Feedback, in any system or organism, is an essential element of growth and improvement—and in the most extreme cases, even survival. It is defined in various ways. The most relevant definitions for the purposes of Human Resources and Organizational Development are:
- Merriam Webster: Helpful information or criticism that is given to someone to say what can be done to improve a performance, product, etc.
- Oxford: Information about reactions to a product, a person’s performance of a task, etc. which is used as a basis for improvement.
- Free Dictionary: The process by which a system, often biological or ecological, is modulated, controlled, or changed by the product, output, or response it produces.
Feedback in the Workplace
In the work environment, feedback (ideally) flows in all directions, as well as between the organization and related external parties. Some of the most common sources of workplace feedback include:
- objective data and metrics
- managers and supervisors
customers, suppliers and partners (flowing to)
- front line employees,
- the broader organization; or
- the public via reviews, social media, etc.
Aside from objective data, which simply provides statistical information and metrics without specific intent, most feedback takes the form of praise, constructive guidance, or simple criticism.
When we think of feedback in the workplace, our minds typically focus on how it relates to performance management and the development of employees. Based on current management research and HR best practices, most of us identify simple criticism as ineffective and understand that only specific, timely and contextually relevant praise has an impact (i.e. “well done,” in isolation, does not). As such, our talent management and development efforts draw primarily on constructive guidance with a good measure of the right kind of praise.
At its most valuable, however, the active use of feedback is not restricted to HR. Highly effective companies realize that feedback channels, which exist throughout the organization (especially those coming from the bottom up and the outside in), function much like a highly sensitive nervous system. These conduits provide crucial information pathways that carry pain and pleasure signals (feedback) to receptors (employees, managers, and executives) to be acted upon as needed.
While criticism or negative feedback may not be effective when it comes to performance management, it’s vital for the rest of the organization. Why? Because criticism is nothing more than a pain signal being picked up by the company’s nervous system. And legitimate pain signals tell us something is wrong.
“Just as our bodies use pain to warn us of injury, negative information in an organization is an indication that something is wrong and must be fixed. Both signals warn that harm is occurring and behavior must change. Ignoring these pain signals, or punishing the messenger, results in damage; first at the extremities and eventually to the core of the organization leading to an inevitable regression into a disease state."
Feedback or Recreational Complaining?
Opening up your organization to feedback means receiving all input for consideration; including the good, the bad and the ugly. More importantly, it means understanding that there is likely much more value in the bad (and sometimes even in the ugly!), as long as it is offered in hopes of affecting positive change.
The best way to differentiate among valuable input, recreational complaining and simple “bashing” is to ask for proposed solutions along with complaints.
For example, ask an irate customer “How would you like this to be handled?”
Respond to an employee’s complaint about systemic inefficiency with “How would you change the process to address your concerns?”
Rather than cutting off vital feedback channels by blocking or ignoring complaints and criticism, the healthiest organizations
- encourage all feedback,
- pay close attention to pain signals; and
- act on them early, while they’re easily remedied.
Bringing the conversation back to feedback as it relates to talent management, research conducted by Forbes found that employees are more engaged when provided with regular feedback—no surprise there. What was surprising, however, is that they were significantly more engaged (74% versus 34%), when asked by their managers to provide feedback in return.
The Bottom Line on Feedback
Cultures that encourage, respond to and follow through on open, honest feedback foster stronger employee engagement. And research shows that strong cultures with highly engaged employees lead to better overall business performance and more sustainable growth.
Photo credit: US Navy. Public domain. GULF OF THAILAND (Feb. 12, 2009) Lt. David Waner, from Tulsa, Okla., gives positive feedback to Aviation Machinist's Mate Airman Myriam Miller, from Phoenix, Ariz., as she completes a spot check aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2). Essex is the lead ship of the Essex Expeditionary Strike Group and serves as the flagship for CTF 76, the Navy's only forward-deployed amphibious force commander. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Nardelito
 Kotter, J. P. and Heskett J. L. (2011). Corporate Culture and Performance