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28 Sep. 2015 | Comments (0)

The managerial feedback was excellent — crisp, clear, and constructive. Its tone was caring, compassionate, and compelling. Each criticism was consequently heard, acknowledged, and understood. Message received; next steps agreed. A potentially awkward and painful conversation became a bonding experience. It was a best-case scenario.

Fifty days later, alas, nothing substantive had changed. A quick fortnight of self-awareness yielded to “business-as-usual.” It was as if that open and honest exchange had never taken place.

Sound familiar? People understandably invest significant time and care trying to get better at giving feedback that matters. Unfortunately, those investments typically underperform. The reasons are simple and obvious: The true purpose of better feedback is not to improve receptivity or enhance understanding but to effect measurable change.

Feedback is a means to an end. No matter how charmingly or charismatically delivered, feedback that doesn’t lead to better outcomes fails. Doctors counseling unhealthily overweight patients to eat less and exercise more may indeed be giving life-saving feedback. But until meaningful pounds are actually shed, no one’s getting better. Making the feedback more empathic or persuasive utterly misses the point.

Feedback’s intrinsic flaw isn’t in the medium or the message — it’s in the metrology. Feedback must be explicitly linked to metrics, measures, and mechanisms that track the desired — and desirable — change. Feedback that comes without ways to monitor measurable change is less meaningful feedback than it is well-intentioned advice. In other words, effective feedback requires effective feedback.

That’s why understanding feedback’s future requires embracing thequantified self. Our expanding abilities to digitally, visually and pervasively self-monitor will transform how on-the-job feedback gets defined, developed, and delivered. Today’s self-quantifiers count calories and steps and time spent; tomorrow’s will be tracking what their bosses, collaborators and — yes — customers and clients want them to improve professionally. Serious feedback will come with self-quantification attached. (That’s how you’ll know it’s serious.)

The future of feedback is the future of self-quantification. The future of self-quantification is the future of feedback. The critical and controversial challenge, of course, revolves around consent. Today’s self-quantifiers choose to do so; will tomorrow’s?

It’s one thing to have a superior, colleague, or client offer constructive criticism; it’s quite another when professional critiques come with apps designed to monitor one’s efforts to improve. A Fitbit tracking physical steps feels like less of an imposition than one tracking tone, temperament, and/or collegiality.

But feedback’s fusion with trackers and performance monitors feels both inevitable and obvious. Do colleagues and subordinates find your email and social media messaging too snarky and off-putting? IBM now offers “sentiment analysis as a service” that tracks the tone and tenor of personal and professional communications. You can now be more reliably “nudged” to become a kinder and gentler communicator.

Mismanage scheduling and follow-ups? Your calendar and contacts lists can be programmed to alert you to coordinate with the frequency and reliability your boss — or peer group — wants. In other words, feedback compliance — or assurance — becomes integrated into the networked fabric of day-to-day performance and processes. I coined the word “promptware” to describe software that could be used by individuals who wanted to take such self-improvement measures. But making “promptware” part of next-generation organizational feedback also makes professional sense.

These technologies and innovations make creating cultures of accountability more practical and transparent. Indeed, feedback should be about enabling and assuring accountability for improvement. We could rightly give these feedback-empowering apps their own name: “accs” or apps designed with “accountability’” in mind and spirit. Organizations that care about Kaizen, or the process of continuous improvement, and facilitating effective feedback will make “accs” a way to make sure that their people have the power to (self) improve. When it comes to tomorrow’s feedback, actions and data will speak louder than words.


This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 08/05/2015.

View our complete listing of Talent Management and Human Capital Analytics blogs.

  • About the Author:Michael Schrage

    Michael Schrage

    Michael Schrage, a research fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business, is the author of Serious Play and the forthcoming Getting Beyond Ideas.

    Full Bio | More from Michael Schrage


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