Though it's an integral part of a properly functioning managerial relationship, feedback remains a sticky subject for many whose jobs require them to provide it.
In fact, a recent study by VitalSmarts found that 83% of employees have witnessed a colleague say something that has had a negative impact on their careers, something the study’s authors referred to as "suicide by feedback."
On the other hand, regular feedback is vital for employee engagement, which can lead to profitability and productivity increases of more than 20%, according to a 2014 Gallup Poll.
So how can managers get over their fear of the repercussions while keeping their employees engaged? One company thinks they’ve found a solution by supplementing the very human process of managerial relationships with artificial intelligence tools.
"In today’s fast-paced work environment, managers seldom focus their energies on coaching employees continuously, yet feedback and recognition are most effective when they’re given instantly with appropriate context and specificity," Kris Duggan, the CEO of BetterWorks, tells Fast Company.
The enterprise software company builds employee work profiles, known as "Work Graphs," based on data from integrations with Google Apps, email, and Office 365, as well as Salesforce, JIRA, and Slack. The machine-learning algorithm specifically tracks each employee’s goal progress, goal alignment, comments, cheers, nudges, cross-functional collaboration, recognition hashtags, and more, according to Duggan.
"BetterWorks then uses the Work Graph to prompt feedback and recognition from the relevant people, whether it’s managers or peers," he says. "We want to bring feedback and recognition into the weekly workflow of managers, making it more natural and ingrained in their relationships with their reports," adds Duggan.
Duggan explains that a major contribution to a top company goal may warrant recognition from the leadership team, while reaching a team goal will prompt a peer to deliver feedback and recognition. The AI platform has also been designed to recognize each users' preferred method of interaction, such as whether they want to receive continuous feedback in real time, or in batches at specific moments during the day.
"As this data surfaces, so does the ability to apply machine learning to compare trends across departments, workers, or organizations as a whole," says Duggan. The AI feature will be available at no additional cost to users of BetterWorks' Goal and Performance Development software, which starts at $20 per user per month.
Injecting the feedback process with AI capabilities is in part a reaction to the demands of the millennial generation, 85% of whom feel more confident when they receive regular feedback from managers. Duggan adds that the tool was designed with those that grew up on social media in mind.
"With Facebook likes, recipients receive immediate feedback, often a feel-good signal that represents their friend’s sentiment on the content," he says. "Applied in the workplace setting, this type of instant feedback and recognition is a quick solution to the constant need to give and receive feedback."
Recent research, however, suggests that millennials and gen Z still crave in-person communication in the workplace, which Duggan says the BetterWorks AI platform strives to foster, not replace.
"No matter what, peers and managers still have to take the action of recognizing employees, and our new features make it easy for them to do so," he says. "Since our platform is positioned to understand when an employee makes a contribution to the organization, we can surface this to the most relevant users. In this way, feedback and recognition becomes significantly more meaningful."
In other words, Duggan argues that applying artificial intelligence and machine learning to the employee feedback process will foster more human interaction, not less.