The Case for Continuous Feedback in
Written by: Alexander Schwall, PhD
Clients often approach us with the question: “Why should we be doing continuous feedback? Why is it better?” Although I do believe the answer is a no-brainer (spoiler alert: continuous feedback is more effective in every conceivable way), I do appreciate the question.
Many of our clients, just like much of the HR and Talent Management community, have been trained over decades on the “gold standard” of feedback: the 360-feedback process. The 360-feedback model has become orthodoxy, canon, dogma in US corporations and is often synonymous with feedback in general.
Here is my deliberate, well thought-through answer to why companies should invest in continuous feedback.
time, maybe years. During thi
Feedback must be realtime
The traditional 360-feedback process makes a flawed assumption: It assumes that human behavior is stable. If we give feedback in a 360 review, we have to think back across long periods of time, maybe years. During this time, our behavior may be changing and fluctuating.
Here is an example: good coaches hold the learner accountable for their progress or lack thereof. However, they may not always do it and under all circumstances. Maybe during challenging projects, a manager does not hold learners accountable. Maybe the manager is a “fair weather coach” who drops their coaching behavior whenever times are tough. This will not be picked up by a 360 review.
Most managers get a 360 review once or twice in their career. This cannot possibly be enough to show the manager how his coaching behavior fluctuates and when. Continuous feedback, in contrast, unearths these contingencies and allows the feedback recipient to open their eyes to situations that may block them from using this valuable coaching behavior.
“Good coaches hold the learner accountable for their progress or lack thereof.”
Continuous feedback allows us to learn
The human brain can do amazing things. Close your eyes and ask yourself which letters are above and below the letter K on your keyboard. You probably did not know, at least not with certainty, that the I and the M are right underneath (assuming you are using a standard US American Keyboard). However, if you are an experienced computer user you can likely find the I and the M when you type without thinking about this. You have learned through endless rounds of trial and error learning how to find these keys.
This also applies to our behavior at work. What works in a presentation? What works in a conflict situation? What works with a crisis? Effective behavior in these situations is rarely taught, but we can learn them if we know what we did wrong and what we did right. In other words, we need to have an error signal, commonly known as feedback.
Without this check-engine light of human behavior, we cannot differentiate between effective and ineffective responses, because we simply don’t know that something is wrong.
Continuous feedback drives motivation and meaning.
Humans have the innate and stable need to be able to effectively deal with their environment. We all, whether we are flipping burgers or designing award winning brands, have the desire to be competent. The experience of competence is a basic human need. This is not a recent fad; this is a core tenet of Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory (1985, 2000) and has been around for a while. Good things come out of feeling competent.
When we feel competent to perform a task, it will be motivating for us and also provide us with meaning. In fact, experiencing one’s own competence and the growth of our competency is very motivating and inherently meaningful.
However, what do we need to know that we are competent? What do we need to understand if we are capable? You guessed it: we need feedback. Moreover, we don’t need this feedback once in a career or once every two years. We need this feedback to motivate ourselves and experience meaning continuously.
“Employees who experience meaning in their job and feel that they take home more than just a paycheck are likely to stay and work well, with high levels of motivation.”
Continuous feedback drives productivity
I mentioned earlier that feedback is an “error signal” or evidence if something is working or not. Using this behavioral “check engine light” we can adjust our behavior. We can tinker, tweak, and tune. How often do we want this error signal?
Traditional 360 tools are often used once in a career; some lucky executives will complete one every few years. Performance reviews, even in best case scenarios, are once per quarter. Can we accept people making mistakes in absence of this error-signal for months, maybe even years?
The answer is clearly no. Especially for leaders, I would argue that some behaviors should not be tolerated at all. Failure of leaders in the Diversity and Inclusions space may permanently damage their relationship with others. Feedback should be swift, clear, or as we call it, continuous so that ineffective behavior can be corrected immediately.
Continuous feedback is for everybody
When 360-feedback tools became available, they were a tool for the few. In the 1980s when, for example, GE under Jack Welch started using them, they were distinctly for leaders. This made a lot of sense at the time. A 360-tool had to be assembled, printed, distributed, scanned, evaluated, and turned into a report. Participants and feedback providers had to be manually managed and tracked. Understandably, a 360 was an occasional event and certainly not for everybody.
However, dare I say it, technology has changed. In the 1980s, computers were rare, email non-existent, and mobile phones were the exception (forget about smart phones). Today, many of us can work remotely thanks to cheap internet, smart phones, and a workplace that exists in the cloud. Why have 360s not evolved and become ubiquitous?
I can only speculate, but I assume the traditional high price of a 360 was one factor. I assume 360 vendors did not want to commoditize this product and make it go the way of the engagement survey. The other factor was likely the high administrative burden. As a result, I assume, the 360-degree feedback was maybe regarded as a privilege or rite-of-passage for managers, not a tool for the masses.
Rhabit has collected so far in January and February of 2021, 14,000 pieces of feedback. This process is automated, and no administrator had to send one email, one reminder, or create one report.
“Continuous feedback for everybody is a reality already. The question is not why should we give everybody feedback? Instead, the question is why wouldn’t we?.”
If you are thinking about one single initiative that will drive productivity, meaning, retention, and employee growth, think about evolving your current 360 program and make it available, continuously, to many or most of your employees.
If you want more insight into the benefits of continuous feedback, download this free webinar.
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