Want to Use Feedback As a Development Tool? Ask, Don't Tell

Bill Cushard

Director of Marketing, ServiceRocket

The honest truth about performance feedback in business, as I've observed it over the years? Typically, it's been a top-down process used simply to satisfy requirements for annual reviews. And usually, it's a chore that both managers and employees loathe. When I joined Accenture in 2008, however, I discovered a slightly different way of running the feedback process: The company had a philosophy and system that made feedback the responsibility of the individual, not the manager. In other words, if you wanted feedback, you had to ask for it.

Although I used the traditional process myself to collect feedback when I rolled off a project, I should have asked for feedback during times when I struggled or just wanted to improve. That would have been much more valuable to me than simply going through the motions of collecting feedback (usually in a rush) just ahead of my annual performance review.

Popular venture capitalist Fred Wilson -- a keen observer not just of technology and startup trends but also of forward-looking management ideas -- is among more leading thinkers today who believe that by using feedback only for annual reviews, people don't get feedback at the same pace needed to adapt and change at today's speed of business. In previous years, could I have learned my job more quickly and performed at a higher level had I sought feedback more continuously? Absolutely. And research backs up that assertion.

Why Asking For (Not Collecting) Continuous Feedback Works

Although academic literature is packed with research on the positive relationship between feedback and learning, there is a striking lack of evidence in the business world on the same topic. One study of medical residents -- somewhat more relevant -- found that when residents asked for more feedback, there was a positive effect on patient safety and resident development. And I believe the theory holds true in business organizations as well.

So if the path to greater development and higher performance depends primarily on getting employees to simply ask for more feedback -- how can managers make that happen? According to this same study, organization leaders can encourage people to ask for feedback using a supportive supervisory style and communicating the benefits of being proactive. It sounds a little counter-intuitive -- in a sense, placing performance evaluation back on the employee -- but the research suggests it's the way to go.

How to Get Employees Into the Feedback Loop

Here are some ways managers can get employees into the mode of seeking valuable performance feedback from both bosses and peers.

  1. Managers should ask for feedback themselves. Managers should set the example others can follow. By continuously asking for feedback on their own performance, managers establish a norm that seeking feedback is acceptable, a productive use of time, and critical for professional development. And besides, if you aren't seeking feedback and listening to your people in general, you're probably not much of a leader anyway.

  1. Share requests and actions taken. A manager can also share with others the feedback received and what actions were taken to address the feedback. Imagine the impact in your organization if people observe a manager who says, "I heard your feedback. I understand. And here's what I'm going to do about it."

  1. Beat the drum. To get messages across, managers know they must repeat the message over and over again. Repeatedly. If a manager wants people to ask for feedback, he/she should continuously tell people it is OK to ask for feedback and that it's encouraged constantly.

As fast as things are moving, the idea of spending time on employee development can be an overwhelming thought to many managers. The good news is that managers can shift some of the time, effort, and responsibility of development to individuals by encouraging feedback seeking.

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