Engagement – Feedback for starters

This was first published in The Huffington Post 24/01/2014.

Ken Blanchard wrote “feedback is the food of champions”. This eloquent summary of the power of feedback makes it difficult to understand why organisations do not invest more heavily in creating an environment rich in high quality feedback. Feedback is the starter, main course and dessert of high performance.  We should be spending more time investing in feedback and here’s why:

Business is done by people

It’s a truism that business is done by people as Tom Peters, the management guru, often said “people are our greatest asset”. You can have the best systems, processes, and procedures in the world and somewhere along the line people will be involved. An individual or individuals can have a phenomenal impact on a business – think of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson and all the unknown heroes in business.

People can also destroy a business – think of Gerald Ratner; reflect on the mistakes made by people that led to so many deaths as a result of the explosion at Bhopal.
We have a choice: We can either develop our assets in a way that gets the best value for their benefit, the benefit of the business and the benefit of the customers, or we can simply deny ourselves this resource. Whilst you might be lucky and have some people who are motivated to pursue a journey of continuous self development surely it is better to do what we can to help everyone improve what they do?

The way to do this is by monitoring performance against specific objectives, and by giving and receiving feedback to help improve that performance. It’s people that will find the better way of doing things. It’s people that have to follow processes and procedures. It’s people that will drive growth and increase productivity. It’s people like you and people like us.

A fix of feedback

We were briefing a group of 20 managers who were helping us run a workshop the following day. As we continued to speak we had no idea whether anyone was listening to what we had to say, let alone whether they agreed or disagreed. Because of the short notice we had to do the briefing via a telephone conference call and with so many managers, and the limitations of a telephone call, there was not much opportunity for interactivity. It might not sound much, but the complete absence of feedback felt awful, we had no frame of reference as to whether we were being successful.

If you are unsure how important feedback is – try doing something important involving others without any insight into how well you are doing.

Silence is not golden

We’ve been in business for a long time and over the years we’ve bid for many pieces of work. This experience has taught us that if you’ve won the work – you can expect communication quickly and lots of it – it’s good news all round and everybody is very excited. Occasionally we are not successful and with this the phone-call or email confirms what we already knew. We knew because when its bad news no one wants to give it and as a result there can be quite a delay from submitting the proposal and hearing the response.

Why is it that people struggle to give bad news? What do they think we are going to do? It’s the same way in business, you can be sure something is not right, not because of what people are saying, but by the absence of communication. The problem is exacerbated when people ‘fill-in’ the lack of communication with their own interpretation, which makes a series of assumptions in order to make sense of the silence. These assumptions can often become the source of conflict at a later date.

To illustrate this, we were doing some work with a company where the business was in dire straits, and the management team set about implementing some severe cost cutting measures, including a reduction in terms and conditions. Afraid of the response they would receive from the front line, the management team wrote a statement to be read to the front line staff by the local manager. In the absence of more information, the staff drew their own conclusions – the business was being asset stripped and managers and owners were ‘hiding something’. This singular failure in communication led to a heavily unionised workforce. These consequences were a real shame given the hard work by the senior people in the business to ensure the on-going viability of the business.  The point is this, feedback is information; it’s what we do with that information that either helps or hinders performance.

We love numbers

You can count the best feedback, whether it’s a cyclist measuring power output using watts, a skilled coach using an ordinal 1 to 10 scale to help someone figure out how well they are doing, or an improvement in customer ratings – numbers allow you to measure change. With a measure in place it is then possible to review performance over time.

Almost anything can be measured. For example, employee morale might be measured using an engagement survey, or by the levels of absenteeism and employee turnover. These might not be perfect measuring tools but they do provide an indication of whether things are improving. The link between sport and business is often tenuous, but when it comes to using numbers to measure performance we can learn a lot from the successes experienced by elite athletes. The great thing about numbers is they are just another source of information and are neither good nor bad. It’s the discussion about why the numbers are as they are that leads to insight and opportunities for learning.

You can perhaps see why responses to the question “how am I doing?” such as “good” or “fine” offer frustration rather than insight. They offer very little frame of reference.

A year of nonsense

Imagine leaving Edinburgh to drive to London to go to see a show. It’s about 405 miles and will take approximately 7 hours. Would you drive for 7 hours before checking you were on the right route? Would you drive 3 hours? Of course not, you would probably be checking throughout the journey. As you leave the city centre your checks would be very regular because of the complexity of road systems, once on the motorway you may settle into the journey and check far less frequently.

The sole aim of these checks is to ensure you are on track and heading in the right direction. In the event you make a mistake, because the checks have been frequent it is spotted early and remedial action is easy to take. If your progress is faster than anticipated you can contemplate building in additional stops or plan how best to use the additional time you will have available.

An annual review is like checking you made it to London. If all you do is an annual review then you may well find months of wasted effort and the amount of remedial action required is too much and therefore the objectives are abandoned. It’s akin to realising you will have to drive for an additional 3 hours to get back on track, by which time you will have missed the show.

It’s not the annual review that drives performance; it’s the regular checks taken throughout the year that help deliver high performance. The amount of checking and the frequency will depend on the activity in which you are engaged. For some activities, it may be the smallest of steps are reviewed regularly.

We can be smarter than simply giving more feedback. The overwhelming evidence from the literature is that feedback that is attributed to specific behavioural causes, rather than non-specific causes, helps people identify what they can do to improve (London & Smither 2002). For example, think about the words you use when talking to one of your team about their underperformance. Be specific, be clear and make it actionable, this will be far more helpful than saying, “you need to do better”.

The wisdom of age

Years ago, one of us started out our working life as a bank clerk and one evening whilst sat with their Grandmother, they explained an exciting new opportunity that had been offered to them. According to the Branch Manager the opportunity would be “good experience” and the sagacious old lady asked her grandchild “experience for what?”

This analogy demonstrates that feedback exists for a purpose; feedback is information about the consequence of an input to a given task. Feedback for the sake of feedback is about as useful as a chocolate fireguard. It has to relate to something.

You made me angry

So why is it we tend to be willing only to deliver the nice messages? More often than not it is our fear of how people might react. There’s a great quote, originating from a comment made by Eleanor Roosevelt that “no-one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” In other words, we are not responsible for the way others choose to feel, how someone reacts to feedback is their choice, and will in part reflect their motivations. Responses such as “You made me angry” or “you made me cry” are nonsense and this is probably the hardest thing to get to grips with. How you respond is a choice. However, it is your responsibility to think about the way you communicate the message and to consider the impact you may have.

We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the way something is phrased can help it to be accepted; careful phrasing, tone of voice, empathy and the context in which it is said all contribute.  For example, giving someone feedback about underperformance in front of colleagues may not get the same level of attention as giving the same feedback one-to-one in a meeting room or over a coffee.  London and Smither (2002), in examination of the role of feedback in the performance management process, make a distinction between those who seek feedback in order to become more competent in what they are doing, and those who seek feedback in order to work out how well they are doing in relation to others. The latter group will be more sensitive to the environment in which the feedback is given. Similarly, shouting at someone is more likely to elicit an emotional response rather than talking clearly to them.

Someone who’s experiencing a tough time due to a host of factors such as problems at home and or health difficulties may struggle to take on board feedback effectively. To use the jargon, their “attentional resources” may be maxed out. So pick your moment.

Growing a feedback culture

Think of it like growing penicillin in a petri dish – it needs the right environment and if given this it will thrive, and rapidly spread and grow. If someone is introduced to feedback carefully and in the right quantities and in a manner that enables them to improve their performance the reward is a continuous learning process. As self-knowledge and self-awareness improves over time so too does self-confidence. It is a virtuous circle.

It takes time to build the trust for your feedback to be accepted. Be prepared to invest the time and effort to build the relationship to enable effective two way feedback.

The implication of this is the need to practice both giving and receiving feedback. The more you deliberately practice, i.e. consciously work out what you can do to improve the quality of the feedback you give, the more likely you will be to foster a feedback culture.

As with most things in business – it helps if those people in senior positions act as role models and showcase best practice. It’s no excuse for not providing excellent feedback and being open to feedback yourself, but it helps if the leaders in the business lead by example.

The evidence of Dahling and O’Malley (2011) makes it clear that an organisation that has a culture of supportive feedback will be more likely to have higher levels of trust, less ambiguity about what’s expected of people, and greater levels of job satisfaction as well as a higher morale.

It’s about goals

Here’s the exciting bit. If you really want to understand the most significant driver of performance in business – it’s setting goals. We’ve written about this elsewhere and the message is clear. People who are set hard goals outperform people who are set difficult or easy goals. All goal-setting is better than having no goals; great goals alone can be sufficient to drive up performance. If people are set the right goals, the performance management process helps enable them to succeed.
Poor quality or no goals and the performance management system become an exercise in futility and time wasting.

The right goal can be motivating and inspiring and will drive a desire for feedback. You know it’s a great goal when it’s both scary and exciting at the same time. So begin with the end in mind. Inspire people with a cracking objective along with an environment rich in feedback and watch performance flourish.

Dominic Irvine & Johanna Clarie 23rd January 2014 All rights asserted.