The Power of Feedback? It Doesn’t Just Help Us Perform. It Helps Us Transform.
Editor’s note: Our co-founder Jim Barnett originally posted this article in Forbes in early March 2020. But we find that, as the world of work has changed dramatically this year, his advice is just as relevant today. In fact, feedback might be even more important now, as we all learn new ways of working, embark on projects we hadn’t initially planned on, and rely on very specific (and arguably very limiting) communications channels. Feedback, we believe, is still one of the keys to helping us bring our best selves to work and do our best work.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on how feedback has helped you transform over the past year. Join the People Success Forum to share your comments or questions.
One of the truths I’ve come to understand over the course of my career is that feedback shapes us into the people and professionals we are—or want to become.
In my case, I can remember vividly one of the best pieces of feedback I ever received. I was a first-time CEO, and in light of some challenges the business was going through, one of my mentors on our company’s board taught me about the importance of inspiring people. It’s safe to say their feedback illuminated my path forward. I have grown to believe that inspiring people is one of the most important things a leader must do in order to be successful, and I’ve made it my life’s focus. I’m not sure I’d be where I am today without that feedback.
I’ve spent a considerable amount of time dissecting how they delivered that feedback, how I accepted it, and what it meant for both my organization at the time and my own career trajectory.
Developmental feedback vs. feedback for performance
Knowing what I know now, it’s easy for me to recognize this seminal piece of feedback as development-oriented because it helped me build on my strengths and capabilities. Yet feedback for development is rare in organizational settings.
We’ve come to rely heavily on performance-related feedback for one main reason: its binary nature (good/bad, right/wrong) paves a clear path to evaluative decisions business leaders have to make, like promotions and compensation.
While there’s a place for performance-related feedback in organizations, we need to spend more time prioritizing and providing developmental feedback. Why? It has the power to motivate individuals to grow, in turn building organizational capability and ultimately leading to business success.
One universal truth that factors largely into why development-oriented feedback is critical in organizational settings is this: Humans are often bad at self-awareness. Research shows that although 95% of people think they’re self-aware, only 10 to 15% of us actually are. In other words, if we are going to transform, we have to rely on those around us to help identify the strengths we can leverage and growth opportunities we can address.
That’s especially true for emerging leaders. When someone advances in an organizational structure to take on more leadership roles and responsibilities, the real or perceived power imbalance that starts to take shape around them causes peers, co-workers, and especially direct reports to think twice before providing candid feedback. And that’s the kind of feedback that’s most helpful in leadership development. The result is that leaders often lose grip on what they’re doing well and what they could improve upon. It can be a missed opportunity to cultivate a self-aware leadership team that perpetuates an open feedback culture to the benefit of others and the organization.
So how can leaders get truly helpful developmental feedback?
One solution is to seek 360-degree feedback, or feedback from above (a manager), the side (peers), and below (direct reports). The primary purpose of a 360, as we often call it, is to drive growth through self-awareness. Ideally a 360 helps a person develop a skill or capability rather than tell them what they did right or wrong. It should provide a safe space for someone to compare how they perceive themselves to others’ perspectives, surfacing similarities and differences that lead to greater self-awareness and ultimately positive behavior change.
At its best, a 360 fosters professional growth and development, and is not used for performance evaluations. It should be simple and intuitive for both the participant and those giving the feedback, its focus on the few essential behaviors the organization considers to be important in an effective leader.
Here are four components I’ve seen help 360s be successful:
- Make them intentional. Clearly define the purpose for everyone involved. (Feedback givers are more likely to provide candid input knowing the 360 is for development rather than performance—and it’s the candid feedback that builds self-awareness.) Align the process to actual business needs, key organizational behaviors, or cultural values (or all three).
- Ensure they’re relevant. Cover topics that are critical to a person’s developmental journey and timed to have the greatest impact (for instance, when they have moved into a new role, or as they take on a complex new challenge).
- Provide support. Guide feedback givers on how to contribute effective input. Create a supportive environment for the person participating so they can practice new capabilities without fear of repercussions from failure.
- Build a process that’s ongoing. Integrate development goals into other organizational practices, such as quarterly goal discussions. Feedback from a 360 has limited impact if filed away, untouched.
With the right application and follow-through, 360s can be an important way to build capabilities for individuals and even organizations by developing self-aware leaders who can meet the needs of the business.
Rarely does developmental feedback like 360s make it to anyone other than the organization’s top leaders. But why should increased self-awareness and growth be limited to those at the top? The insights gained from 360s can be effective for broader employee development programs as well. When organizations make 360s available for a wider swath of their people, they normalize development-oriented feedback as a part of an employee’s journey, thereby creating a feedback culture that emphasizes improvement and growth.
And that’s the larger point. Once organizations make space for everyone to build self-awareness, they experience better outcomes for both their people and their business.
When I consider the existential benefits of feedback, I often think it’s about being open to what the universe is trying to teach us, and sometimes those messages come across more clearly through the people around us. I, for one, am grateful to have had a mentor and dozens of teammates who have helped me grow through their feedback—and I think we’re all better off when we do the same for those around us.
Learn more about Glint’s People Success Platform.