Brain Science Is Turning Team Feedback Inside-Out

Feedback is the Breakfast of Champions

Deloitte’s Human Capital Trends survey (conducted across 130 countries with more than 7,000 participants) identified teamwork as the number one global workforce trend. Around the world, employees today are expected to work collaboratively and independently in networks of project teams. Central to the success of these independent, empowered teams is continuous feedback. Feedback can improve team member awareness of strengths and weaknesses, and provide insights on how to self-correct behavior. For team leaders, frequent, high-quality feedback is like radar for your team. It identifies gaps – such as trust issues, unconscious bias, disregard for equal voice, or a lack of psychological safety on and across teams – before they lead to deteriorating performance and disengagement.

Developed and used properly, employee surveys can provide a powerful tool for both predicting behaviors and creating rich, transformational coaching conversations. Unfortunately, most surveys fall short of providing the feedback that is most needed for modern team success.

Developed and used properly, employee surveys can provide a powerful tool for both predicting behaviors and creating rich, transformational coaching conversations. Unfortunately, most surveys fall short of providing the feedback that is most needed for modern team success. While the vast majority of surveys have moved online, most still use methods designed for a paper-pencil era. Often, they are Do-It-Yourself surveys designed by a well-intended HR person using practices such as the 16 guidelines for content, format, language, measurement, and administration offered in the HBR article Getting the Truth into Workplace Surveys. Without research and design expertise, the result is usually too many questions and biases that diminish the validity of the results. More significantly, the global survey epidemic has resulted in survey fatigue and devaluation as the number of issues raised usually exceeds the ability of an organization to address them. The result is people feel that their input doesn’t result in actions that address their real concerns, setting up a cycle of diminishing input quality. This is happening at a time when richer feedback is more critical than ever for team success and individual wellbeing.

The key question for team leaders is how to regularly gather insights into what really drives team behavior, effectiveness, and wellbeing without triggering survey fatigue and poor-quality feedback.

Applied Brain Science – Turning Surveys From “outside-in” to “inside-out”

The survey tools and methods developed for 20th-century organizations are far less applicable in today’s team-based knowledge-driven businesses. A traditional Likert scale attitudinal survey takes an “outside-in” survey-centric approach. Looking in from the outside, the survey developers make assumptions about the most important employee topics – like engagement, perks, training, and culture – and the right questions to ask using a simple scoring scale. To avoid missing an issue assumed to be important by HR or managers, developers take a shotgun approach with dozens of questions. In addition to creating survey fatigue, the “rate this one to five” or “Very Unsatisfied to Very Satisfied” approach fails to uncover the more complex relationship issues that can dramatically affect team effectiveness and wellbeing.

The 21st-century alternative is an “inside-out” approach that starts with a people-centric point of view. This approach assumes that, in the context of their organization, team, and specific goals, employees can best identify what is most important to their well-being and effectiveness. By asking questions that encourage people to express how they think and feel about what is helping or hindering them to achieve their goals, a survey can get to the heart of what does or doesn’t motivate, energize, and engage them. How to do this requires drawing upon a more modern foundation of research and practice at the intersection of behavioral science, neuroscience, and design:

  • Behavioural science demonstrates the power of focusing on understanding a person’s experience versus their expectation relative to a goal and across the relationships that are important to achieving that goal. Developing a feedback survey from the “inside-out” – capturing people’s experience versus their expectation and the reason for any gap – provides immediate insights into the most important issues that are supporting or interfering with effectiveness and wellbeing.
  • Neuroscience research shows the critical importance of capturing both affective (emotions) and cognitive (thinking) feedback. Despite these insights, most survey methods used today were developed in the early 20th century and don’t provide an effective means of doing so. The neuroscience bridge to 21st-century surveys is facial expressions, as they are one of the most important cues in both affective and cognitive communication. Extensive research into human-computer interaction demonstrates that emoticons (or emoji) are an effective way to make up for many of the cues absent in text-based communications. Well-designed interactive emoji mimic facial expressions and foster the expression of feelings. These should form the core of an “inside-out” employee survey.
  • Interactive survey design can combine the “inside-out” experience-expectation questions that uncover the key issues interfering with people’s performance and happiness, with emoji facial expression animation that enables greater emotional expressiveness and makes the survey itself more engaging. The result is a rich picture of a team’s experience, energy, and engagement while eliminating survey fatigue and encouraging frequent use.

Brain Science-Based Surveys that Work

Extensive team research over the past 30-years supports the critical role of feedback in building highly-effective teams and increasing team member well-being. Moving from an “outside-in” to an “inside-out” approach when developing employee surveys allows people to provide feedback that highlights what is most important to them, and identifies the most significant gaps that are getting in the way of their being effective and happy. Adopting insights from modern brain science ensures that surveys capture both how people feel and what they think, producing richer and more predictive insights. And good design can put the pieces together in a compelling and engaging way that ensures a continuous flow of rich feedback that leads to more meaningful team conversations.

In his article on employee surveys at Facebook, Scott Judd makes the case that surveys are still great predictors of behavior, that they give employees the chance to feel heard, and that they are a vehicle for changing behavior. Scott is right on the mark. Just be sure that, as you rely more and more upon teams for your organization’s success, your approach to designing surveys for regular feedback is the equivalent of a Tesla, not a diesel truck.

Aldunate, N., & González-Ibáñez, R. (2016). An Integrated Review of Emoticons in Computer-Mediated Communication. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 2061.

Alismail, S., & Zhang, H. (2018). The Use of Emoji in Electronic User Experience Questionnaire: An Exploratory Case Study. 

Dunlap, J., Bose, D., Lowenthal, P. R., York, C. S., Atkinson, M., & Murtagh, J. (in press). What sunshine is to flowers: A literature review on the use of emoticons to support online learning. To appear in Emotions, Design, Learning, and Technology. Elsevier. 

Kaplan, M., Dollar, B., Melian, V., Van Durme, Y., & Wong, J. (2016). Human capital trends 2016 survey. Oakland, CA: Deloitte University Press. Retrieved from

Lacerenza, C. N., Marlow, S. L., Tannenbaum, S. I., & Salas, E. (2018). Team development interventions: Evidence-based approaches for improving teamwork. American Psychologist, 73(4), 517-531. doi:10.1037/amp0000295

Getting the Truth into Workplace Surveys (2002). Palmer Morrel-Samuels

Employee Surveys Are Still One of the Best Ways to Measure Engagement (2018). Scott Judd, Eric O’Rourke, and Adam Grant.


Dr. Jeb S. Hurley
Dr. Jeb S. Hurley
Dr. Jeb Hurley is an accomplished executive and entrepreneur who is a leading expert on team dynamics and high-performance leadership. Jeb guides leaders in understanding and influencing human behavior to deliver better results and greater wellbeing. He is co-founder and CEO of Xmetryx, Inc., the creator of TrustMetryx software, and Co-founder and Managing Partner of Brainware Partners, a team dynamics consultancy. Jeb is a two-time author and holds a Doctorate in Organizational Leadership.

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