I’m not a sociologist, nor even a psychologist, but I do sometimes wonder if human beings have an innate problem with two-way communication. It first dawned on me as I was working in website development. As I gathered clients’ requirements and diplomatically offered advice on best practice, I began to realise that there was something about ‘interactive’  – something they all agreed was a good thing, like ‘dynamic’ and (ugh!) ‘sexy’ – they just didn’t get. Interactivity, it seemed, was fine as long as it meant end users interacting with pixels. Speaking back wasn’t on the agenda (far too scary), and other people existed to be broadcasted at. All of which puzzled me, as I thought a big part of marketing was learning to understand your target audience, which I guessed would be more difficult if all you really wanted to tell them was ‘shut up’.

Things are improving, of course. Web usability gurus (such as Jakob Nielsen, whose Alertbox column anyone working in web marketing should read) have managed to get some key messages across: for example, the fact that the user controls the mouse, rather than the company controls the web user. More recently, the rise of social media and business blogging has woken up many companies and organisations to the benefits of being more porous – of not just listening, but of engaging the wider world in dialogue. And of learning from the process. But not everyone has really grasped ‘feedback’ – particularly at a more one-to-one level.

Let me try a musical analogy. You’ve probably heard what happens when a microphone comes to close to a loudspeaker. An ear-splitting squeal, usually. Or ‘feedback’, if you’re describing it to the technician you hope will stop it happening for you. (The idea of feedback being an ear-splitting squeal that makes your head ring and triggers an urgent flight response might be familiar to many people in their working lives too, but we’ll come back to that point.)

This kind of feedback need not be destructive: it depends on the handling. A musician with an amplified instrument can ‘use’ feedback – after much practice, with a fair amount of skill, and listening carefully at all times – to creative ends. Notes can be sustained indefinitely with fades and crescendos, and harmonies plucked – and for once we can say ‘literally’ literally – out of thin air. The most important qualifying factor, however, is ‘listening carefully at all times’.

In terms of workplace performance, or as part of the on-going learning and development process, feedback as a sudden unexpected hostile shriek achieves very little. Much like a singer working with an unfamiliar PA system, the recipient will probably decide there are powerful objects (which may mean ‘you’ in this context) from which they will henceforth keep as much distance as possible. Which will not be positive for either their performance or your relationship.

In the musical analogy, feedback is a dialogue between musician and (the electronics components of) their instrument. Outside the musical analogy, feedback should also actually be a dialogue. The point of workplace feedback is to make a positive impact, not to leave a dent. Even if someone’s performance needs addressing urgently, you’re unlikely to see immediate improvements if your concept of feedback leaves them feeling less competent, less supported or less encouraged. In October 2009, the BBC’s Bottom Line programme included a studio debate about giving and receiving feedback, and the participants’ insights are worth repeating. (You have another 11 months to watch the programme online.)

One quality of good feedback – albeit not one the programme highlighted – is that it is timely; when something needs addressing, it needs addressing now rather than whenever the next review meeting has been scheduled. This is a strangely common failing, given that we can all clearly understand that shouting at the cat for scratching the sofa three months after it’s done it won’t solve the issue. (And it’s also cheaper to raise the issue earlier on than to buy a new sofa.)

Programme contributor David Radcliffe, chief executive of Hogg Robinson Group, did however raise an important related point: underperformance may reflect a lack of clear expectations of briefing at the outset. To go back to the musical analogy, feedback ‘coaxed’ from an initial, intentional note tends to be melodic and controllable, while random feedback brought on by carelessness tends to be unpleasant and chaotic. Any feedback loop needs a decent original signal to work from, and workplace performance is no different.

This is another reason that feedback needs to be a dialogue: those at the top of organisational structures need feedback as much as those further down. Their feedback sources need to include those further down, as issues with setting objectives and clarifying expectations need to be addressed to everyone’s benefit. As so often before, we can quote Peter Drucker:

If I put a person into a job and he or she does not perform, I have made a mistake. I have no business blaming that person.”

Another programme contributor, Robin Wight (president of The Engine Group) emphasised the role of listening and empathy in giving feedback, pointing out that to feel that the feedback process is working:

I have to know what you’re feeling about my feedback.”

The purpose of giving feedback is not simply to impart facts. The process needs to have a longer-term outcome: the issue that lead the giver to feel feedback was necessary needs to be addressed, and the recipient needs to learn positively and constructively from the experience. If the feedback giver keeps their ears and eyes open, giving feedback is also a learning exercise for them – an opportunity not to just to practise a valuable skill but to learn about themselves, the impact (good or bad) they have on others, and how they can work on their own behaviour in future.

As Robin Wight pointed out, most organisations have competitors who have talented staff who are paid at the going rate: competitiveness is not, in that sense, innate. But the organisation that can master the arts of giving – and receiving – feedback might gain a 5 – 10% advantage by doing so.

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