When I was at Deloitte, and a Partner fixed you with his beady eye and barked ‘Feedback – offline!’ your knees started to knock. I gather the culture at Apple was similar, if more public, and someone I know at Tesco once had his report torn in two by Sir Terry at a board meeting and was told ‘there’s your feedback’. This Apprentice-style approach seems only to be on the rise. A recent study of contract workers reports that fewer than 7% of them would consider returning to traditional employment, and I suspect this insidious ‘feedback’ culture is partly to blame. But why does feedback have to be such a negative experience?
I once watched an exercise whereby someone walked into a room and the crowd had to get them to write their name on a flipchart solely through the use of booing and jeering if they put a foot wrong. After 10 minutes or so, they froze on the spot, scared that any move would produce a negative response. The exercise was then repeated with a fresh subject, only this time the crowd had to applaud and cheer if the subject made a move that would contribute towards the goal. It took this person only a few minutes to achieve the task. Simplistic perhaps, but this exercise sums up years of research into negative incentives.
This should not be taken as an argument for vapid cheer-leading, and it is also true that no feedback at all leaves you essentially blind, but there is a difference between destructive and constructive feedback. This difference can be tracked through a concept called ‘ego depletion’. Each of us self-regulates through our executive function, the brain’s PA. This function organises our behaviour, regulating and monitoring it in response to the environment, and controls our actions and emotions. Work carried out by my Ashridge colleague Angela Whelan studied the extent to which this functional battery is topped up or depleted by a variety of managerial activities, and showed that feedback received as constructive boosts our ability to function, in contrast to negative experiences, which run our will-power battery down. Like the booing and cheering exercise, physiologically we become stymied by negativity, not motivated by it, which suggests that Alan Sugar-style management is ultimately counter-productive.
So how do you ensure that colleagues – peers, juniors and bosses – benefit from accurate read-outs of the effect they have on their environment, particularly when their behaviour is unhelpful, without resorting to the traditional ‘shit sandwich’ approach that any canny person can see coming a mile off? Giving good quality positive and negative feedback is both a gift and a skill. Places like Ashridge use a variety of acronyms to signpost the features of constructive feedback, for example BOFF – feedback that is about an observed Behaviour, the Outcome it produced, the Feelings it gave rise to in the feedback-giver, and that person’s request or suggestion for Future behaviour. Other models stress the importance of specificity and timeliness, and the need for the feedback to be about helping the receiver rather than allowing the giver to let off steam. I also advise the reluctant feedback-giver to limber up on positive feedback until they have a comfortable routine with which to deliver harder messages, and to get into the habit of giving feedback to anyone, not just to their direct reports, and whenever a behaviour is notable, not just during an annual appraisal.
It doesn’t matter too much which protocol you use, it just matters that you do it, and that it is done without destroying the vulnerable people around you. In the workplace we may be getting ever better at pretending we’re tough, but no-one likes abuse. One of the most unforgivable facets of modern management is the requirement to subject yourself to your boss’s feedback, no matter how poorly it is given. Indeed we seem to be encouraging bad bosses at the moment, in the mistaken belief that personality flaws are the price you pay for brilliance. Work by Mary Jacobsen suggests that this is absolutely not the case. Because it offends against our ideas of equity that some people should just be more gifted than others, we compensate by assigning them – in literature and in films – personality flaws, so that they are invariably socially inadequate. This may be the case where a gifted person owes that giftedness to autism or psychopathy, but these are exceptions. The truly talented literally use more of their brains than the rest of us, including their emotional and social faculties, so this myth is not accurate, even if it makes us feel better. So let us stop accepting poorly given feedback, by offering immediate feedback on the feedback, to help the giver to re-cast their message in a way that is actually helpful by the use of careful questions. This takes guts – and practice – but the more we can create cultures of elegance in this art, the more we can all improve.