Feedback in the employee development is a holy grail – there is faith about it with little evidence at best and none at worst.
First a few words about the holy grail itself and later about its pursuit. Employee development literature is driven by the basic and profound assumption that ‘everyone can change provided sufficient, timely and effective feedback is provided’. Nothing wrong with the assumption because if indeed human beings possessed the rare capacity to figure out what is missing or deficient in them on their own, the world would be a very different and happy place. It is true indeed that we have our rough edges, blind spots and the whole nine yards about the difference of what ‘should’ be and what ‘is’. Like the Newtonian recourse to an external source of force to put a body at rest into motion, human beings need to be given feedback to put into motion the journey of improvement. Left to his or her own, that capacity is either non-existent or poorly evolved – or so is the belief.
The cottage industry of feedback rests on that foundation. Another way of saying it is that if we could easily know our own failings on our own devices, the feedback industry would crumble under the weight of its own irrelevance. Supervisors would be robbed of their biggest role.
Another underlying assumption is that human beings in general indeed want to become better – that a desire of self-improvement is a core human motivation over and above the instinct for survival, need for empathy et al. The assumption also is that they have a desire to confront their failings, imperfections and deficiencies, howsoever painful that confrontation is – and the entire process of feedback is nothing, but a help rendered to them to undergo the process of that confrontation.
Inherent again in this narrative is the assumption that human beings have the fundamental ability/courage to squarely face their demons, have the large-heartedness to accept the image in the mirror once shown (by the process of feedback) and have the resilience required to bounce back from the hit on their self-image when that feedback dents that self-image. The process of feedback makes all these giant assumptions and one more.
The last and in some ways a giant assumption it makes is that even if the process of feedback dents the self-image and confidence of the person who is given the feedback, and sometimes to disastrous and permanent damages, it is still worth it because it is driven the cause of the larger good. Let the road to hell be paved with good intentions! Gosh – too many assumptions!
Human beings don't basically like to be corrected; they are what they are and any serious questioning about them and their methods are not taken kindly
So here is an additional narrative for the sake of provocation. Human beings don’t basically like to be corrected. Human beings are what they are and any serious questioning about them and their methods are not taken kindly. Beneath all the right noises they make about how open they are to feedback and how serious they are about their personal change, they resist change until they recognize their survival is at stake. Finally, if there is a choice between accepting a self-image/confidence denting feedback versus continuing with the current way of working/living that is fetching them their daily wage, my wager is that they will choose the latter, impulsively. They may make the right noises about it – but they find it extremely difficult to accept and change their methods.
Let me clarify – we do want to become better and improve. It’s just that the process of that change is inherently difficult. Change requires self-confidence – and if the feedback itself hits that confidence then the change that the feedback is attempting to elicit, instead of doing good ends up doing much harm. You end up with an employee more shattered than raring to go.
This narrative, if it is true – brings me to the second aspect of the holy grail. The systemic pursuit of providing feedback as an institutional framework. The foremost recognition about feedback must be that it is a very painful process for most. Hence, it must be delivered delicately. Secondly, since it has the potential to do damage, it must be delivered by steady hands – surgeons’ scalpel in untrained hands will do a butcher’s job. Thirdly, once a serious feedback is given – back off. Give it time, allow the medicine to work, provide space for it to be assimilated and internalized.
Change requires self-confidence - and if the feedback itself hits that confidence, then the change that the feedback is attempting to elicit ends up doing much harm instead of doing good
Finally, two words eventually determine whether feedback will indeed stand a good chance to work for improvement or end up seriously harming the self-esteem and confidence of the employee – Trust and Security. It is intuitively known that we are willing to consider feedback from people whom we trust and respect. Same or similar feedback from people we do not like, respect, trust or even love is resisted and rubbished. Hence, to the notorious tribe of obsessive-compulsive-feedback givers, a word of advice – first built trust and respect before you claim the entitlement of giving feedback. Otherwise, your words are falling on deaf ears if you are lucky or causing serious damage if you are unlucky. Secondly, once a serious and deeply transformative feedback is given – the employee is unsettled and even scared. A thousand thoughts are running in the employee’s mind about the ramifications of the feedback, generating anxiety, fear, and insecurity. That is the time to put an arm around him/her and provide a safe period so that the correction is actioned upon. A fearful employee is very unlikely be motivated to change — chances are that performance will only suffer.
A final word on the holy grail and its pursuit – I don’t know how effective all the deluge of feedback is — whether it indeed is unleashing the improvement that it is purported to unleash. However, I would like to believe that it is indeed making the world a better place. Like God, if He does not exist – we would have to invent him. So it is for feedback.