Thoughts on How to Improve Workplace Feedback

Feedback is like work-life balance, often praised, but rarely practiced effectively. Both feedback and work-life balance represent concepts that everyone agrees are beneficial and yet most people’s actions don’t support this belief. I felt compelled to write this article to explore how groups can improve feedback processes because it has been critical to my development as a product manager.

Experience from a past job displays how a company’s best laid plans for employee development through feedback can go array. I worked for a company that valued 360-degree feedback and wanted everyone to provide feedback to peers on skills such as communication or decision-making. Employees were asked for specific examples anonymously throughout the quarter to determine if a colleague was performing, and then the manager distributed this information. This process created a work environment in which employees were unreceptive to feedback because they felt monitored by their peers. For example, a developer might comment, “Bill’s designs did not show enough detail so it was hard to determine the scope of the new registration page project”. The manager, Jim, then gave this example to Bill and eventually used it to grade Bill’s performance. Bill knew who made the comment — since he was in the meeting — and worked to not make the same mistake again in front of others for fear of being evaluated negatively. Each person, like Bill, became more concerned with whether or not they were seen as addressing comments rather than developing additional skills. Jim believed he was providing helpful feedback.

In order to understand how to improve on processes like these it is important to first identify methods for giving effective feedback:

Feedback should happen often and be timely: If a group member is trying to improve their public speaking skills and you feel that they gave a presentation in which they went off topic it helps to alert them of this quickly — within a day or two — so they can adjust. After the next presentation it also helps to let them know if they made progress.

If you compare this feedback to the sort that is typically provided it is easy to see how it would be much more helpful. Typically, feedback comes weeks after the presentation and there is no follow up to let the presenter know if adjustments were helpful.

Feedback should be actionable: In other words none of this:

The receiver should know what they can do more or less of to improve. Imagine you are a designer and one of your goals is to use behavioral data to design more effectively for customers. You are working on a new checkout flow and receive feedback that the flow “is too long”. Now instead imagine you receive feedback to use data on what optional fields are skipped to understand how to consolidate steps. The later is probably more helpful because you know what to do more of next time — look for information on interaction before deciding on the flow.

Feedback should reference a goal: Both the giver and receiver should understand the person’s underlying goal. Often times employee goals are implicit and so feedback is given on unrelated goals, which complicates the growth process by forcing someone to parse irrelevant feedback. For example, I worked for an online publisher doing sales support for an advertising sales team where I developed ad products monitored the effectiveness of ad campaigns. I used the job as a way to refine my business analysis skills in order to move into a more technical product role. Most people in my group believed that I wanted to eventually become an ad salesman so the feedback I received was given under this assumption, and much of it was useless.

How can we use these insights and relevant research on what makes for effective feedback to create a new model for how employees grow? Here are some things I believe will help move in the right direction:

  1. Let an employee decide on a growth goal and the colleagues that give feedback: Once a quarter or year a person can say “I want to improve my public speaking skills”. This eliminates any ambiguity around what their goal is and ensures they are receptive to feedback.
  2. Set up the infrastructure to keep feedback channels open: Through tools like 15–5 people can give feedback on another person’s specific goal at any time — after meetings, discussions or looking over their work.
  3. Evaluate progress regularly: Make it a point to review progress toward this goal in weekly updates with the group.
  4. Separate the growth goal from business performance: Feedback has been shown to be less effective when the receiver views it as a way to control or monitor them. Making this process separate from an effort to reach business goals frees a person to focus on building complex skills.

Here is how I see one potential approach working. In the diagram below I am Steve and the box represents the stock of my knowledge and skills related to public speaking.

Effective feedback is critical to employee development and leads to happier and more fulfilling roles for individual contributors and managers alike since it helps everyone develop complex skills. For these reasons it is important to continue thinking critically about how we can improve the processes for giving, receiving and using this vital information.