When “Feedback” Is Not Feedback
A couple of my colleagues and I are working on a definition of “360 Degree Feedback,” and have been discussing about whether a 360, or feedback in general for that matter, is indeed “feedback” if not used (i.e., creates behavior change).
I found this definition of feedback in a business dictionary:
Feedback is the information sent to an entity (individual or a group) about its prior behavior so that the entity may adjust its current and future behavior to achieve the desired result.
I REALLY like that it focuses on “behavior” that is defined by its relevance (i.e., “desired result,” assuming the desired result is what is important to the organization and not some whim.) But there are certain aspects of this definition that don’t quite fit my idea of what “feedback” is in practice. I believe it is not what is sent but what is received (i.e., what is heard AND interpreted correctly) and that the “may” part is ambiguous, especially if it implies that adjustment is optional. So I propose this version:
Feedback is the information received by an entity (individual or a group) about its prior behavior so that the entity adjusts (or continues) its current and future behavior to achieve the desired result.
Returning to the discussion with my colleagues, we have come to an agreement that feedback must be used in order to be called “feedback.” If it is not used, then it is just information or information that is judged to be irrelevant and not worth using. At that point it is no longer “feedback” and the sender should be made aware of that (if the sender is human).
Sometimes the problem is that the message is not received, as in our cartoon. Whose fault it that? I had an ex-girlfriend in college who was one of 3 passengers on a long car trip we took. At our destination, she said to me, “You know a lot of words to songs!” It wasn’t until sometime (too much) later that I realized it was feedback about me singing to the radio. Maybe that is also part of the “ex” part of our relationship?
But the part that we are debating more vociferously is about the “use part” (the “adjusts or continues” phrase). This has direct implications for supposed “feedback” processes (such as 360’s in particular that are clearly labeled as “feedback”). We assert that even if the target receives the information as intended, if he/she does not consciously act (adjust or purposively continue), then the information remains only information and is not “feedback.”
Some of you would assert that “feedback” must only create awareness. But why send feedback if we feel that that is sufficient? Why provide feedback if there is no change (or use) expected? Of course, awareness alone is not sufficient, and it must be followed by acceptance. But still that is insufficient. (If not used, which is information and potential feedback to the sender, the sender may adjust his/her behavior as well, including just giving up.)
Some 360 processes hold that Awareness is sufficient and the leader need not actually use the feedback. We propose that such processes should not be called “360 Feedback” because there is no real feedback, just information. Feedback requires using the information.
Is a chair a “chair” if it is never sat in? I would say no, it is something else. Maybe it is a closet and has ceased being a “chair.” (And for some of us, a perfectly fine closet.)
Is your process providing “feedback” or is it a closet? If it’s not producing behavior change, you can call it anything you want except “feedback.”