the annual performance review. What else do you do in your whole life that you're really good at that you only do once a year?"

"Here's what I found: humans can hear anything if it's true. So let's rethink the word "feedback," and think about it as telling people the truth, the honest truth, about what they're doing right and what they're doing wrong, in the moment when they're doing it. That good thing you just did, whoo! That's exactly what I'm talking about. Go do that again. And people will do that again, today, three more times."

3: Five-time NYT best-selling author, Dan Pink

Dan is a prolific writer specialising in workplace issues. And with five best-sellers under his belt, you can bet he's got something to say about the importance of workplace feedback. In his Pinkcast, Dan gives his two cents on workplace culture. Recently, offered some interesting advice for those wondering how to secure good feedback. His solution?

'Don't.'

But that doesn't make sense, does it? Too often, managers are reluctant to provide the critical feedback employees need. It seems counterintuitive not to ask for feedback, so what does Dan mean exactly?

'Don't ask for feedback. Ask for advice. [...] First, people love being asked for advice. It's flattering. They love giving advice. Second, many people don't love being tough and critical, even when [it] is justified.'

People find it awkward to speak harsh truths. Asking for advice lets them soften the blow a little. This way, they can give negative feedback more easily. So that means negative feedback is really important, right?

Not necessarily.

'It doesn't matter too much whether feedback is positive or negative. What matters the most in effective feedback is whether that feedback is actionable.'

But Dan's 'Pinkcast' is only a fraction of the content on his site, and we'd definitely recommend checking out the rest.

4: Founder of Farnam Street, Shane Parrish

In the 'Pinkcast' episode we were just discussing, Dan took some inspiration from a quote by Shane Parrish:

'Asking for feedback creates a critic. Asking for advice creates a partner.'

And if a five-time best-seller is taking tips from you, you're probably doing something right. So, what else can Shane tell us about feedback?

Well, this Farnam Street article offers some solid advice for giving feedback to others. First, it lays out three different types of feedback:

  • Appreciation.
  • Advice/Coaching.
  • Evaluation.

The key to effective feedback is being able to do all three. But you need clear barriers of separation.

'It is best to offer different kinds of feedback at different times. At the very least, you should explicitly signal when you move from one purpose to another. Above all, it helps to separate both advice and appreciation from the anxiety that typically accompanies a performance review-evaluation. Most times, evaluation is the one that is least likely to be helpful, and most likely to distract from your other two purposes.'

If that pearl of wisdom sounds a little familiar, it's because it has a lot in common with our criticism of the "Sandwich Method."

5: Professor of psychology & behavioural economics at Duke University, Dan Ariely

It's not just the importance of workplace feedback you've got to consider, but also the sort of feedback you're giving. Dan Pink tells us that the positivity or negativity of feedback doesn't really matter. However, Dan Ariely disagrees. In one of his WSJ 'Ask Ariely' segments, he points out how negativity can alienate people from the feedback process:

'The idea that we can learn from our mistakes is appealing, but it’s not always correct. Researchers have found that people often don’t learn from their mistakes, even when given an immediate opportunity to correct them.'

This is a pretty controversial statement, not least because timely feedback is often the most effective. So, what does Dan mean?

'In one set of studies, participants responded to factual questions by selecting one of two possible answers. After each question, feedback was provided. Test-takers in the “success” group were told only when they answered a question correctly, while those in the “failure” group were told only when they answered incorrectly.'

'Both groups had the same opportunity to learn from the feedback. But when they were retested, the “failure” group was less able to learn from their mistakes than the “success” group, which showed more progress. Why? Subsequent research suggested that failure threatens the ego and causes people to disengage. We find it easier to learn from other people’s failures than from our own.'

6: Founder and former CEO of Microsoft, Bill Gates

If anyone on this list needs no introduction, it's Bill Gates. Some years back, he gave a TedTalk on education and the level of support teachers were getting at the time. And one of the key points he made was about the lack of support for their professional development.

'When Melinda and I learned how little useful feedback most teachers get, we were blown away. Until recently, over 98 percent of teachers just got one word of feedback: satisfactory. If all my bridge coach ever told me was that I was 'satisfactory,' I would have no hope of ever getting better. How would I know who was the best? How would I know what I was doing differently?'

He compared this to a high-performing school in the province of Shanghai, China, as an example of the importance of workplace feedback:

'They made sure that younger teachers get a chance to watch master teachers at work. They have weekly study groups, where teachers get together and talk about what's working. They even require each teacher to observe and give feedback to their colleagues.'

The teachers were able to improve consistently because they got regular, timely feedback. On top of that, they were using 360-feedback to gain deeper insights about their teaching styles.

7: Gartner's VP of Research, Brian Kropp

Gartner is one of the leading workplace research bodies, so when they say something, it's best to listen. Brian has some particular concerns about the state of feedback in the remote work age. This SHRM article juxtaposes Brian's views against those of Gallup's Ben Wigert, who we'll be covering next.

'Managers often give informal feedback walking out of a meeting, and coaching on the walk-in. Remote work has a mechanism for formal reviews, but I am worried those crucial hallway moments are going to go away. We're going to have to create a whole new series of approaches and processes to make it work.'

Of course, some solutions already exist like employee check-ins. But it's not only about missing the chance for ad-hoc feedback. In 2019, remote staff on average got more negative corrective feedback than office-based staff.

'So, work location can cause a difference in how management may treat employees and this may lead to more disengaging behaviour by those employees who work from home.'

8: Gallup's Director of Research and Strategy, Ben Wigert

Back in 2019, Ben co-wrote a piece talking about how we need to move away from top-down performance management:

'"Feedback" rarely makes sense in these situations. What you really want is an open, honest, two-way dialogue that strengthens relationships rather than one-way instruction and criticism.

'Coaching conversations [...] are about now and what's next. Coaching conversations put the employee's strengths and future potential at the centre, in an ongoing, middle-of-the-action dialogue.'

And in the SHRM piece above, he talks about the benefits of walking meetings as a solution for remote staff:

'Walking meetings are a great way to catch up with your remote employee in a very unstructured and healthy way. Find a time that works for both of you to take a phone call from your favourite trail or treadmill.'

9: Speaker, author and CEO, Mark Perna

In this Forbes think-piece, Mark Perna dives into why attitudes to feedback have shifted generationally. Of course, the importance of workplace feedback goes beyond one generation. But Millennial and Gen Z employees are spearheading the push for more regular critiques.

'Millennials’ preference for more frequent feedback doesn’t have to create an additional burden for time-pressed managers. Instead, think of it as an opportunity to have more casual, ongoing conversations or check-ins.'

Fortunately, the approach he suggests can be boiled down to a few simple points:

  • Keep it simple.
  • Talk less, listen more.
  • Put negative feedback into perspective.

He even gets to the heart of why feedback means so much to Millennials and Gen Z:

'In general, younger workers are not fishing for compliments, but looking for ways to consistently grow and develop.'

10: Lifelabs Learning co-founder, LeeAnn Renninger

In her excellent video for TED's 'The Way We Work' series, LeeAnn reveals the secret formula of giving effective feedback. Based on the lab-based work she has done with some of the great feedback givers across some of the world's best-known companies, she distils great feedback down to four key traits. As LeeAnn puts it:

"If you look at a carpenter, they have a toolbox; a dentist, they have their drills. In our era and the type of work most of us are doing, the tool we most need is actually centred around being able to give and receive feedback well."

"But to be honest, we're still pretty bad at it. In fact, a recent Gallup survey found that only 26 percent of employees strongly agree that the feedback they get actually improves their work. Those numbers are pretty dismal."

"It doesn't have to be this way. I and my team have spent many years going into different companies and asking who here is a great feedback giver. Anybody who's named again and again, we actually bring into our labs to see what they're doing differently. And what we find is that there's a four-part formula"

Give the video a watch to discover the specifics of that formula; it's well worth the watch.

So, there you have it. Ten people you should listen to about the importance of workplace feedback. It's a clear consensus this time around. Intermittent, top-down feedback is out. Regular, two-way conversations and check-ins are in.