With firms everywhere getting rid of annual performance reviews, the new mantra is continuous feedback.  To help support the shift, a variety of HR vendors have changed up their software from a long box that you have to fill out once a year to a shorter box you fill out more frequently, or an inbox that collects feedback from e-mails.   But beware technology-driven process changes that don’t solve your real problem.  The most powerful technology for feedback is already in your organization.   It’s called a conversation, and if it’s not happening often enough, no amount of technology will fix it.

Two Types of Feedback

Let’s separate out two types of feedback.  Useful feedback provides us new information about our thoughts, behaviors, or where we stand relative to others.  It helps us to grow and change our behavior.  We can also get feedback that’s not particularly helpful to us, and may cloud our decision making.  If someone yawns in a presentation, are you boring or are they just tired?

A key subset of useful feedback is meaningful feedbackMeaningful feedback doesn’t just teach us new information, but it also motivates us to change.

The Power of Conversations

If I reflect back on my career, the best feedback I ever received came in conversations when someone confronted how I saw myself with the reality of how others saw me and challenged me to fix the situation.  One person told me I needed to change my tone in new business meetings, another shared ways my approach had hurt my internal reputation.  This feedback was difficult to hear, but helped me more than any of the quick notes or edits on a document ever could.  I’m not sure I would have listened if they had just sent an e-mail.  Conversations let you gauge tone, empathy, and emotion from the person providing feedback in a way you never can with electronic communication.  More importantly, a conversation lets you draw context out from an isolated statement.

Other pieces of feedback require some insight into the person receiving it.  One way to start a feedback conversation is to ask for permission – to say “can I give you some feedback?”  But in many instances, it’s presumptive that you know what’s going on.  An even better way to start is to get a sense of where the person was coming from: ask “what were you thinking when you…”.    Most software is designed around the idea that feedback is about telling, but effective feedback is also about listening.  Listening helps understand the situation, and asking leads the person receiving feedback on a journey of discovery that helps them internalize what we’re trying to teach.

Effective feedback is also timely.  You want to make sure that you can give it in the moment, not when you’re back sitting at a computer screen or staring at your phone.  It’s better to recap the meeting in the car ride back to the office, when it’s fresh, than to wait until you’re back at your desk.

The new systems for quick feedback are great, and they’re certainly an improvement over the annual performance review essays that we used to have to write.   But the real process innovation won’t come from a tool, it’s to create a culture of feedback that technology supports.

Creating a Culture of Feedback

That means teaching everyone how to take feedback effectively, teaching managers how to give feedback effectively, and having leaders role model both behaviors.  It means putting in place processes and touch points for sharing feedback, like post-project debriefs or quarterly touch-bases, that help you both gather feedback in the moment and also contextualize it strategically.

We’re lucky that the attitude towards feedback has shifted.  Employees are hungry for feedback rather than afraid of it, and organizations are finally waking up to the fact that faster feedback leads to faster growth.  But in all the excitement about new technology for feedback and recognition, we need to remember that the most important tool for feedback doesn’t cost anything and is already in your firm.  You just need to remember to use it.