Feedback is one of the most powerful tools available to improve organizational effectiveness and leadership success, yet so many organizations don’t use it at all, use it ineffectively, or not nearly as much as they should.  It can be gathered in a variety of ways and from a variety of sources, but is really only useful if it provides information that can be acted upon.  I often see companies spending big money to gather feedback that is easy to scale to large numbers of customers but nearly impossible to act on. Great feedback can uncover and solve problems.  It can identify small fires before they become big ones.

The most important thing to know is that feedback is only an assessment of what is going well or what needs to be fixed.  Nothing gets fixed without identifying the problem and implementing a plan to improve it.  No one receives any kudos or positive recognition unless someone takes the time to give it to the person who deserves it.  So many companies spend money on the assessment, but never fix any of the problems.  It is an exercise in hypocrisy, when a company assesses their employees to find out how to improve their organization, and do nothing with the information after it is gathered.  It not only ends up being a waste of everyone’s time and money, but creates the perception that leadership doesn’t really care.  It is a recipe for disaster when feedback stops flowing from the bottom to the top of the organization.

Many companies commonly gather feedback from their customers in the form of a survey.  There is a local restaurant chain in my area that has a post card on the table by the salt and pepper shakers. The questions are short and to the point, they go something like this.  On a scale of 1-10, how was the food and how was the service?  There is also a small place to write a sentence if you have any comments.  This card doesn’t seem to capture what it really needs to, because it doesn’t really matter how the customer ranks the food or service unless we know why.  So if the food and service are ranked at a 7.  We know that they are not terrible and that there is room for improvement.  So how do we move from a 7 to a 9 without specific details on how to get better?

One very big coffee chain randomly generates a survey at the cash register.  The customer is given an additional slip of paper with their receipt.  If they log on to a special link through the web, and complete the survey, they get a code for a dollar off of their next purchase.  The survey gathers a lot of demographic information about the customer.  There was one beneficial question “what can our servers do to improve their level of customer service?”  This question asks for specific feedback that is reasonably easy to act upon.

There are a couple of effective tips to gathering useful feedback.  While it is difficult to scale, interactive two-way conversations with a live person typically provides great information.  If you went to the restaurant above and were contacted by someone who asked you how the food and service were, you could say both were a seven and provide the reason why.  They could then ask you how they could be improved.  This method is also a great source of information for positive recognition.  Many employees who work for my clients indicate that their leadership doesn’t provide them with enough positive recognition, which will often increase employee engagement.  Feedback is also best gathered by a third party.  Hiring an outside organization or consultant forms a feedback triangle, which keeps the quality high while reducing defensiveness and resistance.  If a company is soliciting feedback by and from it’s own employees, they will often will sugar cote it, in order to make sure there is no retribution taken against them.

The feedback triangle consists of:
1.  The receiver or the person who will benefit from the feedback.
2.  The sender or the person who is evaluating the receiver.
3.  The gatherer or the neutral third party who does not judgmental or defensive about the feedback.

Think about this and let me ask you a question.  If you have a comment or complaint about say a behavior a friend or family member does, who do you tend to discuss it with?  Most people typically don’t approach the person directly and discuss their bad behavior with them.  What we tend to do is go to a third party, friend or family member, who usually knows us both, and discuss it with them.  This eliminates any chance of confrontation or hurt feelings, yet all it does is let us vent since the person who really needs to hear what we have to say never gets the information they need to change their behavior.

As an executive coach, I am a neutral third party who is brought in from outside the organization to help an already effective leader improve their leadership behavior.  My weapon of choice is confidential feedback from those stakeholders who work with and spend the most time with the executive.  These are the only people who intimately know what the leader does well and what the leader needs to improve.  They are the ones who are privy to the leaders shortcomings and behavioral flaws.  In his book, What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith indicates that leaders are successful because of certain behaviors, as well as in spite of other behaviors.  Most of these colleagues would never say anything directly to the leader, in fear of derailing their own careers. They are more than happy to discuss those behaviors with me, in exchange for confidentiality.

My own bias is that feedback and culture are so vital that a company’s human resources or organizational development departments, should have two key positions.  One is the Chief Feedback Officer and the other is the Chief Culture Officer.  These two functions are so critical to the health, success, and recovery of the organization. Many organizations are beginning to create positions for these two functions.

By making feedback a priority and integrating it into the organizational culture, organizations can benefit from continuous improvement each year.  If every leader, division, department, and employee were to get better at one thing every year, imagine how the company would improve over time.
Collecting feedback systematically from as many employees as possible from top to bottom is an effective strategy that will help top leaders get the necessary information they need in order to learn about what things are wrong and how to fix them.  If every organization were to poll a small percentage of their customers on a continuous basis, they would learn so much about how to get better.  Gathering feedback is expensive, but it is not a time waster, it is a time saver.