A Leadership Lesson From Fitbit

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

“Feedback is the breakfast of champions.”
—Ken Blanchard

Athletes serious about improving their fitness and physical capabilities have always known the value of feedback. How do you know if you are improving without feedback? Feedback is useful for monitoring progress, keeping aligned with goals, and making changes in training regimes when necessary. And one of the more interesting elements of getting feedback in a timely and regular manner is that it's personally motivating. Feedback is a concrete form of recognition, and human beings thrive and strive with healthy doses of recognition.

It is the human need for feedback and recognition that has spawned the relatively new industry of digital wearable technologies. It is estimated that the fitness tracker market will top $5 billion by 2019. And one of the superstars in this new movement is Fitbit.

Fitbit is a public company headquartered in San Francisco, founded by James Park and Eric Friedman in late 2007. Fitbit manufactures and markets activity trackers—wireless-enabled wearable technology devices that measure data such as the number of steps walked, heart rate, quality of sleep, steps climbed, and other personal metrics.

Fitbit’s popularity and growth has been phenomenal, as evidenced in the rise in revenue.

Plus, its popularity is global. One of my business associates from Kuwait told me he lost 20 kilos (about 45 pounds) by monitoring his calorie expenditure and number of steps using a Fitbit. He said it was captivating to get the feedback almost instantly and so motivating that if he had not reached his calorie expenditure goal in the evening, he would get out of bed and do push-ups!

A Leadership Lesson From Fitbit


So, it is a fundamental part of human wiring to value and respond to feedback. It not only allows us to correct activities and behaviors, but also motivates us.

Feedback, self-correction, and motivation—sounds like a good thing for business, right?

Feedback in business is mostly limited to sterile data and numbers that are often less than motivating. The problem with most feedback in business is that it is not personal and not related to human behavior and activities. It's a measurement of widgets, profits, costs, quality conformance measures, and the like. Management responds with fixes to the processes, improvements in technology, doubling of the sales force, and so on.

But what about human performance? The sad reality is most employees, including senior executives, receive very little personal feedback throughout their lifetime of work. And what feedback is given is usually at the end of the year in the annual performance review. Not exactly real time! And a raise without any feedback is not very useful for learning and continuous improvement.

After conducting hundreds of culture assessments across multiple industries, I’ve found that one of the consistently low-scoring categories is the effectiveness of performance reviews and performance feedback. And in many cases, these ritualized activities tend to have a demotivating effect.

What Are the Roadblocks to Effective Feedback in Business?

In many of the senior leadership alignment workshops I have conducted over the past 30 years, the topic of performance reviews and feedback almost always comes up. I usually ask the group a series of questions to get the ball rolling:

  • How may believe that feedback is vital for improving performance and personal motivation? (Nearly everyone raises their hand.)
  • How many have received a bit of feedback at some point in their career that has been truly helpful in making you a better leader (person, employee, manager)? (Most of the hands go up again.)
  • How many of you get enough feedback? (Almost no hands go up.)
  • How many would like more feedback on a regular basis? (Almost all hands go up again.)

Usually there are two categories of roadblocks uncovered in discussions about feedback in business. The first is a series of almost subconscious beliefs about giving feedback:

  • If I give someone critical feedback, they will take it badly and either lash out or become demotivated.
  • If I give appreciation, they will get complacent and slack off.
  • They might turn it around and give me some feedback, and then it turns into a negative critique session on both sides.
  • I don't have enough facts to support my feedback, and they won't believe me.
  • It might open a can of worms.
  • They are professionals; they should know how they are doing and self-correct. I'm not a nursemaid.
  • It's potentially an awkward experience that I would just as soon not have.

The fact is, people want and need feedback, so these limiting beliefs are really all in the mind of the manager, not the receiver. I call them leadership self-limitations.
The second roadblock category is usually a poor understanding of how to deliver effective feedback. Here we can make great progress. Basically, there are two types of feedback, and they go together:

  • Appreciative feedback: A good phrase to use is, "What I really appreciate about your work is. . . . " Then follow with an example of how their work is helpful to the business.
  • Constructive feedback: A good phrase to use is, "You could be even more effective if you. . . . " Then follow with specific, actionable suggestions for improvement.

Taken together, these two categories—appreciative and constructive—form a useful framework for giving performance feedback. And it is critical to deliver feedback in as real time as possible. It could deliver performance breakthroughs in your company.

About the Author
John R. Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership teams. He is an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. Learn more at 
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