I remember the moment when I realized that I had failed to provide effective feedback to a junior officer on my staff as I gave her unexpected feedback on her performance. This young Captain sat before me in shock when I gave her a less than glowing evaluation. She said, “You never told me that I was not a top performer.” As we continued the conversation and I gave her examples of where her performance was not up to par, it was clear to me that she didn’t know that she wasn’t the superstar performer she thought she was. This was a revelation to me as I had to face the reality that it was foremost my responsibility to make sure the people I led understood how well they were or were not performing. I vowed that day to never let that happen to one of my people again.
Giving real and honest feedback to employees is one of the most important things that leaders can do for their people, but too often we find excuses not to do it. The problem we introduce when we fail to fulfill what I consider one of our fundamental responsibilities as a leader is that we expect our people to perform at their very best but we do little to educate them on where they are consistently falling short of our expectations. Tangible, honest feedback is essential to helping those we lead grow into their best selves. In my experience, creating a culture of routine, value-added performance feedback can be as easy as counting to 1-2-3.
Rule #1: Create a Culture that Supports Candid and Effective Feedback
Be sure to let your staff know what you are doing, why and how the feedback process will work. This way when people see “feedback session” on a schedule they do not think they are in trouble. In other words, by consistently communicating the importance of providing feedback for the purpose of helping people move in the direction of their dreams, goals and desires, leaders help people understand the session is mean to be positive, not punitive. In simplest terms, think of a feedback session as a catalyst for courageous conversation. A technique I use to help reinforce this objective is to sit beside the person rather than across the table from them. This helps them feel more comfortable, helps me come across as friendly, and reduces the authoritative stance of sitting across the table.
Rule #2: Use a Consistent Structure
I use a simple structure that consists of three areas: the person’s strengths, areas to develop and areas to focus on. In all cases I tie the feedback to a concrete example of something they did or into a product that they will remember. This enables me to be specific about the behaviors you or others observed and their impact.
• In identifying strengths also give examples of how they can capitalize on them in current or future projects. Giving recognition feedback is food for the soul.
• Focusing on areas to work on ensures the feedback is presented in a constructive, contextualized manner. People shouldn’t have to guess about what they might do differently to effectively (and more positively) deal with a situation in the future. Be specific about behaviors you’ve observed and the impact (time, energy, cost, etc.) they have on the team/division/command.
• Be clear about areas to focus on. Identify what you want them to focus on for the next 6 months on specific projects or in attaining their larger goals. This allows you to influence their efforts and align their strengths in the areas of greatest potential improvement. Help them visualize how they might address areas they want to enhance.
• It is very important to do this in writing. With the written feedback in front of them, they can clearly absorb what is being said and won’t have to worry themselves with taking notes. They can also read it later and reflect what is said.
Rule #3: Consider Upward Feedback
I also use feedback sessions to solicit feedback from my staff to understand what I can do to help them, help their staff, and help the organization overall. When you solicit upward feedback, be sure you are really listening. Quiet your mind and seek to understand the perspective of the other person. Soliciting upward feedback also shows that you value their input. Do not discount this. They will feel valued if they have your ear, your heart, and your time and you have the right motive.
Lincoln Andrews, West Point Faculty Member under MacArthur said, “The leader must have time to listen to his men. It is easy to look important and say, ‘I haven’t got time,’ but each time the leader does it, he drives one more nail in the coffin of the team spirit whose life he should really be cherishing.”
Remember, effective feedback is the breakfast of champions.