Feedback: A Critical Tool For Leaders

Feedback – how can one little word cause so much confusion and strife in the workplace?  Feedback – communication from me to you about performance – should be a valuable tool.  But it is tricky to use; used inappropriately or for the wrong reasons it can cause huge damage to relationships and work results.

When I explain feedback to leaders, I like to use the analogy of driving a car.  When we drive down a road, we are bombarded with feedback about our performance.  We hear engine sounds and the sounds of other cars.  If those sounds vary from the expected, as in a car horn or a siren, we adjust our driving accordingly.  We have visual feedback cues when we look to see other cars, pedestrians or cyclists in the road.  Even the car itself provides us feedback via the speedometer and various gauges.  We use this feedback to change how we drive the car, to ensure maximum efficiency and safety.

The power of feedback is evident when is it missing.  If you have ever driven your car in dense fog you know that feeling of fear when most of your visual feedback is obliterated.  When your car is malfunctioning and gauges don’t work, it can be another cause for alarm.  Driving without feedback is almost certain to result in an accident.

So why are we so reluctant to seek and give feedback at work? In my view it is because we are pretty bad at using this essential performance tool.  We confuse feedback with criticism or forcing our opinion on another.  My definition of feedback is evaluative information designed to maintain or improve performance.  This definition is value-neutral.  It is neither positive nor negative in nature.  It simple says that I have witnessed something about your performance, I have assessed it in some way and I have evaluative information that you can use to keep doing what you are doing or to improve on it.  When my gas gauge blinks a warning that it is nearly empty, it is not conveying guilt or shame that I forgot to fill it on the way to work.  I am adding my value judgment.  Likewise, when a colleague tells me my presentation went too long and lacked participant interaction, he or she is simply stating their assessment of my work.  My reaction can be to hear this as negative criticism or to accept it as information to use to be better next time.

The old adage is true:  feedback is a gift.  The feedback provider wants you to succeed or they would not share their assessment with you.  Organizations that promote open feedback and learn from it are the ones that thrive.  Those that choose to suppress or ignore feedback are looking for the business equivalent of a car wreck.