Are you in the loop?

It is said that the generation now entering the workforce desire constant feedback and close contact with their line manager. This is something higher education is acutely aware of and is always striving to improve. In fact, part of my seminar this week involved facilitating an activity on feedback. This made me wonder why employers have not been quite as receptive.

It’s not that organisations can’t understand the importance of feedback, something I think is brought into stark focus by these two quotes;

“Those who do not know themselves are unable to change themselves” (Bowner)

“Those unable to change themselves cannot change what goes on around themselves” (Revans)

Students have open access to a variety of feedback on their work, and vice versa are able to provide their own feedback, both within the classroom environment and via the National Students’ Survey. No wonder they are puzzled when they enter the workplace, where the vast majority of feedback is one way and reserved for an allocated time slot once per year. Unless there’s some kind of emergency, employee feedback is rarely given the priority it truly deserves. The reason for this is the same as for many other things that get carried out either reluctantly or not at all; because it’s difficult.

As the above quotes highlight, the most successful people really know themselves. It can be hard to take a good long look at ourselves and admit our flaws (even if only to ourselves) but most of us do this instinctively. In its simplest form, emotional reactions, such as embarrassment, will cause people to think twice before repeating certain behaviour. In my opinion the majority of people reflect in some way and are therefore easier to give feedback to, because they hold their hands up. They knew all along and have already thought about what they’re going to do about it.

On the other hand there’s those people who appear to have zero self-awareness. Either in the name of pride or self-protection they rarely admit things to themselves and justify all their own actions. They have very fixed views and not just about themselves (remember the quotes). What causes their behaviour to become so ingrained? A lack of feedback. 

Many years ago I worked for an organisation that ran training courses for unemployed people. A good percentage of them had been out of work for years, perhaps decades, with some of them suffering what we now call “generational worklessness” (they’ve never had a job, their parents never worked and their kids don’t either). There was one other additional common denominator among every cohort – a pervading smell. One that had escalated beyond simple body odour, hanging around in the room for hours after they had left. While there’s no statistical evidence to back me up I’m pretty certain this was a key factor behind them never getting a job. How do we characterise smelly people – well, they’re probably lazy, maybe even stupid. If they can’t be bothered to wash, can they manage the energy to turn up at work? Who wants to work with somebody who smells anyway?

You would think it would be completely obvious to the perpetrator. A smell isn’t a fleeting behaviour, easily forgotten. It’s a constant reminder, hanging around like, well, like a bad smell. But they were totally oblivious. Eventually we had to employ someone especially just to break the news to them.

If only there was a similar role in other organisations, where people can be as equally clueless about bad behaviour going on right under their noses. A big part of the issue is that a lack of feedback is self-perpetuating. And no, 360 degree feedback is definitely not the answer. I once came across an organisational scheme (very innovative they thought) where you had to find a picture from the internet representing the person you were appraising. What a shock if on opening your feedback you discovered a photo of a pile of poop!

Of course, it shouldn’t get that far. 360 is a stilted attempt to force openness on cultures that completely lack all the qualities required for constructive feedback, such as trust and honesty. Somebody needs to tell them; they stink.

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