The feedback loop is broken

The first time I ever received requests for feedback from colleagues, my analytical mind went into overdrive as I tried to think of helpful pointers to go with the genuinely positive comments I had to say. I assumed that as part of the process you had to write something constructive for others to work on. I remember feeling horrible because I wrote something silly like ‘doesn’t respond to emails’ for a colleague I respected. It was feedback for the sake of feedback. I discovered that as a whole people rarely write anything remotely negative or constructive. The “worst” feedback I’ve ever received was ‘lacks attention to detail’ alongside 3 other positive reviews about my attention to detail…

If we aren’t willing to share feedback for fear of the repercussions – hurting someone’s feelings, bruising someone’s confidence, having the feedback land in the wrong hands – then how can we grow? Why even collect feedback?

I remember having an argument with a senior leader who consistently gave me bulls**t feedback. The company guidelines literally said ‘don’t give feedback based on personality traits and ensure your feedback is constructive’. I was repeatedly told I was ‘too nice’ and that I was ‘too sensitive’ and was actually told ‘your homework is to be mean to employee X’. Seriously?

Now, I was self aware enough to understand why this was happening – I wasn’t following the desired model of palming off my work to others, I was being too helpful wasting time on other people’s projects and I was labelled sensitive because I stood up for myself and it wasn’t appreciated. On points 1 and 2 I genuinely tried to make improvements, but it still annoys me to this day that the feedback was delivered in such an unprofessional manner.

This brings me to my next scenario. I remember having to deal with a terribly difficult situation in which I promised a colleague I would listen to an issue in confidence. The situation was so serious I became concerned about this person’s wellbeing and decided the right move was to quietly escalate it. I was in a room with my managers and HR, and the HR rep said to my face that I was lying. I had no incentive to lie in this situation, the fact I had chosen to raise it had already cost me. Even if the scenario was not how it appeared, something should have been done. They refused to listen to the feedback because the colleague involved was senior, and ‘wasn’t like that’. Disappointing.

This brings me to my final and least favourite feeedback scenario: the exit interview. If companies are so concerned about improving, why not ask employees whilst they are employed? Having no contact with someone until their last week of employment is disrespectful and a waste of time. I gladly decline all exit interviews. If you want my feedback you’ll find it documented in all of the review processes and career development minutes. I realise this probably makes me seem immature, but if I’ve been open and honest and provided genuine feedback why would I waste any more time giving feedback where it is not desired?

I think this is the fundamental issue with the feedback process: we’re all too scared for the backlash and the potential damage one wrong word might cause to our future prospects.

So I wonder then, how can we improve the feedback process? I think that we need to find a way to have:

  1. Genuinely constructive conversations that employees can use to improve on. As an example, one of my manager’s once said “I think you have a tendency to say yes to a lot of things, and I’m not sure if that is because you are trying to impress us but I want you to know we already think you are amazing. How can I help you prioritise better?” See how much better that delivery is compared to the above?!
  2. Higher levels of anonymity
  3. Layers of review to ensure delivery is appropriate and fair
  4. Proper documentation. In some companies my manager’s have had to write a detailed review of my performance vs other companies where “I agree with Amy’s submission” was considered a valid response
  5. Role playing/training with managers around feedback delivery. Not all managers are naturally good at delivering or receiving feedback. This is ok and to be expected, but we need to make sure we support them in growing these skills and hold them accountable

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