The World of Work Project

Feedback: An Overview

Feedback (or guidance) is information provided to someone about their performance or the way they do things. It is fundamentally either positive or negative (though negative feedback is sometimes euphemistically re-framed as constructive). There are many different types of feedback and a huge range of feedback models.

Summary by the World of Work Project

Feedback

Feedback is a key tool used in organizations to ensure that individuals are aware of how they are performing, what they should continue to do and what they should change in order to be more effective. While it is often considered to be a top-down tool (i.e. more senior people provide feedback to more junior people), in reality feedback can be beneficial in all directions.

In an organizational context there are three core and distinct reasons for providing feedback: changing behaviors, comparing performance and celebrating success.

Feedback to change behaviors

When people think of feedback, they usually think of messages intended to change someone’s behaviors, to help them understand their performance, so that they can improve it.

Feedback of this nature should be timely, delivered in private and include specific examples. There are a huge number of models designed to help with this type of feedback.

Ever had feedback that feels like this? Yup… us too…

There are two primary ways that we can try to change behavior through feedback. Firstly, we can focus on negative behaviors or outcomes and help identify ways that individuals can improve, change behaviors or otherwise achieve better outcomes in the future. Secondly, we can focus on things that are good and look to further increase performance in these areas.

Provision of positive and negative feedback like this with the intention of improving behaviors can be effective, and is related to the use of “Reinforcement Theory” in the workplace.

Feedback to compare performance

Though people tend to be less explicitly conscious of this, feedback also has a very clear role to play in helping people understand their position in relation to their peers.

Peer comparison might be a bit like this…

This use of feedback is essential when organizations operate peer groups or similar hierarchical structures. In these organizations, it can be very important for individuals to understand how they are performing compared to their peers. This purpose for feedback crosses over a lot with the world of performance management, which we touch on shortly.

Feedback to celebrate success and motivate

All too often people forget about the fact that feedback is also a great way to celebrate success. When used well and with genuine messages, feedback is a powerful motivational tool and a way to help individuals and teams focus on the great things that they do.

As well as motivating, celebratory feedback can help build relationships, increase wellbeing and resilience and improve relationships and reputations with stakeholders.

Development Vs Performance Management

Many different tensions exist in relation to feedback. One of the biggest lies in the relationship between feedback for development, and feedback for performance management.

Feedback should help pull people up so that they can achieve more. It doesn’t always…

In our view, feedback for development and feedback for performance management should be separated as much as possible.

Development feedback

When people believe that they are being given feedback that is well intentioned, designed and delivered with the purpose of helping them develop and improve, then they will usually value that feedback. They might not agree with it, and they might find the feedback process emotionally difficult, but generally they will appreciate the efforts made to help them develop.

However, feedback isn’t always of this form.

Performance Management Feedback

Ranking on a curve can cause problems.

Feedback is often collected in organizations in order to rank the performance of individuals, or perhaps to justifying their pre-decided rankings. These rankings often appear on employee records, affect reputations and progression opportunities and may affect bonus payments or annual salary increases.

When this is the case, feedback may lose much of its value as a means for helping people learn. Even when people receive constructive feedback, they will typically see it as a threat to their rank more than an opportunity from which to grow.

The World of Work Project View

Feedback is a great tool. As individuals it’s important to seek feedback from people whose opinions you value and to try and grow and develop as a result of it.

However, many people providing feedback aren’t very good at it, and in many organizations the feedback process is little more than a waste of everyone’s time. Given that, it’s not always something that you should take too seriously…

Sources and further reading

Where possible we always recommend that people read up on the original sources of information and ideas.

Most of the information used as the basis for this post comes from our own experience in the workplace and there are no specific references for it. If you think anything in here should be attributed to anyone, please let us know.

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