The Likert scale is killing your developmental feedback


The Likert scale is a commonly used question structure in surveys, in which the survey taker is asked to rate their agreement/disagreement with a series of statements on a 5-point scale ranging from “Strongly Disagree” to “Strongly Agree.” For the purpose of this post, I’ll expand the definition a bit to also include:

  • The more “direct” version which asks for a 1-5 rating on a certain attribute/prompt
  • The more “indirect” version which replaces the wording with a “Focus on Least” to “Focus on Most” scale,  or any other set of labels.
  • Any variation in the number ratings: 7 is the second most common variation, after 5, but some prefer an even number of ratings to force survey-takers to choose a non-neutral answer.

The Likert scale is also commonly used in feedback forms that are aimed at driving continuous improvement and development at the organizational and personal levels, such as employee engagement surveys and performance/effectiveness reviews.

To understand the challenge of using the Likert scale in that context we need to first make a distinction between three types of feedback, courtesy of the folks at Triad Consulting:

  • Praise (appreciation) – aimed at showing the receiver that you see their good work and connect, motivate and thank them for it.
  • Coaching (developmental) – aimed at helping the receiver expand their knowledge, sharpen a skill or improve a capability.
  • Evaluation (assessment) – rating or ranking against a standard aimed at helping the receiver align their expectations and know where they stand.

One of the fundamental elements of Quantum Mechanics is a principle known as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. In simple terms, it states that there’s a limit to the precision by which certain pairs of properties of a particle can be known (measured) at the same time. For example, the more precisely you’ll measure a particle’s speed, you’ll know its momentum less accurately.

It’s been my experience that a similar relationship exists between developmental and assessment feedback. The more accurate evaluatory feedback you give, the less effective it will be as a developmental feedback. And the more accurate developmental feedback you give, the less effectively it can be used to assess someone’s current performance.

With these ideas in mind, we can now make our case: the Likert scale is an evaluatory construct since it produces an absolute rating which is then compared to a standard: historical ratings, peer ratings, or a threshold (above “3.5” is “good”). But if our goal is to learn, if our goal is to help people and organizations improve and develop – we may be hurting ourselves by using it.

So what’s the alternative? Good question. Properly phrased open-ended questions can effectively be used to provide developmental feedback, but they are very costly to design, and they are very costly to answer. I suspect that some of the motivation for using the Likert scale structure, to begin with, was the fact that it’s very lightweight. A good alternative might be stack-ranking the various attributes that we may have used a Likert scale for in the past. For example: from the one we should focus the most on to the one we should focus the least on. This approach moves us from the absolute to the relative and therefore, while not perfect, does avoid some of the common pitfalls with the old solution.

The Likert scale is killing your developmental feedback

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