Say it to my face
Feedback loops are a thing, aren’t they? Feed back. Feed forward. Communicate in a timely and constructive manner.
Every corporate under the sun claims that they have – and want – a feedback culture and everyone says they are open to – nay: welcome – constructive feedback.
We are not so sure.
What is feedback when it’s at home?
Feedback is a good thing. You should be seen to embrace it as a default corporate behaviour.
True or not.
And the problem with that is twofold. First of all, of all the things that don’t work as “checkbox” exercises, this is top of the list. And secondly, feedback is not generically a good thing. It is specifically a good thing. And that makes all the difference.
Let’s unpack this.
Before corporate-speak did its thing, the term “feedback” is what you called that awful screeching sound caused by an audio feedback loop when the microphone input becomes the amplified speaker output, which becomes a higher level input etc.
That is not the intention when corporations extol their feedback culture… yet look us in the face and tell us that is not often the outcome: a small noise, inexplicably becoming loud without an obvious cause other than that people keep talking and amplifying it.
Damned be the law of unintended consequences. But at least it is true.
If “feedback” in the workplace means input given from one constituency to another, what makes it different to… you know… talking?
Is it power?
It’s a chat if we are mates but if one of us has power of promotion and pay rise over the other – whichever way it goes – we need process to shield us from emotions and “getting personal”?
Is it dependency?
I can’t succeed if you mess up and therefore I need to stop you from accidentally setting the world on fire or, less dramatically, I need to help you help me by giving you visibility, guidance and you know… feedback. Keep doing this, that not so much and that other thing… it doesn’t do much either way so only do it if it helps somewhere else.
Yet it is rarely that simple.
Because it is next to impossible to give feedback that isn’t evaluative. “Good or bad” is there, lurking, even if you haven’t said the words.
It is equally hard to give feedback that isn’t prescriptive. If you don’t want to indicate a course of action, if recommendations aren’t implicit in your missive, it’s not feedback, it’s chit chat. And “don’t change a thing, you are fabulous” is still prescriptive. Warm and fuzzy. But quite limiting, all told, and not altogether helpful. Which was the part that made it fabulous? You may never know and, when the day comes when you have to change part of the whole, for whatever reason, that will matter.
And then you have another layer of complexity, or ten.
Are we meant to be trying to be objective here?
Are we measuring each other against pre-agreed benchmarks? Shared goals? Universal standards? Or personal preferences?
Does this game have rules?
Do I get to tell you every time you annoy me in a meeting or do I tell you in a holistic way, calibrated against all the ways in which you are a great colleague?
Do I tell you because I want you to reflect or do I tell you because I need you to act?
And is it clear to you, the feedback recipient?
And is the timeframe in which action upon the feedback may need to happen also clear? To us both?
And do we both understand what is good and what is bad and what words mean?
The use of “quite” has left Brits and Yanks with very different senses of how a meeting went – “quite good” really not meaning the same across the Pond – and divergent views of what is good to start with may have comical effects. Memorably, Leda’s PhD defence included the statement, “this is too readable, a layman could understand and enjoy it” as a criticism. Go figure.
So what’s our point?
First of all.
Feedback is not about culture as much as it is about process. You need mechanisms. It is not a chat. It is a purpose-driven tool for aligning towards outcomes.
Because I don’t care if you like my hair, honestly. But I care to do better in my career. I care to work better across teams. I care to deliver better results for clients and stakeholders.
I care to hear if I am aligning effort to opportunity, if I have understood the problem we are trying to solve and the reasons why we are solving the way we are.
I care to hear that we are not losing the forest for the tree and vice versa.
I want to hear if I am missing something.
And I want you to be able to tell me you are allergic to the plant that has been on my desk for the last six months. This is a true story. It happened during a workshop one of us ran a few years ago. “And another thing,” this woman said, “that plant you have on your desk… it makes me sneeze.”
Culture is about the sad sad fact that she hadn’t said it before.
But feedback is bigger. It is about defining what needs to be talked about, by whom, in what timeframe and with what expectations.
You know the pig and chicken thing, right? We are all scrum certified here…
A pig and a chicken walk down the road.
“We should open a restaurant,” says the chicken.
“Good idea,” says the pig, “what should we call it?”
“Eggs and Bacon,” says the chicken, chuffed with its new-found marketing genius.
“No way,” says the pig. “I would be committed and you would only be involved.”
So your scrum master would tell you that, in a project, pigs give feedback. Chickens have opinions.
And there is so much fun to be had when you start the work and tell senior bank stakeholders, “you are a chicken and this is why” and then, months later, you tell them, “chickens don’t have a vote on this, Sir”. Oh, the thrilling power the Scrum Master hat gives a junior analyst. Oh, the beautiful clarity of having pre-agreed what comms are for.
Opinions being the thing that everyone has and not something we necessarily need more of, in any given time.
A solution for everything is a solution for nothing
Your feedback culture aspirations are not the problem.
Hoping that saying it is enough and leaving the undefined blob to do its thing and be a solution for all of the above, organically, is the problem.
Ignoring the second law of thermodynamics: the natural state of things is entropy. Chaos is not an accident. Inertia is not an accident. Hope is not a strategy. Cliches work because they are true.
So. What do you do? We are not for a second suggesting you should stop aspiring to a feedback culture. Or rather, we are.
We want you to stop aspiring. And we want you to drop the “culture” part.
This is about doing, not hoping. And the culture follows the structure. It’s not the thing you build. It’s the thing you get, after doing the doing.
So. How do you give evaluative, quantitative, actionable feedback?
Well. First by being clear as to who can give it, what it is for and how you deliver, track and assess it.
We have had great fun writing this piece together but if, for whatever reason, we had to translate this into Greek, Mike’s feedback would be a little useless and consequently, not entirely welcome. Similarly, if Leda decides she has thought about the organising idea and wants to re-do it, after we have submitted it for publication, the feedback is more annoying than welcome. Violating the first unspoken rule of communication and collaboration: respect. For each other’s time and contributions and for the task we set ourselves to achieve.
I want it. What is it?
A culture of feedback is what all the cool kids have and I want one too.
I saw it in the book my boss’s boss gave me for the office secret Santa that I haven’t read but skimmed through in case we get stuck in a lift together and I saw the competitors talk about it plus didn’t Simon Sinek do a thing on this?
We want to have a culture of respecting each other.
You know how you achieve that? By not tolerating disrespect. That is all.
Feedback as a mechanism of harnessing and aligning perspectives for the smoother delivery of value can work in all cultures. It is a mechanism and therefore its quality may vary but the process doesn’t need to. It needs a purpose and a value driver.
Motivation and happiness are side effects of feedback because “you are awesome” is not the only way to motivate someone. Telling them how they can do better is as powerful if delivered in a way that is digestible, constructive and helpful. That entails no one-up-man-ship. That entails not making people feel this will come back to haunt them. That entails people not feeling like point-scoring is going on.
Humans have feelings.
Feedback needs to acknowledge those hopes, fears, egos.
How not to do it.
The whole “s**t sandwich” concept of say something fluffy and good, tell the harsh truth, then say something fluffy and innocuous and be done, is cynical and doesn’t work. Humans can take being told they need to re-think. Actually people can cope with “none of that was good enough to keep” better than we give them credit for. It’s how we say it that is the problem.
And it’s hard to give that message without making it sound like “you suck”. But that’s the exam question: to tell someone “that sucked” without making them feel like you mean they suck. Without making them feel lost and unclear as to what to do next.
Context and purpose alignment.
We need to do that part differently because it didn’t deliver against this objective in those ways.
If it sounds like a lot of work to give useful feedback that is because it is. In fact, it would be faster and easier to do the work yourself. But that is not the point.
So the question is not, can it be done? It can.
The question is, can you do it? Can you put in the time to articulate why this does not work and how to do it better? Because that is part of the job as a colleague and even more so as a manager.
If your answer is, “it depends, what is the purpose and end game” then we are getting somewhere.
And as a rule of thumb, if you know the answer to those outcome-focused questions, then you are in a position to be able to give feedback. Just make it good.
And if you don’t know why you would bother with the hard work of actionable, informative feedback, then don’t. Whatever the problem, another 10,000 foot opinion in the mix is almost never the solution.
So let’s try this one for size: have a mechanism for purpose-aligned feedback. And cultivate a culture of generosity. Where helping each other is a thing that happens with every breath we take. It will work its magic on projects and objectives. But will go way way beyond that. If it’s real. And if you make a mistake when genuinely attempting to be generous, the person you are giving feedback to is much more likely to listen and forgive you. Intention counts.
But beware the internal machine that grinds heavy and grinds slow. Giving feedback in three months’ time, when the issue is now, today, is at best a cop-out and at worst, useless. I don’t want you to give me feedback about something I could have done differently three months ago, that I kept on doing week after week. I want to tell me now – so we can discuss it, I can change and we can work together more effectively for the next twelve weeks. Don’t rely on the email from HR saying “you need to give feedback to X”. Do the generous thing – do it now.
If in doubt of what that means and feels like, our suggestion is, stick with the mechanism side of things. Get into the habit of time-sensitive, purposeful and actionable feedback. Be context-aware and realistic. Get people comfortable with what feedback is for. And in doing is, realise and admit that it is not what makes you a good colleague.
That one is on you.
And the mechanism isn’t what will make your culture.
That one is on you too.
But let’s start somewhere purposeful.
By Leda Glyptis, FinTech Futures’ thought provocateur, and Michael Harding, partner, Oliver Wyman Digital
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!