To achieve above and beyond expectations, employees are often placed in a system within which their work, behaviour and progress is regularly fed back on, with the intention of helping them to work to their strengths, identify weaknesses and optimise their output.
But is giving unsolicited feedback the most productive way for employers to empower and motivate their teams?
Why unsolicited feedback can be a problem
Providing regular unsolicited feedback is increasingly geared against our natural way of working.
Our brain is wired to be a threat and reward detection machine and its ability to detect threats is stronger than its ability to sense reward. Research by the NeuroLeadership Institute has shown that unsolicited feedback can unconsciously trigger a state of distress in the brain, meaning we become less receptive to what's being said.
Humans also only have a limited capacity for concentration and attention. Should we be tired and overworked, the chances of the brain storing unsolicited feedback and converting it into useful information are minimal. When we waste a large part of our available attention on ineffective feedback, this, in turn, leads to inefficient work.
How to identify if your team is struggling with feedback fatigue
In work environments built around continuous feedback employees can react in fear and/or shut off to avoid what they deem as potential criticism. This is known as “feedback fatigue” — a state of mind in which employees stop positively responding to feedback and become anxious when receiving it.
Noticing if and when your team is suffering from this can be tricky, especially given the differences between individuals' reactions to stressful situations.
Signs that your employees are suffering from feedback fatigue could include:
- Reactions to feedback are defensive, and involve anxious or angry behaviour;
- Employees are starting to isolate themselves and hardly react or respond to feedback;
- Motivation and productivity decreases, which is also reflected in the outcome of work and performance.
It’s imperative that managers create a solid foundation for individual communication with members of each of their teams to filter out their pain points.
On the other hand, should you give feedback and receive little to no response, this doesn't mean it wasn’t taken on board. In the absence of a response, it could be the case that your employee needs time to process the feedback and implement it. Alternatively, the employee may have decided not to act upon the feedback, creating a great opportunity to sit down with them to discuss how the delivery and receiving of feedback could be improved for them in the workplace.
How (and how not) to run a startup.
How to fix the problem and set up a structure for employee-led feedback
In a world of increasing pressure to perform and feedback fatigue, managers and leaders of companies should instead look to empower their employees to proactively seek feedback on their own terms. But a functioning and sustainable feedback structure is not established overnight. Implementing lasting behavioural changes within the workplace is challenging and time-consuming. In the beginning I also found it difficult to break the cycle of internalised feedback structures.
A few things can help though:
- Get the leaders on board. When supervisors ask for feedback from their people and peers in the team that encourages others to do the same. Managers need to be the first to initiate the behavioural change;
- Push yourself and your team to remind each other about feedback — whether a casual Slack message or by addressing it during team meetings;
- Introduce a sense of reflection, where each quarter team members ask themselves who they've received feedback from and what they learnt from that feedback.
We as managers need to also educate ourselves about the distinction between asking for and giving feedback, whilst encouraging our employees to proactively seek feedback in a constructive manner that’ll best support their professional development. That’s a key element of creating a working feedback structure and culture.
Instead of spontaneously asking a colleague, "Hey, can you quickly share a bit of feedback on how I’ve been doing professionally over the last few months?", it would be more productive to set up a meeting to allow both participants to prepare questions and topics for a constructive conversation. Managers should encourage employees to think about what kind of feedback they would like to receive — whether that refers to a specific task they’ve been working on recently or an aspect of their skillset they want to develop further.
Leapsome is an excellent tool that we use at Vinted for capturing feedback. It allows both employees and managers to have a record of both the feedback they’ve requested and the responses received. Using the tool, employees also have the opportunity to ask multiple people at the same time for both feedback and tips.
But what does this mean for unsolicited feedback?
Well, actually, it’s still a very useful tool, when used appropriately. When you do use it, do your best to create a safe space for the receiver. Unsolicited and direct feedback is especially necessary should someone be behaving in a way that puts them or others at risk in the workplace or violates the company's code of conduct. Overall, it's about ensuring that the moment really matters when giving the unsolicited feedback.
The benefits of a positive feedback loop
Giving employees autonomy over what they’re doing and how they’re doing it can boost creativity, confidence and intrinsic motivation for their job — research from McKinsey showed that employees who are intrinsically motivated are 32% more committed to their job and have 46% higher job satisfaction compared to those who aren’t.
Research by the NeuroLeadership Institute has also found that people learn and work most efficiently when they seek feedback themselves. By using this approach to personal improvement:
- Our brains are more likely to be open to receiving, processing and responding to feedback;
- We are shown to work more creatively and efficiently.
Autonomy and personal responsibility will drive team members who are keen to improve on their own, and once again become more open to suggestions, tips, ideas and feedback in general. Your company's performance will thank you afterwards.