When I was a child, my family used to have dinner every Sunday night with…
Most people don’t have any problem imagining how quality feedback can improve a relationship between two co-workers, and specifically, how it improves the relationship between managers and their direct reports. It just makes sense!
The relationship between feedback and operating results, though, is often less clear in the minds of the customers that I talk to every week. Can feedback actually have a direct impact on the success of a company? To answer that question, let’s first look at the relationship between feedback, engagement, and attrition.
Feedback and Engagement
I talk to something like 5-10 companies every week, who have reached out to ask for our help. My first question is always “What problems do you think Candor can help you with?”
If it’s a large company, the response might sound something like this, “We just finished our company-wide engagement survey, and it looks like our lower and middle-level managers are causing us some big engagement problems. Through the survey and in follow-on focus groups, we see that the engagement problems stem from managers not providing high quality feedback, and in many cases not providing feedback at all.”
Small and growing companies say things a bit differently, “We used to all fit it one room. The common purpose was so clear, and it was just about getting stuff done. We criticized the work, and everyone understood it was to get better and we moved on. Recently, as we’ve spread out more as a team, and inserted a middle layer of management, I feel like we’re losing our feedback culture and degrading engagement. We’re starting to become too nice.”
I hear these types of concerns all the time, touching on the intersection of feedback and engagement. Here’s why I think this pain is so acute:
If you think about an employee’s relationship with – and engagement in – a company, there are many facets to it, but I want to briefly discuss the three relationships that I think are most powerful and most sticky.
In most companies, it’s very common for people to say that they absolutely love the people they work with. I recall in engagement surveys at Twitter in which these “how are your peers?” type questions often got >95% score, which means that 95% of people said that they loved the people around them. Same result at Google. This relationship with peers is usually an important source of engagement and retention.
Relationship to The Mission
Sometimes people really do connect with the nameless, faceless corporation, often out of a connection with that company’s purpose or mission. Just for fun, the next time you bump into someone who says they worked for Google, ask them Google’s mission. I will guarantee they can rattle it off without hesitation because those of us who worked there all connected so deeply with that purpose. This relationship with the company’s mission is another meaningful source of engagement and retention.
Relationship to the Boss
This is where we are focused like a laser because in a lot of ways, the boss IS the company. In fact when a boss communicates with an employee, as any employment attorney will tell you, that boss quite literally IS the company. Bosses or managers also have a unique power to keep people happy, engaged, and present when one of the other two relationships (above) is lacking, and they have the power to drive someone out even when the other two are very strong. It’s such a cliche, but still worth stating: People don’t leave companies, they leave bosses.
So, it should be no surprise just how much of an effect that the boss:employee relationship has on employee engagement. And the foundation of that relationship is based on the interactions between boss and employee. Does the boss show that they Care Personally for the employee? Do they Challenge the employee Directly? This comes across particularly strongly in the feedback culture the boss creates, as crystallized in this quote from Ben Horowitz:
Giving feedback turns out to be the unnatural atomic building block atop which the unnatural skill set of the management gets built.
Feedback is THE crucial ingredient in developing a strong relationship, and that relationship seems to have the most explanatory power in determining someone’s engagement, and therefore ultimately, someone’s decision to stay or punch out.
Said more simply: More frequent and better feedback leads to higher engagement which leads to higher retention.
Feedback and Core Operating Results
“We don’t need all this touchy feely stuff, we just need to get stuff done.” – many ill-informed senior executives
We’ve established that a huge input into the boss:employee relationship is frequent and quality feedback. Many people will agree but then not actually give regular feedback. There are a bunch of reasons for that: Feedback takes time, bosses fear an adverse reaction, they forget, etc. There are also a LOT of people who say something like “We don’t have time for all this feedback. We’re too busy trying to get stuff done.”
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let’s talk about that for a moment.
First, a few assumptions:
- Let’s assume for a second that the company you work for has clear goals – maybe OKRs or KPIs – that are set every quarter to establish what you want to get done. These goals are tracked and there’s an open, candid conversation around where things went well and where they didn’t.
- Let’s further assume that sub teams within the company all also have quarterly goals and that those goals ladder up to the corporate goals.
- Third assumption – each person on a team has goals that align with the team’s goals and therefore ultimately the company’s goals.
- Finally, let’s assume that the work a person is taking on in any given time period – a day, week, or month – directly supports his or her goals, and therefore directly supports the team’s goals, which in turn support the company’s goals.
So now we’ve established that getting stuff done = achieving company goals. If you don’t operate this way, you should think about operating this way.
Now let’s talk about feedback. We divide feedback into two main parts: praise and criticism. People have a bunch of reasons why they find each of these to be difficult. Something that can galvanize a leader toward taking action and giving more feedback is giving clarity on the purpose of feedback — specifically, the purpose of praise and criticism.
Both praise and criticism should be given with the intent of helping someone find more success because that is their highest leverage purpose.
So, under our assumptions above, each person is working towards goals that support the results the company wants to achieve. And now we have established that if a person gets more feedback – both praise and criticism – they will know what to do more of and what to do better, which means they will find more success in their work. So it should now be clear as a bell that immediate, impromptu, MUCH more frequent feedback will directly impact the individual’s (and therefore the team’s and therefore the company’s) ability to achieve results. And so feedback is therefore one of the highest leverage activities a manager can engage in. No excuses. Giving feedback IS getting stuff done.
We want to hear your stories! Tell us about a time when you experienced the direct impact that feedback can have on results.