Mar 24, 2011

The Importance of Being Earnest (about Feedback)

In psychology, BioFeedback was found to be meaningful in terms of improving health and personal performance. I have never tried it but I am fascinated by the concept that we are able to view our behaviors (to be more accurate our physiological responses) and to affect them (manipulate). Another example is the work of several research groups at the MIT Media Lab are developing devices that sense behavior (examples: herehere and here) and provide social and behavioral feedback to the tested individual, and there are companies that are doing incredible work on measurement of behavior in attempt to be able to affect it.

Some day we will be walking with sensors on and around us all the time, and be able to measure and improve ourselves on the fly. This day is getting closer and closer whether we want to or not... (read: Smartphones). Until then, I think that we'd better remember the importance of interpersonal feedback as a tool for improvement of ourselves and our peers.

Feedback is so important! It is a tool that enables us to change and improve our behavior, when done correctly.Why is it so hard to provide and to receive feedback?

Many people treat feedback as criticism - it shouldn't be this way! One way to do this right is to focus the feedback on specific behaviors and patterns, rather than to personality traits which are harder to change. There is a higher chance that the receiver of the feedback will be able to improve or adjust behavior, compared to changing their personality. Another challenge is timing. Feedback should be provided close to the observed behavior, similarly to any reinforcement-based learning activity. Lastly, you need to know HOW TO provide and receive feedback (practice helps!) 

Last week I facilitated a workshop that dealt with feedback. No matter how you decide to approach it, people always feel as if feedback is something that you just know (or don't know) how to do, and can’t be taught. Well, this is not true. Not everyone knows how to do it well from the get-go, and there is a lot we can do to improve. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to practice feedback in a sterile environment, since, as in any simulation, it is “not the real thing” and does not represent actual real-life challenges.

In general, feedback serves two purposes:
  1. Reinforcement of desirable behaviors
    (which as a byproduct builds self-confidence)
  2. Improvement of behaviors which are not desirable.

Would you rather be told that you are doing something wrong in your work, with all the discomfort that might involve, or would you rather wait around for a promotion that will never come? Would you rather hear from a potential employer or recommender what you are doing wrong, so that you can improve, or to get a polite and bland response that wouldn't make you feel so bad but would leave you in the same place you were beforehand?

I would rather get earnest feedback, targeted at what I can do to improve, with all the difficulty that might come with that. What would you prefer?
Seek feedback, and deliver it whenever possible!

Mar 7, 2011


There are many people like me who have a tendency to be nostalgic and miss the way things used to be. A lot has been written about the way that we glorify the past, neglecting to remember the challenges and difficulties we experienced at the time. Usually, it is easier to think of how things used to be better. Everything changes all the time: Heraclitus, on his doctrine on the “Universe” said: “You could not step twice into the same river...” Both you and the river had changed.

I would like to steer this thought towards the organizational arena:  The river of the business environment is changing all the time. Technology developments enable us to do things we could only dream of doing in the past. People and their skills are changing: Employees today have a wider breath of experience, they are much more multidisciplinary and able to pull in ideas and implement knowledge from different fields. The social composite of people within the organization also changes as the organization grows, but also when it is in a seemingly stable-state. Companies are hiring new people and letting other people go. Even though we all know of these changes, we are still longing for how things were.

 It is very typical for veteran employees of start-up companies to miss the early days: The enthusiasm of the first years when the team was small and everyone knew each other, when it was so simple to go out together spontaneously, when everyone were 150% devoted and it seems like the sky were the limit. We miss these things because they made us feel good. The thing is, that there is a lot that you can do in order to preserve the enthusiasm in your organization. Yes, it is not the same river, and yes, you are not the same person (or team) but still you are able to influence the atmosphere of your organization (!) by creating new opportunities to reach some enthusiasm and good feeling that you remember from the past.

What can you do? 

It is important to involve the employees who were at the organization from the beginning in the evolution of the corporate culture. They can  help pass on the heritage of the company as it used to be. Those employees are carrying institutional knowledge as well as norms and values of how the organization used to be.  (it is important to pass on positive things and not bad habits).Some examples:
  • The on-boarding process for new employees is an important stage where cultural and behavioral knowledge can be transferred. Employees who are part of the organization from the start could assist with training of new employees and combined with informal means of mentoring.
  • Keep doing the things that reflected the norms and the values of the organization, but adjust the scale. It might not be possible for everyone in the organization to go out for drinks after work- but it might be possible in the team level for example.
  • Involve the veterans and the newer people in creating of new  or updated norms that combines the “traditional” norms and values together with fresh norms and values that might be more appropriate to the changing organization. Done right, this could help create a shared culture and feelings of ownership and belonging for both the veteran and newer employees.

Let me know what you think!