We live in a churning sea of feedback. Comment boxes appear on web pages like graffiti on a boxcar. Swirling around us are emoticons with thumbs-up signs, clapping hands, OK signs, happy faces, sad faces -- the list goes on. Many websites ask you to take a brief survey with a pop-up box that obscures most of what you are trying to read. It’s overwhelming. It’s everywhere, and it’s stifling.
As a result of these ever-present customer surveys and comment boxes, we are conditioned to believe that everyone wants our feedback. And because so many places keep asking for our feedback, we believe we are qualified to give an opinion on every subject. News flash -- neither is true. Yet, the result is databases full of comments and opinions, most of which are useless.
Feedback frenzy has infected the business world too. We have upward feedback, downward feedback, reinforcing feedback and redirecting feedback. There's positive feedback, negative feedback, reflective feedback and forward-looking feedback. The list seems endless. There’s so much feedback that it’s hard to find any meaningful nuggets that might produce real change.
Nonetheless, feedback is here to stay, and we’ve gone so far as to give it official sounding name -- “big data.” Big data is the rage. It is true that data can sometimes equate to better information (and better decisions). The problem is, however, that more isn’t always better. Sometimes, less really is more. The right data is helpful in uncovering valuable insights. The right feedback is good feedback.
So, rather than adding to a heap of data dung, how can we ensure the feedback we provide is actually useful? In the business context, our research suggests that the the following four steps will help make your feedback process more effective.
1. Stop believing the hype.
Realize that no one is skilled enough to comment on everything. Whenever you are asked to provide a piece of feedback in a business context, ask yourself “Am I qualified to comment on this item?” If asking yourself this question gives you reason to pause, then let the feedback receiver know so they can prioritize your feedback. With so much feedback being available, the need to prioritize is increasingly important. It’s okay to decline giving feedback. When they understand your reason for doing so, your declining to give feedback shows that you respect the process and the person.
2. Find out why the feedback is being solicited.
Also ask how it will be used. Here is a common scenario. A colleague asks you to review a sales proposal before it goes to a potential client. Most of us quickly read the proposal and highlight our concerns. Yet, consider how much better your comments would be if you take the time to find out more about the reason for the proposal or what problem the client trying to solve. It’s better to ask a few clarifying questions up front to discover the underlying assumptions that will impact your feedback.
3. Think about the ideal standard of the scenario you are facing.
Feedback is most helpful when provided against the backdrop of well-defined expectations. The Greeks knew this as they developed mathematics. They quickly learned to conceptualize a perfect rectangle, rather than fiddling with a farmer’s field where the angles are never precise, and the terrain is never perfectly flat. Consider how defining expectations applies to this feedback scenario. You have been asked to provide feedback about an employee. Before jumping in with your suggestions on how “Brad” can do a better job contributing to your weekly meetings, take a moment to consider what constitutes ideal behavior. This effort alone will help your feedback stay objective, and it will keep your comments from becoming emotionally charged. Also, referencing an expected set of standards ensures that actions taken from the feedback will be more successful.
4. Stay focused.
Keep your feedback focused on instances where the standard was either met (reinforcing) or where there was a gap between reality and the standard (redirecting). This step is the most important for a couple of reasons. One, it makes giving the feedback easier because you are making the process about the feedback and not about an individual’s characteristics. Second, the feedback is focused on the gaps, which is the point of the process in the first place.
When somebody asks for feedback, they are trying to get it right. But, a thumbs-up sign does little to help them know if they actually succeeded. Specific feedback that is targeted toward the gaps is truly helpful in making effective changes. It’s also critical to provide reinforcing feedback so others know where and when they hit the mark. It’s just as important to know that something is working (so it can be repeated or emphasized), as it is to receive a laundry list of areas for improvement.
Giving and receiving.
These four steps have been focused on giving feedback; however, they also make soliciting feedback more successful. Don’t just ask everyone for their feedback. Ask those whose are qualified and whose opinions matter. Don’t just ask for an opinion. Explain why their comments are important and how they will be used. Help guide the feedback giver so they provide you with more of what you need -- actionable data that creates value and narrows business gaps.
Everyone is more than willing to tell you something, while at the same time never giving you the most important information -- exactly how you met their expectations or where you fell short. You have to guide the process.
So, are we stuck in a new millennial norm? Have the requests for comments and feedback created an unwieldy world of data overload? Are we commenting just to comment as opposed to trying to improve processes or people? At times, it certainly feels this way. This is why focusing on the four steps outlined above will improve the value of feedback within your organizations and provide structure to make the data more useful.