The English-Oxford Dictionary defines “feedback” as:
- Information about reactions to a product, a person’s performance of a task, etc., which is used as a basis for improvement.
- The return of a fraction of the output signal from an amplifier, microphone, or other device to the input of the same device; sound distortion produced by this.
While big data and predictive analytics are gaining popularity, in most organizations the employee survey remains HR’s favorite feedback tool. Most organizations ask for feedback with the intent to improve performance (as in the first definition above). And, based on feedback, many HR departments are moving away from the 50-plus question annual surveys, to shorter quarterly ‘engagement’ surveys, or something similar. While well intended, increasing survey frequency is only useful if people don’t get the impression that their feedback is viewed as the unpleasant noise described in the second definition. Alas, too often employees are cynical and dismissive about giving feedback – regardless of survey length or frequency – due to a lack of any meaningful follow up.
Seeking Feedback: The Best, and the Rest
In 2017, Leadership IQ spent 6-months surveying more than 27,000 employees across multiple industries . Out of that population, only 24% said that their leader ‘Always encourages and recognizes suggestions for improvement’, while 16% said their leader ‘Never’ does so. Significantly, the study also showed that of the 4,000 plus employees that aren’t given a voice, only 5% would recommend their company as a great place to work.
In contrast, people from organizations that consistently sit at the top of the “most recommended places to work” – Google, Amazon, IDEO, Deloitte, and Facebook – have a very different narrative. For these organizations, feedback plays a leading role in developing and sustaining the cultures, norms, and values that drive team performance and employee well-being.
Few organizations in the world have dedicated as much time and resources to understanding team performance as Google. In his February 25, 2016 New York Times Magazine article, “What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team“, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Charles Duhigg described Google’s passion for team excellence, and the critical role of feedback in delivering exceptional performance. As Google grew, it became clear that focusing on individual feedback and performance measurement was insufficient as more work was performed by teams. However, Google had little in the way of people analytics that showed what consistently drove superior team performance. This gap between understanding individual productivity, versus team effectiveness, led Google’s People Operations and People Analytics teams on a multi-year journey to uncover the drivers of their most effective teams. Code-named Project Aristotle, the team of researchers conducted a review of 50-years worth of team research, along with surveys and in-depth interviews with 180 teams within Google.
Initially, despite having some of the world’s best pattern recognition experts, the Aristotle team did not see an explanation for differences in team effectiveness. The breakthrough came as the Aristotle team listened to their colleagues describe the relationship experiences they were having on their teams. They discovered that Google’s best teams:
- Focused on the norms that team members expect from their team leader and team mates – specifically psychological safety.
- Consistently identified and closed gaps between what people expected of their key relationships, and what they experienced.
At the heart of the best practices of these exceptional team leaders is their habit of continuously seeking feedback from their team, then using those insights to identify gaps, and proactively take actions to close them. At Google, feedback is not a ‘nice to have’ process conducted by others, but an essential element of the team leader’s role.
In a recent interview, Beth Galetti (Amazon’s Senior Vice President of Worldwide Human Resources) discussed the role of cultural norms and values at Amazon . Over the course of the interview Beth emphasized the critical role that cultural norms and values played as Amazon grew to over 500,000 employees. She called out the importance of Amazon’s Leadership Principles, characterizing them as, “…the living embodiment of our culture, regardless of job role or geographic location”. Key among those Leadership Principles is to “earn trust”, which is centered around communications and feedback. Leaders are expected to listen attentively, speak candidly, and treat others respectfully. Summarizing the role and importance of feedback, Beth noted, “We favor straightforward, two-way communications. When we talk about our work, we use plain language and specific examples over generalizations and corporate-speak”.
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of working alongside an IDEO team on a project for a consumer audio company. IDEO is renowned for both their work and their creative and innovative culture. In working with their people, I experienced a powerful set of norms that fostered strong, trusting relationships through feedback and consensus. In a recent interview, Sally Sosa, IDEO’s Global Talent Director of Culture and Communications, described this focus on culture and core team values that emphasize the importance of feedback: “There’s a shared understanding of what connects people across the organization…what can anchor the way they work together and the way they treat each other.”
In the April 2015 HBR article, “Reinventing Performance Management”, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall describe the redesign of Deloitte’s performance management system. One of the key objectives of the redesign was to fuel team performance. Deloitte’s research into the practices of the best team leaders revealed that they conduct once-per-week check-ins with each team member about short-term work. These brief, feedback-oriented conversations provide an opportunity to align purpose, expectations, and progress on short-term outcomes. This mapped accurately to the characteristics of the best teams. For Deloitte, the feedback and conversations created by the check-ins came to define the essence of a team leader’s work. In their testing, Deloitte found a direct and measurable correlation between check-in’s and engagement.
In the March 14, 2018 HBR article, “Employee Surveys Are Still One of the Best Ways to Measure Engagement”, Scott Judd, Eric O’Rourke, and Adam Grant describe the results of internal research at Facebook on employee feedback. They highlighted three important reasons why the company places a strong emphasis on gathering and responding to feedback surveys:
- Feedback is predictive. They found that asking people about turn-over intent was more accurate than machine-learning and predictive analytics.
- Feedback feels good. The act of giving feedback gives employees a means of expressing voice.
- Feedback facilitates change. Listening is a bidirectional process, fostering learning and influence.
The authors acknowledged that technology and analytics will continue to play an important role in managing and developing human resources, but they remind us that the human dimension of feedback surveys will only make them more important in a world of algorithms.
Feedback – The Breakfast of Champions
Google, Amazon, IDEO, Deloitte, Facebook. Few people will be surprised that their approach to team development and performance differs from the average organization – or that they share employee feedback and follow up best practices in common. The idea that feedback is good – and responding to it is even better – is almost cliché. But why is feedback so important that some of the world’s most successful and desirable companies make it a core part of their culture and values?
Looking below the surface to the more fundamental psychological drivers that make employee voice, and a leader’s response to it, important demonstrates why feedback plays a vital role in fostering team performance and well-being:
- Feedback is an essential ingredient in meeting the core psychological needs that foster motivation at work.
- The need for finding meaning and purpose in our work
- Developing the competencies to realize that purpose
- And having the autonomy to pursue that purpose.
- All of these needs depend upon a continual dialog between the team leader and team members, as well as between teammates.
- Feedback sits at the center of building the strong, trusting relationships that are essential for team effectiveness and individual well-being. The core dynamic in any important relationship is the expectations we have versus our experiences. Unresolved experience-expectation gaps lead to fractures, relationship deterioration, and ultimately disengagement. Getting feedback, and closing gaps, heals fractures and builds strong relationships.
Feedback is the breakfast of champions. Top organizations don’t treat it as an activity to be added to already busy workdays – seeking feedback and proactively responding to it is a habit that forms an integral part of a leader’s role. It is part of the essence of the culture, norms, and values of the best teams and organizations.
About the author…
Dr Jeb Hurley
Co-founder of Xmetryx
Dr. Jeb S. Hurley has been helping organizations build better teams – and improve the well-being of the people on them – for over 25 years. Jeb’s formative experiences working in his family’s business, began a career journey across a wide variety of teams and cultures – with roles as GM / VP / CEO at companies ranging from Fortune 100 to VC Backed start-ups across the US, Europe, and Asia – to co-founding three software start-ups. Over the past eight years, Jeb’s passionate curiosity for team behavior and performance became the focus of his work and research. In parallel to building teams for HP Asia, Jeb earned a doctorate in leadership, with a focus on work motivation, engagement, and team performance. In 2015 he co-founded Xmetryx, a Team Relationship Management (TRM) software company. Jeb recently published his first book, The ONE Habit: The Ultimate Guide to Increasing Engagement and Building Highly-Effective Teams, and he regularly writes about building effective teams and improving employee well-being in his blog, ONEHabit.blog.