Cummings’ evidence offers a lesson for more effective feedback

Prime Minister "not fit for office"; Hancock "should have been fired"; the government "failed"… as an example of excoriating employer feedback, Dominic Cummings’ evidence before MPs on Wednesday was certainly up there. 

But the former government adviser’s oral evidence before the Health and Social Care Select Committee raises fundamental questions regarding employer-employee feedback.

Is speaking the truth really a sensible way to make change happen? Is it best to let radical candour or transparency run riot (as proponents such as hedge fund mogul Ray Dalio would argue)? Or would it have been better to focus on Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson’s strengths while highlighting, through omission, what everyone knew were their inconsistencies or weaknesses?

These key questions are the source of much debate in the field of workplace feedback, team performance and organisational competitiveness. 

However, the most important question to ask is: why wait until it's all over before making this sort of public castigation after the event? It's much like annual performance reviews which are often too late to fix ongoing issues while at the same time being mired in misremembered events and biases.

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Annual reviews are also flawed in their reliance on the assessor to gather feedback from multiple sources. It would have been far better for Cummings to have given his employers and co-workers ongoing real-time two-way feedback scored against specific criteria and making that feedback more widely visible both within the machinery of government and even to its clients (the electorate).

The ongoing two-way feedback approach would also have given the person, team or organisation being addressed the ability to respond in real-time, offering justification for their actions at the time as well as opportunities to accept learning as they present themselves.

Indeed, it's the shortcomings with the annual appraisal model and encouraging organisations to look again at how feedback is delivered that are important drivers behind our work here at ViewsHub. 

We believe that online platforms, using the power of crowd-sourced feedback loops, have the capacity to overcome these shortcomings and see feedback delivered in real-time from multiple stakeholders, including internal clients, co-workers, other teams and indeed external clients, as a fundamental ingredient in driving better outcomes, and learning lessons in real time throughout any project or indeed crisis. This offers the chance to remove any delay, drive efficiency and ensure comprehensive feedback.

That is not to say that rapid feedback from an array of different sources is a panacea. To avoid real-time solutions descending into a frenzy of intangible negativity, care needs to be taken to ensure feedback is actionable. It needs to highlight both the strengths and weaknesses of an employee's, or team's, actions while also suggesting coherent positive steps for improvement.

Built-in nudges and prompts to those delivering feedback are an important quality control component by offering suggestions in terms of wording and phraseology, rewarding useful constructive suggestions, and ensuring the magic ratio of offering five items of praise for every item of criticism. 

All this rests on the presumption, however, that the individual offering feedback is committed to wanting constructive change and improved organisational performance. The cynic might argue these were not key motivators driving Cummings’ comments on Wednesday. If only I had the opportunity to offer him my thoughts in real time…


Ab Banerjee is CEO and founder of ViewsHub