The importance of feedback and why effective leaders will provide it and seek it
28 July 2015
Authors: David Kennedy and Dermot McGarthy, Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland
Feedback is the process in which part of the output of a system is returned to its input in order to regulate its further output. It should be an essential part of education, training and personal development.
It helps learners to maximise their potential at different stages of training, raise their awareness of strengths and areas for improvement, and identify actions to be taken to improve performance. The most effective leaders actively seek feedback to enhance their performance.
Feedback can be seen as informal as in day-to-day encounters between teachers and students, peers or colleagues or formal as part of a written assessment. However, there is no sharp dividing line between assessment and teaching in the area of giving feedback on learning.
It is difficult to be self-aware without feedback from others. Feedback from others informs us in ways that enriches our self-knowledge.
Communications are more effective where feedback is applied. It is possible to judge to what extent the communication is getting through, and an opportunity is given for questioning which leads to clarification. Conferences and meetings in particular have a considerable advantage in permitting this kind of feedback.
The impact of failing to provide feedback to learners are many and if we don’t provide feedback what is the learner gaining, or assuming? They may, for instance, believe that everything is fine and that there are no areas for improvement. Learners value feedback, especially when it is given by somebody credible who they respect for their knowledge and/or experience.
Some people in the workplace suffer from poor performance as a result of not receiving feedback and it is very common in many organisations and educational institutions. A dearth of feedback occurs even in small organisations, in teams and in families.
The ‘feedback famine’ is a vacuum that occurs when people receive inadequate information in respect to their performance. This concerns ongoing, regular and informal feedback. It is timely, specific and may help the individual ascertain:
- Whether they were successful or not in achieving their goals;
- What they are supposed to be achieving in their role, i.e., why their role exists;
- What they are currently doing well and what areas require improvement;
- How they are impacting on others in the workplace.
The importance of feedback
Feedback is the cheapest, most powerful, yet, most underused management tool that we have at our disposal. It helps people get on track and serves as a guide to assist people to know how they and others perceive their performance.
Feedback can also be highly motivating and energising. It has strong links to employee satisfaction and productivity. People like to feel involved and identified with their organisation. Effective leaders have good listening and emotional awareness – they understand the impact that their behaviour has on others.
When staff receive little feedback they tend to be self-critical or self-congratulatory as they are relying upon events rather than specific feedback to measure their performance and impact.
Cost-benefit analysis of feedback provision
Appropriate and regular feedback is of immeasurable value to management, staff and students alike, not least in the following ways:
- Self-image is enhanced and the individual feels that he/she is a part of something and not apart from something;
- The person’s role as manager, teacher or student is perceived to be respected and valued;
- As self-esteem grows, so too does productivity, because goals are more clearly defined, and the attainment of those goals, more fulsomely rewarded;
- Time management is more acutely addressed, as individuals become more empowered to make the best use of their productive hours;
- Interpersonal relationships can be more clearly evaluated, and consequently strengthened;
- Students can better track their own academic progress or lack of same, feedback being an essential part of managing performance;
- Individuals can more positively deal with rejection;
- Others are encouraged to believe in you and your abilities;
- Higher grades are more easily attainable, and areas of self-development can be more precisely identified.
The costs of poor feedback
The following results may be seen:
- Feeling of dislocation, affecting one’s overall sense of responsibility, and in consequence, productivity levels;
- Resentment, stemming from the perception of not being fully valued or respected for one’s contribution;
- Lower levels of self-esteem adversely affect motivation and, in turn, weaken focus on goals, and their attainment;
- Talent is not seen to be encouraged, or rewarded, and abilities are rarely if ever maximised;
- Grades are diminished;
- Drop-out rates may increase.
Feedback needs to be SMART
In all organisations – academia being no exception – success is very clearly results driven. Feedback, if it means to optimise resources (staff and students) and maximise output (job satisfaction, and more effective teaching and learning) needs to be SMART. The feedback needs to be Specific: it needs to address the actual person and the immediate issue. It should not be general if it is to be effective.
It needs to be Measurable: where active completion of a task or response to instruction is tracked. It must be Acceptable: terms of reference are clearly communicated and understood between sender and receiver. It must be Realistic: the desired effect of information transmission between management, staff and students must be based on real potential and limitations, and not aspirational.
It must be Time framed: feedback is extremely powerful when it is received at the right time, and acted on within a certain duration.
So the feedback must be targeted, personalised and earmarked for maximum benefit. It must reach its recipient(s) at the correct time, to ensure greatest impact. It must be delivered in the right language. The advice/instruction must be transmitted in simple, direct language so that the recipient can more easily relate to and respond more enthusiastically.
The feedback must be a clear communication so that the recipient does not have to ask questions about it. The detail must be honest and correct, otherwise it will be of little value. There should be no room for unnecessary elaboration and the issue(s) should be addressed in a forthright and precise manner.
There must be a clear proposal in the feedback that is adhered to. The communication must be transmitted in the right mood, it must be empathetic where necessary and solemn when required.
Providing formal feedback
Formal feedback can be provided in a number of ways. Observations over a period of time or for specific purposes, e.g. appraisal, at the end of interviews, exam scripts, project presentations, report assessments and so on, are typical situations when formal feedback should occur. Informing somebody who does things correctly is as important as offering guidance to others to perform better.
One should always encourage informal questions and discussions and avoid jargon. In addition to this, it is essential to invite comments and suggestions, so that you can exchange information and experiences. It is often important to call people together and explain the reasons for change, for example, and how it will affect them.
Inform people on issues which affect them. Congratulate people on doing an outstanding job. While talking to people in feedback sessions, emphasise the importance of their ideas to strengthen the communication process.
If feedback has been provided regularly, then the formal feedback sessions should not contain any surprises for the learners. Feedback can be given on a one-to-one basis, to small groups and whole classes. There are methods of encouraging others to engage with feedback.
Lecturing staff, and indeed management staff, need to be trained in providing feedback and in the benefits of receiving and providing it to their students and colleagues in order to enhance the learning environment and improve performance. Timely feedback is essential and must be communicated effectively to the receiver.
Without proper feedback a vacuum is created which may result in poor grades, lack of interest and loss of strategy and direction. The benefits of effective feedback provision are invaluable and undeniable, while the costs of same are negligible. The emphasis that external bodies place on quality of education which depends highly on feedback needs to be responded to more appropriately.
Some staff have excelled in this area, however, such staff stand out in terms of their successful achievements in student results but need to be rewarded in suitable ways by their own managers in order to encourage others to achieve similar effects. An insignificant but important comment from students relates to the breakdown of marks for a module.
Some staff fail to notify students of this and therefore those students do not know where to place extra input when it comes to their own performance. A more common situation arises when staff fail to notify students of the contents of a module or the learning outcomes, leading to a situation where students don’t understand why they are studying certain material and its relevance to their overall learning.
These issues are quite basic to address but experience tells a different story. Feedback provision must be rooted in some finely honed communication skills, in order to ask and answer some fundamental, but vital questions. Moreover, a more formalised and scientific approach to solving the perennial problem of defective feedback has to be emphasised and duly adopted by educational institutions.
In terms of costs, feedback is a very marginal overhead, demanding merely a dedicated time, and some insignificant transmission costs. The argument for effective and regular feedback is quite emphatic – the benefits far outweigh the costs, particularly in the medium to long term.