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Three Considerations about Technology-Enabled Feedback

By Angela Lane, Vice President, Global Talent Abbvie [NYSE:ABBV] And Sergey Gorbatov, Director, General Manager Development, Abbvie

Angela Lane, Vice President, Global Talent Abbvie [NYSE:ABBV]

“You’ve got a feedback request!”

Messages like this are increasingly likely to pop up on your devices. From large to small, people management platforms and even apps are integrating feedback-giving features into their offerings. And the excitement around using technology to give feedback is easy to understand.  Traditionally feedback takes time, requires personal judgment, and is often, frankly, uncomfortable. With options for digitalization plentiful in this area, it is appropriate to ask, is leveraging technology to give feedback the right thing to do?                           

Feedback is information.  Information lends itself easily to digitalization. 360-degree feedback platforms collect anonymous inputs about an individual’s performance and behaviors from different groups of stakeholders in a matter of a few days or weeks. The 5 stars you have just given to your Uber driver is feedback, and the app will ask you to break it down further: driving skills, car cleanliness, politeness, etc. Similar tactics can be used in other contexts.

However, there are caveats. Feedback is highly contextual. It can be emotional. People can be impervious to it. It can hurt more than help. Many organizations try to reduce this complexity. Rightfully so. We are similarly partial to models that make complex simple (e.g., the 3 Cs of performance: competence, characteristics, and context) or helpful formulae (e.g., the three-step FairTalk statement). But simple is not the same as simplistic. As we wrote in an article published in the MIT Sloan Management Review, attempts to make people management processes simplistic are likely to lead to decreased performance. So, the balance between the right and the smart is important. The right is knowing the science of performance and holding fast to the proven principles of soliciting, giving, and receiving feedback. The smart is being pragmatic and adjusting the approach to the specific needs of your organization. We offer three considerations for using technology in fostering a stronger feedback culture.

1. Not all feedback is created equal.

Sergey Gorbatov, Director, General Manager Development, Abbvie

For some stuff, crowdsourced digitally-enabled feedback is great. For other things, it can be lethal. For instance, if you are working on your presentation skills, getting opinions from the audience about the effectiveness of your presentation delivered just a moment ago is a fantastic way to improve. However, imagine that your biggest development area is trustworthiness. First, it’s much more difficult to assess. Second, others may be wary of giving you honest feedback precisely for that reason.

"When it comes to feedback, technology enables, not substitutes. For some types of feedback apps and systems are great, while for others they are not as helpful at best and misleading at worst"

For developing competencies like strategic agility, you primarily need feedback from your superiors, as your subordinates (and even peers) may lack the “helicopter view” to assess correctly your ability in that area and give you fair feedback. Naturally, it is more difficult to get feedback from senior leaders via an app.

2. AI in feedback is promising but still needs the human touch.

There is a reason why many AI-enabled assessments are not mainstream yet. While promising, they fail to take into account all the critical factors of human performance, and, therefore, arrive at misplaced conclusions. That was the reason, for example, for Amazon to can its AI-enabled recruitment platform.

Robots are still unable to account for organizational politics. But they can fairly accurately assess intelligence and personality. Robots get confused by metaphors, sarcasm, and emotions. But they take into account vast amounts of data beyond human grasp. Technology can be very helpful in preparing the feedback message. But a human manager needs to pass a competent judgment on what is feedback-worthy and what is fair for the individual.

Then, there is the matter of delivering that feedback. People need a personal connection. Think whether you would like a robot to give you the news of a life-threatening diagnosis. It might be fine for informing you that you have vitamin C deficiency and automatically ordering a pack of multivitamins for you. For serious issues, you would want your doctor to be there. Same with feedback. When it comes to the number of mistakes you made in preparing a report or how your slides might be more impactful, getting the information on the screen could be totally adequate. More complex issues, such as being more sensitive to others, collaboration skills, or even humor (it’s a competency, believe it or not), are best addressed by a person. Finally, your laptop won’t pat you on the shoulder to say “you really managed to control your emotions in that tough negotiation - well-done!”

Human managers are not dispensable. Yet. This brings us to the last point.

3. Technology can help to hold managers accountable for driving performance.

The scientific evidence on the positive relationship between feedback and performance is conclusive: good things happen when people get fair information about how they are doing. To date, the responsibility to provide that information has resided with the immediate supervisor. It is still the best we have. There are new ways of working, such as holacracy (no bosses at all) or self-directed teams, but research shows that in these alternatives arrangements the quantity and quality of feedback suffer.

The importance of managers was confirmed by Project Oxygen at Google. Google’s leadership asked the same question: Are managers needed? And the data overwhelmingly answered “yes”.

There is a problem, though: managers don’t like giving feedback. They often don’t do it really well. Even the positive, the “easy” one. The temptation of outsourcing feedback given to a robot can be high: it spares the emotional burden, saves time, and makes the whole thing more objective, right? There is just one problem. By dodging the task of providing feedback to their employees, managers will be distancing themselves from the accountability to drive performance. We can’t have that.

Technology can help to track how much feedback is given, on which topics, how frequently managers have performance discussions with their employees, and what impact they have on subsequent results. It can furnish managers with information if any of their employees may need a feedback session and remind of follow-ups. Apps can help managers diagnose performance issues correctly and keep track of feedback conversations. And there is more. Technology can create transparency that is needed to hold managers accountable for giving feedback to their employees. Capturing feedback and related activities in a system makes it easier to share and compare. After all, what gets measured, gets done.

Technology does not need to be expensive to be effective. A large randomized experiment in the UK proved that simply texting the feedback on pupils’ performance to their parents dramatically improved performance in class. In FairTalk, we show now low-tech interventions can drive feedback culture. Technology is also not an impediment. Managers’ claims that they don’t have the latest feedback app should not be an excuse for not holding honest conversations with their employees.

Let’s sum it up. When it comes to feedback, technology enables, not substitutes. For some types of feedback apps and systems are great, while for others they are not as helpful at best and misleading at worst. Technology can be a marvelous aide in collecting and preparing the feedback message, but there is a human touch needed in most cases to deliver it. Finally, there is tremendous potential for technological tools to make the feedback processes more transparent that enhances accountability on both sides - for the individuals and their managers.

Angela and Sergey are authors of FairTalk: Three Steps to Powerful Feedback and members of the Center for Feedback Culture at VU University Amsterdam.

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