Job feedback tricky but deep down we know the score

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Job feedback tricky but deep down we know the score.  Good feedback is always going to be rare, with or without apps to help it along.

Lucy Kellaway

Appy days: there’s a Smartphone app for everything now, including one to tell you how you did at a meeting

Appy days: there’s a Smartphone app for everything now, including one to tell you how you did at a meeting

 

Most managers are bad at lots of things. Self-knowledge. Talking intelligibly. Listening.

But the thing they are worst at is doling out feedback. As a result we drift through our working lives without ever being told how we’re doing, or certainly not in a way that helps us do it better. For most of us, there is the boring, demotivating charade of the annual appraisal, but that’s about it.

Last week, I heard about an app that could change how feedback is given forever. Impraise allows you to find out instantly how you’ve done after every meeting, or after anything at all. You simply send out an invitation to colleagues asking them to rate you anonymously on different points. Did you speak persuasively? Stick to the agenda? The information whistles in straight to your phone, where it is displayed in a series of nifty little graphics.

Last Wednesday evening I gave a talk to a roomful of colleagues and the following morning decided to try Impraise out. I sent everyone in the audience an invitation to tell me how I did, sat back and waited, feeling uncomfortably exposed.

With almost indecent haste, feedback started to come in, and most gratifyingly, it turns out I’m a “superstar”, achieving an average score of eight. The less good news is that this figure is based on a statistically insignificant sample; most people attending the talk didn’t reply at all, either because they were too busy, or didn’t enjoy it and thought it rude to say so.

Undermined results

Even those who did rate me undermined the value of their own testimony by giving me an eight on “listens attentively”. As I was doing all the talking, there was no evidence of any listening at all.

The fact that the app taught me nothing about myself might be partly because I didn’t give it enough of a chance. Even so, I’m having second thoughts about whether it is such a good idea. Although it sounds great if colleagues can quickly and easily rate each other, it comes at a cost. It is bad enough having to sit in meetings all day without doing extra work afterwards rating how everyone performed during them. Worse, I don’t want to be forced to have endless opinions on my colleagues. I’m not their manager, it’s not my job and I don’t want to be unkind.

The app is based on the common misapprehension that more feedback means better. Unlike most people who work in offices – who get none – I get too much of it. The FT has recently introduced new software that tracks reader’s responses to every word I write in more than a dozen different ways and allows me to compare my scores to those of my colleagues week by week, or even minute by minute. And what have I learnt as a result of this extra information?

If you give insecure journalists the key to such information they will spend hours obsessively checking to see how they are doing, and trying to design a peer group against which their own stats don’t look too bad. I’ve also learnt that the articles that get most traffic aren’t necessarily the best but ones that have words like “dumb” in the title – rather than ones like “sustainability”. The qualitative comments underneath are no more useful. “Great post!” and “Spot on!” do not help me write better, any more than “I can’t believe you get paid to write this drivel”. Sometimes readers contribute much better points than I have made myself, but they come too late for me because the column has already been written.

Hair flicking

I’m not saying all feedback is useless, sometimes it is startlingly helpful. About a year ago I gave a speech, after which a man emailed to complain about the annoying way I flicked my hair every time I put my glasses on and took them off.

This was most useful. Now if I need to read anything I print it out in 28 point, which I can just about manage to read unassisted.

One’s children are also a terrific source of feedback. At the same event last week, two of mine came along who told me afterwards that a. the security pass I wore round my neck looked awful; b. my voice was offputtingly loud; and c. I could have involved the audience a bit more.

All excellent and helpful points, but ones that were only possible to give and receive because both sides know we will go on loving each other whatever.

Good feedback is always going to be rare, with or without apps to help it along. But this is less of a disaster than it is cracked up to be, as most of us, deep down, know how we are doing at work, without other people telling us. I know when a speech has gone well or when I have written something original.

It is true that a few people pathologically overestimate or underestimate how well they are doing by insisting that they are marvellous or useless; but the answer for them isn’t more feedback. It is psychiatric help. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015

Previously published in The Irish Times.

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