Nowadays you can hardly find a company that does not claim to have a “feedback culture.” What is this obsession with feedback? Is it really possible to incorporate feedback into everything a company does? And if it is, is it anything more than a waste of time and resources?

What is feedback?

The concept itself comes from our understanding and development of machines: a feedback mechanism is a regulatory system that causes shutdown, correction, or a return to an earlier position. For example, valves and fuses are feedback mechanisms that help regulate a system from overheating, or overpressurizing.

Although feedback systems have existed since antiquity, it wasn’t until a hundred years ago that the notion was recognized as a universal abstraction or concept, “to feed back.”

From then on, the concept spread quickly, became a strong pillar of the scientific worldview and found its way into organizational development and business management. The idea was that through a rich feedback culture errors are corrected early, processes become more efficient, and people develop a “growth mindset,” wherein they focus on areas that they could improve on. 

The pitfalls of arbitrary feedback

If everyone is raving on about feedback culture, it has to be a good thing, right? Before we settle that question, let’s try to think of all the ways the whole thing can backfire.

1. It’s flat

Throughout the decades feedback as a concept hollowed out in the business world and generally ended up meaning “evaluating” or “reviewing”. Instead of the dynamic system it is designed to be, feedback is restricted to quarterly surveys or basically just listening to the criticisms of your boss.

2. Everybody sees through the “sandwich” method

Managers and trainers are told to use the sandwich method, which means nestling negative criticism between two positive ones. Genius, huh? The problem is, it is an utterly transparent attempt, and ends up sounding like you just made up two empty compliments to soften your blow. Everybody knows. Please, stop.

3. No impact

Too often feedback has no impact whatsoever. If you ask for feedback, the most important thing that should be crystal clear is the goal and the impact of the answers. You should make sure everybody knows what happens to their answers. Are you asking for feedback on the new cafeteria? Let people know that it will be discussed in the next People’s Department meeting, shared with the catering company, whatever. The same is true when you ask for feedback from clients, users, or customers. Don’t ask for feedback just for the sake of it. Otherwise who will care to put actual effort into articulating their thoughts? 

4. Feedback without consent

At most companies, it is not okay to temporarily refuse feedback, and that’s a problem. Giving feedback should not mean “talking at someone.” If you really want someone to listen openly to what you have to say, make it a two-way conversation that your colleague can decide when to enter. Especially if it is negative feedback. You are much better off talking to someone who feels like they have agency and ownership over office conversations. Everyone is less defensive when they enter a conversation willingly.

5. Making “feedback sessions” a whole occasion, or restricting them to workshops

This is fairly clear. If you want something to become a part of your office culture, you cannot compartmentalize it to specific days, workshops, etc. This is another transparent attempt and once people get back to their desks, there is little connection to what just happened. Your team goes right back to the daily grind. 

So is feedback culture a misguided concept?

Anyone who has worked in a large-ish corporation is probably already familiar with the above problems. There comes the moment when feedback becomes a drag: you are asked to give feedback on a colleague who you have only spoken to once; you have to talk about feedback that means absolutely nothing; you are given feedback that is utter bullshit. At the same time, there are places where feedback functions exactly how it should and company culture thrives as a result.

We think what makes the difference is the mindset. Lead with example. Remember to not only give, but also ask for feedback – noone is perfect. Sometimes you want to evaluate, so call it that and don’t bring feedback into the picture, it only creates resentment. What’s the difference? If it is about something that cannot be changed or it is too late to be changed, it is not feedback. Feedback culture ultimately is a creative environment where communication channels are open and dynamic, where a back-and-forth exists and correction or shutdown can be achieved in time, just like with the feedback mechanism of machines. 

At least, this is the conclusion that us, the great minds at 5-WORDS, have come to. We could be wrong, of course, or maybe you are already disillusioned with feedback and nothing we say could change that. Still, we believe that feedback could be truly participatory, productive and we developed a survey tool that helps you achieve this. Give a chance to, and run feedback surveys that save you time instead of wasting it.

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