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Feedback - friend or friendly fire?

Steve Carter, Professor of Marketing

Faculty Blog

'We seek it here, we seek it there, we seek that feedback everywhere' (with apologies to The Kinks!). Having just returned from overseas MBA teaching, and having bought some rather large household items since, I have been bombarded by companies wishing to 'engage' with me. Hotels, airlines, online services, you name it, all wanting to know 'how did we do'?

I blame it on the HRM literature which seems to have been full of 'engagement' over the last 20 years or so, but it has now 'leaked' into all disciplines, including marketing with its 'customer relationship management' and such like. BUT, in the rush to 'engage', how many of us, as consumers, labour under the illusion that all feedback is good or even needed? Isn't it supposed to lead to an organisation providing better service, innovating, and developing employees? Yes indeed, but how many times does the organisation want 'feedback'? Do they act on all of it? And what about the 'dark side' to feedback? It all depends on your definition of 'engagement'.

Engagement cannot be easily defined. It can be a multidimensional construct, involving personality and behaviour and may well be 'socially constructed'. Engagement works at several levels, the individual and organisational level: the 'dark side' may lurk anywhere! For example, I may be ultra-involved when the engagement has repercussions on my job, I may be less so when the engagement has to do with the organisation.

Even further, just exactly what are the goals of engagement - motivational, rational or emotional? An even darker side lurks here! It all comes down to 'power' does it not? Engagement initiatives are influenced by various motives, and even participation in the initiative can be an expression of 'the power'. Expressions of 'the power' are evidenced in numerous ways, for example, by the carefully worded feedback document (look at the time it took to word the Brexit and Scottish Independence Referenda) or by subsequent, often unwanted, organisational activity (increasing selling 'bombardment' when the feedback form is filled in). Even the ordinary person can wield 'the power', for example, negative publicity (hotel feedback internet sites) and so on. So, feedback: friend or friendly fire?

Is there another way to understand the constant feedback quest, which can often be seen as 'definitive' and one-dimensional and then becomes a procedural barrier to constructive debate? I think so. Whatever the organisation or setting, as a president of one of the most successful and productive research institutes put it: 'think of the organisation as a crucible not a crib.' Feedback can only make the crib look better. But a crucible, comprising all stakeholders' constant, constructive and rigorous debate, melts the crib and produces a totally new and better concept. Surely this way makes your organisation and the resultant product and services so attractive, that you may make feedback virtually redundant anyway?