Feedback is dead. Long live feedback! Here’s some feedback for you: feedback is a red herring. Feedback is an elusive, somewhat repulsive, and sometimes destructive tactic to direct employees towards higher performance. Managers have been schooled for the past 25 years to make feedback a central aspect of their people practices, under the great intention of helping workers see where their efforts are on track and where they are not. It’s often presented under the guise of “development” where employees grow and improve in their careers by knowing what they are not doing right. For the most part, I believe these efforts are intended to help people perform better, but I think the whole concept of feedback is a wild goose chase… a fallacy built on outdated concepts of people and work.
The root of the problem is that most companies are designed in the industrial model of work where they don’t care much about what their people think of them. Henry Ford (who will serve as our poster child) is famously attributed with the quote “Check your brains at the gate” because he supposedly wanted people to simply follow established procedures and not mess up the assembly line. This worked really well back then to get consistency, scale, and efficiency but has some serious downsides for current organizations that depend on knowledge, creativity, and communication.
We’re now clearly beyond the Industrial Age and smack in the middle of the Idea Economy. And since ideas come from people (not machines), we should adjust our language and use better terms to describe how people behave while working together.
Feedback is for robots
According to Marshall Goldsmith, the top guru of the executive coaching world, there are only two problems with feedback: 1. People don’t want to hear it, and 2. People don’t want to give it. Well, that explains why we have formal processes and lots of rules to make sure feedback is given in a typical company. In his book, What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There, Goldsmith provides lots of good advice and useful tips on how to manage feedback successfully. In it, he agrees that the term “feedback” should be changed, so he suggests we use “feed forward.” (Pardon me, and I mean no disrespect, but there’s got to be a better term.)
Feedback is not a human word—it’s a machine word. It emerged as a verb in the mid-1860s in descriptions of mechanical processes and in 1909, Physics Nobel laureate Karl Ferdinand Braun used the term “feed-back” as a noun to refer to undesired coupling between components of an electronic circuit. It jumped into the language of business organizations in the late 1970s as systems thinking began to influence management practices.
You might think it’s just semantics, but to get a more human and less robotic understanding of this situation, let’s start with the terms we use to describe key roles people play at work in a typical industrial organization: executive, manager and employee. Executives set direction, managers direct implementation, and employees accomplish tasks. This is a “top-down,” or hierarchical structure, that works exceptionally well when a market opportunity is clear, a product is established, and execution at scale is the primary function of the corporation. Feedback is what happens when a manager tells an employee that his work is not aligned with the plan. This is a method of control and mimics the operations of a mechanical process perfectly (i.e. a thermostat is a feedback mechanism for a furnace).
In business or life situations where creative output is required (i.e., direction is unknown or ambiguous, a sufficient answer has not been found to solve a problem, or existing tactics are no longer working effectively) a mechanical process is ineffective because there is nothing to control. These situations require human power to discover and invent a path forward—or create.
Curiosity is a positive addiction
So here’s another analysis of feedback. There’s only one problem with feedback: it doesn’t describe what creative people do at work. Creative people are curious. In fact, they are addicted to curiosity. They never stop asking questions and they use what they find out to explore the world, to learn and to grow. They can’t help themselves. As a direction is being laid out they get antsy and before you know it, their hands go up and a question blurts out. Growth is exciting and releases positive chemicals in your body that amp you up. Often the effect comes from a simple question like, “Why?” In a hierarchical organization, this is shut down and the person is considered a problem because they are challenging authority. In a creative organization, questions fuel forward progress.
Being curious is an easy thing to imagine yourself doing. Being concerned about doing a good job, helping others, and making a difference in the world comes naturally to most of us because they are fundamental desires of being human. On a more basic level, being curious about how you are perceived by others is key to social survival.
Here are some examples of questions curious people ask: What do you think? How can we make these things happen? Do you have any suggestions for how I could do this better?
Curiosity is something that is innate to everyone; it’s an attitude, a mindset, or a drive to explore and discover. However, being effectively curious does take some focus and practice.
Being effectively curious
First, recognize that you can be curious along a spectrum, from immediate to long-term, and the types of questions you might ask are different for each end of the spectrum. Immediate curiosity is “in the moment” and long-term curiosity is more reflective and periodic. In the moment, you ask very specific questions and explore options for next steps as a result of an immediate action. A question as simple as, “How does this feel to you?” will bring you new insights from others in the same moment. Or you can play a little game called “likes and wishes.” What do you like about this? What do you wish about this? The intent behind these types of questions is to explore and expand, not to confirm or deny. That’s being curious versus being defensive or obsessive.
Occasionally, you step back to see if you are making progress toward a longer-term goal by asking questions about patterns in your experience. This is the long-view about big picture things in your life or business. In this mode, you are asking, “Is this really what I should be doing with my time?”
Second, you need to make it easier for others to satisfy your curiosity. Nobody responds well to sharp inquisition or challenging questions without a little context. A question like, “Why’d you do that?” Can actually shut somebody down and provoke an answer like, “None of your business!” When you ask a question, help people answer you by expressing your goal, desire, or intent. This converts people to collaborators who are helping you solve a problem versus give you the answer. It also ensures that the advice you get is aligned with where you want to go. As the saying goes, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.” Without some intention, you will get such a broad array of input from others that you can’t make sense of it.
Finally, recognize that sometimes people are shy about sharing their thoughts because they aren’t sure why you really need their advice, and there’s some social risk in their sharing critical opinions. What if you get offended and your relationship is damaged by their critique? What if they get a reputation for being a jerk? Or perhaps they haven’t noticed any issues with your approach, and they can’t think of anything to offer. So it’s very helpful to provide an invitation to the discussion. This serves as an opening in your own thinking and encourages others to offer more than a platitude like “looks good!”
You’ve probably heard someone ask, “How am I doing?” only to get a simple response like, “Fine!” This is not a valuable learning exchange, and the burden to improve it is on the asker of the question, not the provider of the answer. Curiosity drives you to a more involved exploration. If you want to know how you are doing, you have to help someone share her opinion in a sequence that leads to a meaningful exchange:
1. Express intent (I’m trying to…)
2. Disclose a concern (but I’m concerned that…)
3. Invite input (can you help with this?)
4. Explore with curiosity (how would you do it?)
Do this with several people and you’ll have a rich set of ideas to help you make good decisions and accomplish your goals, which will lead you to an ever-stronger addiction to curiosity.