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Business Journal

Feedback for Real

"The positive effect of feedback on performance has become one of the most widely accepted principles in psychology," write professors Angelo S. DeNisi and Avraham N. Kluger in the February 2000 issue of The Academy of Management Executive. No surprise then that feedback gathering, whether in the form of 360-degree evaluations, employee opinion polls or numeric "voting" pads at large executive gatherings, has spread like kudzu across the corporate landscape.

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But there is a dangerous flaw in much feedback methodology. An analysis by the two professors of 131 studies on feedback effectiveness found that "in more than a third of the cases where it was possible to assess the effectiveness of feedback, providing feedback actually hurt subsequent performance." Poor design and participation are obvious culprits, but the biggest source of failure in the feedback effort is surely that employees' volunteered inputs unaccountably evaporate. The individual has his or her moment of self-expression, a fleeting participation in the great collective search for truth, then silence, nada, frustration as the status quo prevails.

Five years ago, Gallup decided to create a better feedback process for employers large and small: an opinion-based tool that would both release and direct the powers of feedback. The primary goal was to identify and measure the elements of worker engagement that are most powerfully linked to improved business outcomes -- be they sales growth, productivity, customer loyalty, and so forth -- and the generation of value.


To identify the elements of worker engagement, Gallup conducted hundreds of focus groups and many thousands of worker interviews in all kinds of organizations, at all levels, in most industries and in many countries. From these inquiries researchers pinpointed, out of hundreds of variables, 12 key employee expectations that, when satisfied, form the foundation of strong feelings of engagement. The result was a 12-question survey in which employees are asked to rate their response to each question on a scale of one to five. (See graphic "The 12 Elements of Great Managing.")

Results have shown a strong link between high survey scores and worker performance. That, Gallup research shows, is linked to business outcomes. (See "Taking Feedback to the Bottom Line" in "See Also" to see how the link is established). Thus from the employer's standpoint, addressing the issues that boost worker engagement is a logical pathway to higher profits. Of course, this correlation is not new. It has been discussed in general terms by managers for decades. The Gallup method differs by creating a methodology that bridges the "soft" values that pertain to worker morale and employee engagement, such as recognition and desire to contribute, with "hard" and measurable outcomes.

The 12 engagement questions are answered by employees on a scale of one to five, based on their weak or strong agreement. But the Q12 process (companies that use the process devise their own internal term for it) is far more than a baseline litmus test of the degree of existing worker engagement. It deploys a feedback methodology for improving engagement by creating a factual base for discussion and debate of the causes behind the numbers. It yields actionable input from staff and managers for changes in attitude, conduct, policies, and processes. Follow-up surveys over the years track long-term progress -- or backsliding -- on the 12 questions, each time releasing another wave of feedback. And because the terms of discussion are always grounded in data, the energy and the truths of this feedback do not evaporate unheeded but, to the contrary, foster positive change in the work arena.

In recent years this tool has been used by more than 87,000 divisions or work units within corporations, and approximately 1.5 million employees have participated. For companies that were able to provide data across units, comparisons of engagement scores reveal that those with high Q12 scores have also experienced lower turnover, higher sales growth, better productivity, better customer loyalty, or other manifestations of superior performance. Dozens of managers and employees from four companies that have adopted and gotten results from Q12 -- International Paper, Swissôtel, B&Q (a U.K. retailer of do-it-yourself and gardening supplies) and Best Buy, the electronics retail chain -- have offered insights and observations for this story. The number of employees involved in the Q12 interventions detailed here was large, more than 20,000 at B&Q alone.

The 12 Elements of Great Managing

How about we write the schedule, boss?
Feedback releases energies that increase engagement. And behind and within the feedback there lies -- what? Excitement? Hope? Mindfulness? Determination? Yes, these and a dozen more human attributes. When given their Q12 scores, many managers and subordinates appear galvanized, possessed of that quite incredible feeling that yes, they can make a difference to the team's culture -- they can improve processes, enrich skills, and do whatever is necessary to give the workday more meaning. The yearning to escape feelings of meaninglessness is why, at heart, we identify with the goals of the organization when it comes to performance, quality, and similar values.

Each Q12 element has a common ingredient: remediability. It addresses a condition that is within the capacity of managers and workers to change together, as a team initiative. Fate and acts of God are sidelined. Previously occluded truths are, in turn, laid bare. John Pearson, Manager of the Sunderland branch of B&Q, observes: "We'd all like to think that our management style is fair/reasonable and that it encourages the staff to buy in. But when you see hard Q12 numbers about key management performance indicators, it makes you look at yourself and how you manage."

Three years ago, Swissôtel Atlanta Security Chief John Sheffler, a former drill sergeant, ran his department like an army platoon and refused subordinates' appeals for more flexible work hours to accommodate their family, school and other obligations. When confronted with the news that his eight-person team's Q12 responses totaled up to the worst Q12 score among hundreds of work units in the Swissôtel chain, he saw the light. "I opened myself up to criticism and asked them to tell me what was upsetting them, what I was doing wrong as a manager," Sheffler recalls. The guards discussed his over-controlling nature, in particular his domination of the schedule. Sheffler worried that if guards had more choice of hours they'd all pick day shifts and there'd be nobody for night work. No, they shot back: They would take responsibility for total coverage, if given more flexibility. "We sat and listened to what we really didn't want to hear and slowly the management style changed," says Sheffler. A year later his group registered a perfect score. "We went from the bottom all the way up to the sky," he says.

"He took a huge risk that worked out brilliantly," says Janis Cannon, the facility's General Manager.

Big deal, you might say: Fewer than a dozen security guards feel great about their new work environment. But imagine such events multiplied for hundreds of teams and nearly 3,000 employees who participated from 13 Swissôtels, and the magnitude of the impact should be clear (the questionnaire was translated into nine languages for the diverse workforce). More than is perhaps recognized in most corporate boardrooms, small teams and workgroups have strong diagnostic powers and self-correcting abilities, which, when allowed purposeful expression, create culture change on a huge scale. The locus of power, the leadership initiative, is with the whole team, only guided by the manager.

Opportunities for change are first presented when managers sit down with their teams to study the Q12 scores. This is the moment when the manager gets a first reading on what's happening beneath the everyday rhythms. Mark McMullen, Manager of a B&Q Newcastle outlet, was at first puzzled as to why his employees had not given a top score for question No. 2: "Do you have the materials and equipment you need to do your work right?" Scores on most other questions were very high. "The big thing that came across in our discussion was uniforms. They were saying 'No, I'm not going to give a high score on that because I don't have a new uniform. I have a tatty one that I've had for a year and a half,'" McMullen recalls, adding, "It is easy to make assumptions before you ask them what the reasons might be. Sitting down with the group, you do get the complete facts and the meat on the bones of what the problems really are."

Start small, then build
The Q12 is a barometer of local conditions that a worker can see and touch. At first some of the employees of International Paper's Mansfield Mill in Louisiana saw in the survey a chance to take shots at the company. According to Mill Manager Tommy Joseph: "It is easy to slip into a victim's role when you answer these questions, looking at the whole company. People so often feel they have no control, and this [answering the questionnaire] is a chance to vent those feelings. So we said, 'Guys, forget about the company, forget about the mill's management, focus on the team that you interact with every day, think about yourselves as a team,'" says Joseph. "The Q12 is pretty granular."

Do-it-yourself success in retail: Q12 spurred worker engagement at B&Q's Huddersfield, Yorkshire store. From left: Rachel Fawcett, Human Resources Adviser, Steve Fowler, store general manager, and Paul Boyles, Customer Adviser.

At one of Mansfield Mill's paper-making machines, teams have registered improvements in "just about every measure that we look at: acceptance of the product, higher efficiency, lower levels of customer returns and fewer complaints," Joseph says. He gives the lion's share of the credit to the Q12 framework. "The process that they go through is more important than the actual questions," he continues. "It gets them talking to each other, questioning each other. It opens up boundaries where it is okay to talk about things that had not been talked about before. The feedback is where the value is." Team dialogue made these workers aware of shortcomings. They "came forward and asked for help on team training techniques, conflict resolution, problem solving, and better communication."

Aggregate Q12 results challenge the conventional view on the determinants of worker morale. We are all inclined to think that objective work conditions determine job contentment: Someone with a dangerous and dirty job will obviously feel less engaged than a professional with a sunny corner office. That view is flat-out wrong, according to Gallup results. Workers experiencing the same lousy pay, intolerable noise, physical hardship, speed of the production line and so forth can manifest abysmal or exceptionally high engagement scores. It depends on how their managers strive to build a strong foundation for better engagement.

What goes into that foundation depends on local conditions and circumstances -- the view from the unit level, not the view from the corporate bridge. Efficiency, in this view, largely depends on the distinctive culture of small teams. Lieske Robbert, Head of Human Resources for Swissôtel, says some of the highest engagement and customer-satisfaction scores for the entire chain are to be found in the laundry operation in Istanbul, and in the room-service operation at the Swissôtel Cairo. But each laundry operation and room-service crew in the hotel chain has to strive in its own way.

"Whatever those people in Istanbul room service are doing, I guarantee that it would not be acceptable for room service in New York City to imitate it," Robbert says. "We like to share successes, but we don't want people to copy others' behavior. Because if model behaviors were simply reproduced, it could give the wrong message. We want people to do it [find improvements] themselves, in a way that is natural, instinctual, not to follow a process."

Interpretive feedback is not orderly and at times may verge on chaos. It entails wheel spinning and digressions and ambiguities. Some worker suggestions can be just plain wacko, which is why managers using Q12 quickly learn how to keep feedback from straying into irrelevance. Says McMullen of the B&Q Newcastle store: "If anyone puts forward something that is unachievable -- for example, that we should have a color scanner or printer -- it is important that the idea is knocked on the head immediately, and that I don't say 'maybe' or 'we'll see what we can do.' But we still give reasons why."

The best get better
Each work unit is typically asked to develop action plans to improve its two worst and two best Q12 scores. Working on the laggards makes sense, but what is the point of pushing in areas of proven excellence? Because success begets success. The potential gains are highest in the top-performing groups. Best Buy, the giant electronics retail chain, has found that while the engagement and performance of all stores have increased as a result of the Q12 process, the better stores have improved faster and more dramatically. "Though we have been able to get the water level to rise in general, it has been easier to get the better ships to rise higher than it has been to transform the ones at the bottom," says Brad Anderson, Best Buy's President and Chief Operating Officer. In a recent Gallup study, the top group registered roughly double the performance scores on key customer values: shopping experience, store atmosphere, employee knowledge of the products and time spent with customers. Sales on a per-square-foot basis almost doubled in the better-ranked outlets.

John Sheffler, security chief at the Swissôtel Atlanta, and Janis Cannon, general manager, strengthened small teams with Q12.

"Unlocking skills and talent is a difficult thing to do," Anderson concedes. "If it wasn't difficult, we'd have made more progress." The key triggering event, as he sees it, "is to unlock the confidence that people have in their own skills. If you are at a school like MIT, you are expected to make a big contribution. At a lesser school you're not expected to make such a big contribution. My suspicion is that expectations have a huge impact on the kind of contribution people actually do make. Our good stores are much more like an MIT."

The most vulnerable part of the feedback loop is the manager's willingness to rigorously interpret the results and hew to team input. The framing of the Q12 results in numbers is important because it offers less opportunity for the evasion that is inherent in dialogue. "That's the biggest benefit: getting direct feedback from your people on a scored basis," says Greg Wanta, Manager of International Paper's Texarkana Mill in Texas.

But what if a line manager doesn't buy into this process? He or she should be free to decline, just as any worker can refuse to fill out the questionnaire. "It is not surprising that some people have not done much with it," says International Paper's Tommy Joseph. "In any organization where you have 600 to 700 people, there is always going to be 5% to 10% -- no matter how hard you try -- who will never get on board. My philosophy is to expend as much effort as I can with the people in the middle and at the top."

Similar thoughts are shared by Matthew Brearley, Director of Retail Personnel at B&Q. "I definitely believe that the managers who are good will improve more and more on their Q12s: They will keep driving for improvement. Managers who are average, less than average, or who don't have what it takes regardless of how much you measure them, will need real help if they are to improve. To get those stores to be top performers, we'll have to build better management capabilities," he says.

Companies that adopt the Q12 program go to a lot of trouble to sell it to the troops. Considerable effort also goes to reassuring participants that it's okay to criticize superiors. "I tell my people, 'If there is something I'm doing that is bothering you, let me know,'" says Mike Ralston, Manager of the Whitehall, Pa. Best Buy outlet. "And I tell them, 'There will be no retribution.' Over the years people have learned to trust me on this. They realize that there is no retribution."

Not all workers want to get with the program, so there can't be pressure on those who don't care to participate. Another Best Buy store's General Manager, Doug Carter of Orlando, Fla. emphasizes: "We want to make sure that everyone in our store is aware, to the degree of their interest, how our business runs. But we certainly don't want to over-communicate and lose an employee who has no interest in how my job, or the store as a whole, works. We are simply trying to identify an interest in some individuals and amplify it to the greatest level."

The degree of interest can be raised through leadership strategies that are hinted at in the questions -- recognition, support and the like. "We need to incorporate the needs that are expressed in the 12 questions into our personalities as leaders," says Carmen Fulchini, Best Buy's General Manager at a new outlet in Woodbridge, N.J. "I check my managers on this sometimes and ask, 'What did you do to give feedback to people recently? Give me some examples, good or bad.' If they struggle to remember, I immediately stop them and say, 'If you have to think about it, then you did not give them quality feedback. If you had, it would have stood out in your mind, because it came right from the heart, spontaneously, and when you walked away you felt good about it.'"

Explaining what makes a great building, architect Mies van der Rohe famously said that "God is in the details." And that is the beauty of Q12. It operates at a level of detail that is vivid to an individual employee but often not to his or her supervisor. Cumulatively, across the workforce, this detail is a force that can increase efficiency, becoming a bottom-line factor no less important than the macro things top management does.

"There are so many little things that are easily overlooked when you are managing a large shop, and which the Q12 exposes," says Steve Fowler, General Manager of the B&Q Huddersfield, Yorkshire unit. Consider the little matter of staplers. The Q12 survey asks about materials needed for doing one's job, meaning anything from a computer to a forklift. For the checkout staff at this B&Q store, an absence of staplers turned out to be pretty significant. "To a girl who works only 16 hours a week, it can make a difference. If you ask for feedback on her greatest frustration, back it comes about the embarrassment she feels when a customer asks to have the credit-card slip stapled to the invoice and she has to say, 'Sorry, actually I can't do it. There is a stapler three checkout counters away, but there are no staples in it.' That hits at so many different issues, such as 'I have the opportunity to do my job properly' and 'I can do what I do best' and 'I can offer customers good service.'"

That one little missing stapler, according to Fowler, "affects so many indices of engagement." Correct the problem and bingo -- this worker's feelings of engagement soar, because she has been given a voice, was heard, improved the working conditions of other checkout workers and did her bit to boost customer service. Such value generated for B&Q shareholders could be created no other way.

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