The importance of owned feedback

Karen Rayner
Karen Rayner | March 31, 2021
Feedback
The importance of owned feedback

At work we take ownership of something when we know it’s our responsibility: if it’s our job to do a thing, we do the thing. Feedback should be no different. It’s something we contribute, so we should have some responsibility for it. Feedback should be owned by the people who give it.

Why?

If we choose to speak up it’s probably because something is at least a little bit important to us. And because we’ve taken the time and effort to say something, it’s reasonable to expect some return on that investment. Acknowledgement is good. Action is even better: something positive happening as a result of information we’ve volunteered.

That’s not the reality many of us have come to know.

Most traditional employee feedback surveys aren’t concerned about what happens with feedback once it’s collected. Data is aggregated. Charts are made. PowerPoint presentations are presented and results recorded so they can be compared with past and future surveys. 89 instead of 77 this time! Great!

Particularly pithy feedback might be included in pull quotes, but because it’s usually anonymous it 1) can’t (usually) be pinned to an individual and 2) doesn’t (usually) spark any immediate action.

Plus the person who contributed that feedback will probably never know anything happened with it, because those reports only go to the people in charge...

Owned feedback brings accountability down the organization

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Back to owned feedback then: if I say something, then I have some responsibility for that thing.

Let’s say I think we need a coffee machine in the break room. Going out for coffee a few times a day costs us all a bunch of time and money, so it makes sense to have a machine in the office that everyone can use.

If I volunteer that idea, then I should be prepared to own it.

My manager thinks it’s a great idea, and backs me on it. I know he’ll help me get this over the line, and I also know what’s coming next. He asks me if I have any recommendations…

Naturally, I have some. I love coffee and this is my time to shine. So I recommend a machine, my manager gives me the thumbs up and takes it to finance, and we get approval. My feedback has directly resulted in positive, caffeinated action.

Compare that to an anonymous ‘suggestion box’ feedback format. I say we need a coffee machine, and six months from now we’re still heading out to the local cafe for our thrice-daily fix.

Coffee’s a simple example. But what if I have feedback on team restructures, development opportunities, health and safety compliance, or any number of meatier topics? If I own the feedback I give, then I have visibility into where it goes, and maybe a role to play in actioning it, if appropriate. If it’s something directly related to my job there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be involved. If it’s something I have no authority over, I should still be able to see what action my feedback results in - even if that’s months down the track.

People who get involved with feedback share responsibility for it

In this case my manager agreed to be accountable for escalating the feedback by taking the recommendation to finance. We didn’t need to wait for a senior executive to happen upon my feedback, decide we needed the machine, and find someone to delegate machine-finding-responsibility to. We took action at our edge of the organization and resolved everything in record time. Of course it helps if you work in a high-trust organization and you’re empowered to just get on with it.

Being asked for feedback doesn’t lead to fatigue; absence of action does

People don’t necessarily get tired of giving feedback. They do get tired of their feedback being sucked into a vacuum, never to be seen again. When people own their feedback and are active in its resolution, they have proof of its value and are more likely to speak up in the future.

So if you can’t act on feedback for whatever reason - time or budgetary constraints, conflicting priorities, impractical suggestions - then at least let people know that and thank them for their time and effort. Almost anything is better than the deathly, echoing silence of the virtual suggestion box.

And if you don’t intend to use the feedback you’re collecting to drive action, then why bother? If you’re asking questions without a ‘what next?’ component, or that don’t clearly link to business strategy, then you’re asking the wrong questions. If all you want is a number to report, then you’re missing a massive opportunity to do something meaningful with the things your people are telling you.

An owned feedback cheat sheet:

  1. Ask people for their feedback
  2. Thank them for contributing
  3. Do something with their feedback - with their help whenever it’s appropriate
  4. Tell people whenever their feedback leads to an outcome
  5. Report - to the entire organization - on the ways feedback leads to action and change
  6. Repeat