Fearless Feedback Equals Employee Engagement

May 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

What is feedback?

Feedback is data for the purpose of learning.  Feedback is a safe way to understand how to improve your individual performance, skills (personal development), tasks, and/or the processes within which you work.

Why is feedback needed?

There are four major reasons why feedback is needed.  Feedback helps us learn, it helps us adapt to change faster, it creates accountability, and it provides a key element for employee engagement. 

The ability to learn faster than your competitor is a huge advantage in the knowledge age.  Feedback is a necessary element of a learning cycle.  In the 1950’s Walter Shewhart and Dr. W. Edwards Deming popularized this scientific learning cycle.  In many business and scientific circles today it is known as the Shewhart Cycle or Deming Cycle.  There are four steps to the learning cycle: Plan-Do-Study-Act.  Feedback occurs in the Do phase of the cycle where data is collected to best understand how a process is working.  It helps answer the question, “Is the process delivering the expected outputs and outcomes?”  Without the feedback there can be no learning. 

In the industrial age learning was mostly dependent upon how fast managers could solve problems. New policies and procedures were created mostly by management and needed to be implemented by the employees.  Management used command and control and the Taylor Scientific Management Theory to accomplish this.  In the Industrial Age it’s management who knows best.  They were responsible for creating the policies and procedures and then holding people accountable to those using Management by Objective or MBO (performance appraisals and pay-for-performance policies). Feedback took the form of corrections to the policies and procedures created by management.  Feedback was manager dependent.

Feedback is needed to work with change.  Change can occur both within and outside the system.  A system is a series of interdependent processes that are in existence to achieve an aim or purpose.

A key success factor is having the ability understand the nature of change and to respond to the change appropriately in order to achieve the desired outcomes.  Change therefore becomes something to detect and take action in order to adapt to it.  Therefore change can’t be controlled or managed.  It can only be detected, anticipated, and adapted to (Wheatley, 2006).

Feedback is a critical element in the ability to make rapid strategic integrated choices concerning the pace and direction of change.” (Cloke & Goldsmith, 2002).  The organization that can accelerate change and involve everyone to participate will create a competitive advantage.  Now we find ourselves in the knowledge age and these MBO strategies and techniques no longer give us the speed to adapt to the changes fast enough to remain competitive. 

Feedback provides a stimulus to cause change.  All change creates disequilibrium which creates motivation to adapt.  Feedback provides that disruption that can cause change (Wheatley, 2006).

Holding employees accountable to methods and to their agreements (commitments) is the most effective strategy for performance.  Holding people accountable for results can result in unintended consequences. Feedback provides the key final step for our definition of accountability.  In order to create trust we must expect employees to keep their agreements. We must expect they can be trusted to have integrity. We must expect them to do what they say they will do.  When they fail to keep their agreements we must remind them.  We must bring that to their attention.  This is the role of feedback.  Feedback provides confirmation that people kept their agreements.  It provides confirmation that people have integrity.

Finally, feedback is important for retaining talent.  Retaining talent and creating a culture of trust are two of the most important challenges facing leaders over the next ten years according to a 2011 study by SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management).  To optimize retention and trust managers (and all employees) must know how to create employee engagement.  Operating income and employee retention are higher with high levels of employee engagement according to a 2008 Towers-Watson Study.  Frequent feedback is an extremely important element for creating an environment of employee engagement. An improved ability to give and receive feedback will improve the relationship between supervisors and employees.  According to Gallup (Cherniss & Goleman, 2001), employee retention is directly dependent upon the quality of the relationship with the employee’s immediate supervisor. 

Willingly giving and receiving frequent feedback means we are invested and committed to the organization and to our relationships (Reina & Reina, 2006)

Why Fearless Feedback?

Organizations must learn faster than their competitors, must create engaged workers, must, create an environment of accountability, and must adapt to change more quickly than competitors.  All managers need to learn how to work with change and stop trying to manage change.  A key element to achieve these outcomes is creating a culture of trust.  Most organization development research confirms the importance of trust.  High trust either destroys fear or neutralizes the effects of fear.  When there is high trust people are willing, by definition, to be vulnerable.  The IABC research Foundation published a study about trust and the definition they used for the study was the willingness to be vulnerable because of the presence of integrity, concern, shared objectives, and competence (Shockley-Zalabak, Ellis, & Rugger, 2000). 

Because the most successful organizations are those who are able to adapt to change, the ability to work with change becomes a required competency in today’s fast paced global economy.  Receiving feedback in a fearless environment enables everyone to take positive action to work with change. In his book, Managing Transitions, William Bridges emphasizes the need for trust in management as a building block of working with multiple simultaneous changes (Bridges, 2003). “When people trust their manager, they’re willing to undertake a change even if it scares them.” (Bridges, 2003).  Stephen Covey confirmed this by saying trust is the highest form of motivation (Covey, 1989).

Giving and receiving feedback is a critical element for trust communication (Reina & Reina, 2006). 


Bridges, W. (2003). Managing Transitions. Cambridge, MA: Perseus.

Cherniss, C., & Goleman, D. (2001). The Emotionally Intelligent Workplace. NY, NY: Jossey-Bass.

Cloke, K., & Goldsmith, J. (2002). The End of Management. Sanfrancisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Covey, S. (1989). 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. NY, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Reina, D., & Reina, M. (2006). Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace. San Francisco: Berrrett-Koehler.

Shockley-Zalabak, P., Ellis, K., & Rugger, C. (2000). ‘Measuring Organizational Trust. San Franciso, CA: IABC Research Foundation.

Wheatley, M. (2006). Leadership and the New Science. San Farancisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.


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