Why Feedback Matters
For most of human history and in almost all places it would have seemed absurd for employers to give their employees personal feedback. It was out of the question that the boss could get together with a member of staff and appraise their work, ask about their feelings, attitudes, hopes and ambitions. The basic relationship was of command on one side and obedience on the other.
Things have changed today for one central reason. Not because bosses are nicer, but because the tasks of business are more psychologically complex than in the past. There’s been an entirely practical and hard-nosed realisation that to get the best performance, people need to be psychologically in a good place: which means well-motivated, in good spirits, even enthusiastic and eager around the tasks they are doing. This is the only way not to waste a lot of money.
In the past, when much work was purely routine, and dependent primarily on flexing the body, management didn’t care so much about what was happening inside the head of the workforce. The psychology of the worker or employee didn’t seem like a significant factor in the success of an enterprise.
Today, however, command is no longer enough. Work has changed from being physical or mechanical in character to becoming much more psychological. The task might be to come up with a more intriguing kind of packaging; to get the front of house staff to listen more empathetically to the demands of difficult customers; to get a sales force to believe in the merits of a new product, so they can sell it wholeheartedly; to get an IT manager to be more creative in the way they interact with other sectors of the business. For all these kinds of tasks it becomes crucial to get the employee into the right frame of mind. Their sheer technical skill isn’t enough. Their motives, attitudes, outlook – their character – become important factors in how the business goes.
So, even if they don’t especially relish the task, the senior management need to take the mental well-being of the employee very seriously. We have moved from the era of physical management to that of psychological management.
The office feedback session is currently our society’s main way of addressing what we can call the Psychological Obstacles to the success of a business. Companies recognise that they need to give feedback on various habits of mind – on the distortions or neuroses of character – that get in the way of good performance and hence of profitability.
In any office, the Psychological Obstacles of staff will – for certain – include some of the following:
Denial: the manic burying of bad news.
Dangerous Independence: the loner who doesn’t share information or who is averse to drawing on the skills and insights of other people.
Disguised Ignorance: the person who tends to hide whatever they don’t know. They give the impression of being entirely on top of an issue, only for it to emerge later that they were very unsure of what they were doing.
Poor teaching skills: someone who can’t transmit, effectively, what they know to those who need to share it.
Poor learning skills: the individual who doesn’t listen properly when something is being explained.
Despair and pessimism: the trait of always anticipating disaster and spreading gloom around the office.
Over-optimism and naivety: the resistance to digging into issues to discover the real troubles.
Impatience: primarily interested in ticking the boxes fast; they don’t enter into the spirit of the tasks.
Cynicism: the person who doesn’t believe the company is honourable; they feel the employers don’t care about them: they’re disengaged, resentful and a bit sullen.
Social awkwardness: a lack of confidence and shame makes people unable to present themselves confidently and with a measure of charm to others.
Each of these habits of mind is connected to how a project could fail. They are psychological obstacles to prosperity. To be more profitable, you need to crack these. Their collective costs to the economy is quite simply immense.
Every business is less successful than it could and should be because of the very much less than ideal states of mind of its employees and leaders. Successfully addressing the psychological obstacles releases a psychological dividend. Depending upon the field of business the psychological dividend, in purely financial terms, is an increased profitability of between 25 and 30 percent.
Feedback may seem at first like a small issue of office routine. But it is a place where we can see the economy of the future starting to emerge. It begins to address the question of the kind of education we need, collectively, in order to get a great economy. We are still at the very early stages of psychological training in the workplace. Businesses have long accepted the need for special education – and know they can’t do it all themselves alongside their normal activities. In the utopia, all Business Schools would be providing a very thorough and astute emotional education. At the moment, maths and the sciences tend to be most highly valued. This fashion derives from an analysis of what was most missing from business in the past. Today, we can get machines to do the maths. What we are short of is psychological sophistication and health.
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