BetterWorks CEO: Treat Feedback Like A Fitbit

We love feedback, but our enterprises do it all wrong. The CEO of BetterWorks wants employers to treat feedback more like a Fitbit.

David Wagner, Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

April 23, 2015

6 Min Read
<p align="left">(Image: <a href="" target="_blank">Patrick Byrne</a> via Flickr)</p>

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People want to know how they are doing, and few of us feel like we hear it enough. Kris Duggan, CEO and founder of BetterWorks, believes that we're bad at giving feedback to our employees, which keeps us from aligning work to business goals, makes employees less engaged and less productive, and keeps us all from reaching our full potential in the enterprise.

The good news is that there's a quick fix: Treat employee feedback like Fitbit treats exercise.

"Imagine if your Fitbit gave you one annual report about the steps you take and you just had to guess how you were doing," Duggan said in an interview with InformationWeek. "That's essentially what most companies are doing today."

The current annual employee evaluation tied to salary and promotion is the exact wrong way to get improvement from employees, he suggests.

Instead of an "arcane, over-engineered process" done once-a-year, Duggan suggests a high-frequency, lightweight process. Just as your Fitbit tells you each day whether you are taking enough steps or missing your goals, daily feedback helps you stay on track. Once a year just doesn't cut it if you're trying to get better. In fact, one study found at least 60% of us feel we haven't heard useful feedback from our company in six months.

"It is all about tying feedback to process instead of people," suggests Duggan.

This is where BetterWorks believes that it has something to offer. The company makes software that allows enterprises to track the individual goals of everyone in the company and makes those goals and the progress public for all in the enterprise.

This allows them to "cheer" success -- much like the "like" button on Facebook -- or gently "nudge" someone who might be behind in their goals. By tying work to goals no one loses sight of what they're trying to accomplish. But it isn't the software so much as the process that it important.

"We default to openness in the company," Duggan says, "That is pretty transformative. Companies often set goals in a private and non-collaborative way. Studies show very few people know how their work relates to the goals of their company. By picking three-to-five goals that 'move the needle,' everyone can see how their work directly affects the bottom line and the company goals."

All of these likes and short moments of feedback create lots of data about the success of teams and individuals inside your company.

"With all the goals and how everyone is checking in, it gives us all sorts of data," Duggan added. "I can tell you what your culture is like from your data. I can tell if you are a risk-taking culture or if you are more conservative. I can tell you which teams are aligning to corporate goals the best. We can make an organizational heat map around alignment and engagement. All of that data wasn't there before."

And of course, as workers make progress on their goals, they feel invested.

That's where the feedback comes in for employees. Some studies show employees are so hungry for feedback, they are even happier to get negative feedback. Just like the Fitbit, feedback needs to be frequent, and it also needs to come in a form we all recognize.

"Everyone, but especially Millennials, is used to data," Duggan said. "They know how many likes they get on social media, how many followers they have. When we don't get that, we can't be engaged."

He suggests feedback needs to be the same as the type of feedback we're used to from other sources like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

"The average ratio of likes to comments on Facebook is approximately 10-to-1 per post," Duggan added. "Even though a like has less context than a comment, the time it takes to send a one-click signal is exponentially lower than the mental energy of crafting a well-presented comment. But the recipient still has an immediate feedback signal, often a feel-good signal, that represents their friend’s sentiment on the content. Applied in the workplace setting, this type of instant feedback is a reasonably quick solution to the constant need to offer up feedback."

[Of course, not everyone believes in engagement. Read Employee Engagement: Let The Fakery Begin.]

Why does it have to be public?

Duggan points to study showing how goals, even things like New Year's resolutions, work better with a public element.

"Studies show that if you think of a goal, your chance of succeeding is rather small," he said. "If you write the goal down and put it in your pocket, it is a little better. If you make the goals public, it is even better, and the best chance of success you have is sharing the goal with friends and giving regular updates."

Of course, Duggan isn't trying to take away traditional one-on-one feedback between employee and manager. He is, however, advocating the idea that more frequent, less high-energy comments are a way to course-correct and stimulate employees when a full-blown evaluation isn't always possible. Managers should be encouraged to check in more often as well. But the great thing about setting up smaller, easy-to-use feedback, like a "like" or a quick email, is that it requires a low investment but gets a high return.

Getting better at feedback just might be one of those rare situations where the interests of employees and those of companies can be very easily aligned in order to make everyone better and more productive. Getting more feedback in a more productive way makes all of us happier. It also makes us better workers aligned to the company strategy.

All of us want to feel more useful.

What do you think? Are Duggan and BetterWorks on to something? Would you like more frequent feedback to help you do your job? As a manager, does this sound better than an annual review? Could you see this aligning work to company goals better? Tell us in the comments.

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About the Author(s)

David Wagner

Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, leadership, and innovation. He has also been a freelance writer for many top consulting firms and academics in the business and technology sectors. Born in Silver Spring, Md., he grew up doodling on the back of used punch cards from the data center his father ran for over 25 years. In his spare time, he loses golf balls (and occasionally puts one in a hole), posts too often on Facebook, and teaches his two kids to take the zombie apocalypse just a little too seriously. 

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