Feedback: It Shouldn’t Be A Guessing Game

When I was growing up, I loved The Price is Right. It may have been my favorite show. The combination of luck, timing, and strategy, along with the idea that the contestants were ordinary people, like me, contending for “huge” prizes, was enough to keep me humming the theme song day in and day out. There was one particular game that stood out to me: The Race Game. In The Race Game, a contestant was shown 4 different household items and four different prices, and then asked to match each price with its corresponding item. They had 45 seconds to do this. Once they were done, they could pull a lever down and lock in their prices. If they locked in all the correct prices, the contestant won a new car. If not, a buzzer would ring and they would have a small amount of time to go change around their match-ups. Here is the kicker—the contestant was not told which items were correct, and they only had a few chances (and limited time) to make changes. This is probably why I enjoyed this particular game—the unknowns, the pressure, the guessing—these made the game more thrilling and exhilarating, for me as a viewer. But can you imagine how hectic and nerve-racking this must have been for the contestant; you have somehow been selected out of a huge pool of potential contestants, earned your way through the “One Bid” round, and now you have the chance to possibly win a car. But with each lock in, and each dismal buzzer, you have no clue if you are one match up, or 3 match-ups away from losing that car. You have no idea if you are on the right track, if you have done anything right, what you are missing, where you are wrong—you just know that you have failed at the end goal.  I vividly remember seeing the frustration on contestants’ faces when that buzzer went off. They must have agonized: “What did I get wrong?!”

I’ve seen this same exact exasperation in organizations that lack proper feedback.

Psychological scientist and management experts agree: feedback is likely the most important aspect of management. Feedback drives performance, enhances professional development, increases organizational efficiency, and, when delivered in the appropriate form, enhances employee work satisfaction. And yet, according to a recent survey conducted by PwC, less than 30% of employees receive consistent feedback from peers and managers. So, what gives? Why are we so afraid of providing feedback? Is it that we are catering to a more sensitive generation? Is it that we are afraid to have those tough, scary, honest conversations? Is it because we know that, in many circumstances, our subordinate’s failures are in part our own? Do we as managers and team members care more about staying in our comfort zone than creating a thriving team? Has feedback been placed on the back burner because there are simply “more important things to do” as a company? Regardless of the reason for avoiding feedback there is tremendous evidence that, in its absence, there are dramatic negative effects on professional development, relationships, and organizational functioning.

Do we as managers and team members care more about staying in our comfort zone than creating a thriving team?

The truth is, when executed properly, feedback can be the most rewarding and beneficial asset to both individual employees, management, and the organization as a whole. Most of the top performing companies in the world got that way through self-realization, self-examination, and adaptation. When things go wrong or fail, or even if we just fall short, it is crucial to analyze our process, methods, attitudes, and performance- and we do so through feedback.

Here are some of the key ideas the best leaders and organizations remember when they practice feedback.

Figure Out the Why

In order to get the most out of a feedback process, it is important to understand why we give it. The basic and fundamental goals of providing feedback are to:

•   Affirm strengths and capitalize on wins

•   Point out areas of weakness or areas to improve upon.

•   Assess the team member’s ability to fulfill their role and responsibilities.

•   Evaluate progress towards goals.

•   Determine the team member’s impact on others.

Although these sound obvious, without a proper feedback model, most organizations are in the dark when it comes to these basic areas.

When you consider that most of these serve to assess the employee’s fitness and overall employment, it is surprising that we would ignore conversations and communications about them. When a team member is terminated, or voluntarily leaves, it is generally a result of their inability or poor standing in one of the areas above. In the case of a struggling employee, you are failing as a manager if you do not consistently provide feedback in these areas.

The benefits are not solely limited to situations where improvement is needed- it also serves to build and capitalize on team members who are strong performers. Recognition of a job well done continues to be one of the biggest motivators in the workplace. When people do well, they want to hear about it, it is human instinct. In fact, a recent study by Gallup found that almost 70% of employees say they would work harder if their hard work was recognized. This solidifies the notion that, when we do not provide feedback as managers, we are not only missing out on correcting and improving current weaknesses, but also failing to build on the qualities and wins of our best people.

Delivery and Execution

An organization that does not provide feedback is setting itself up for failure; however, an organization that provides feedback in the wrong form, or at the wrong time, can be just as much at risk. It is important to remember that how you give feedback is just as important as whether or not you give it, and this is especially true for corrective feedback.

When leaders provide feedback, the number one thing you can do to prepare is check your emotions at the door. Having a bad morning? Drained from putting out fires? Feeling overwhelmed with family issues? Frustrated with a customer issue? Do not let outside issues poison your feedback model. When you provide a team member with feedback, it is about them- do not let outside issues influence your interactions with them when discussing their progress, performance or attitude.

Another key element of an effective feedback model is specificity. Remember, the goal of providing feedback to our team members is to help them grow, learn, and succeed in order to produce very specific results. Instead of telling a direct report they need to “communicate better”, point out precise examples where communication was lacking. I try to follow a simple model:

 •  What is the action?

    •  What are the consequences of the action?

    •  How can it be changed or corrected?

By pointing out specific occurrences and actions, there are no assumptions or doubt about what action is being discussed. Being specific in your feedback decreases subjectivity and speculation, which helps team members to understand the facts. It is also imperative that you point out specific consequences of the action, both good and bad. The employee needs to know the effects, both direct and indirect, their actions have on you as a manager, the company, and the employee themselves. Lastly, and most important; offer a solution or corrective measure for the team member. Simply pointing out issues, defects, or behaviors does not fulfill your role as the manager. It is your job to ensure team members have the tools and solutions necessary to succeed. By offering a solution or corrective action, you are fulfilling the role of a leader, rather than just a boss.

Another key aspect of executing proper feedback is effective listening. Especially in situations where negative feedback is being provided, it is crucial to allow the team member to explain or discuss their point of view, or their side of the story. Leaders who listen to their people can instill trust and transparency in their relationships, which helps to build and propagate loyalty. Often you will find that listening to your direct reports will provide an alternate point of view—one that may help to explain, diagnose, and eventually correct behaviors or actions in need of adjustment.

“Leaders who listen to their people can instill trust and transparency in their relationships, which helps to build and propagate loyalty.”

The When and Where

I have read a lot of management books. I have been to many management trainings, attended lectures, and been exposed to various types of management in different organizations. One practice that I confidently disagree with is the annual performance review. My distaste isn’t derived from the effort it takes to put together reviews for all direct reports (usually at the busiest time of the year); and it is not the amount of meetings and resource allocation that is drained. I simply do not like them for one reason: they are ineffective.

Imagine you manage a team member who is great at what she does, the clients love her, she brings in a fair amount of revenue, but she seems to be careless when it comes to the grammar of her emails. Or maybe you have someone on your team who is very committed, great with data management, extremely organized, but lacks in accounting skills (something that he really needs to be at his highest potential).

If you operate under an “annual review” feedback basis, and you somehow carelessly neglect the feedback process the entire year, how will these employees know there is anything wrong? Furthermore, are you ok, as a manager or an organization, with letting sloppy, unprofessional, negative behavior or actions continue to happen for up to a year before pointing them out? Annual performance evaluations proverbially bottle up emotions, and they allow problems, attitudes, and behaviors to fester.

Instead, feedback should be given ALL THE TIME- in meetings, in weekly one-on-ones, in emails–as often and continuous as possible. It is important, however, to understand the sensitive nature of negative feedback and its effect on morale and confidence (if provided in an improper setting). While I believe giving affirmations and positive feedback in front of a group carries many benefits, I would never offer negative feedback to a direct in front of his/her peers. It is important to be very prompt in your feedback– regardless of the nature. When instances and experiences are fresh in the minds of a resource, they are much more likely to accept, understand, and capitalize on the feedback based on these occurrences.

For those of you in the supply chain industry, you could compare this continuous feedback model to an inventory cycle count. Traditional physical inventories are done once or twice a year. Plants usually shut down completely for 2-3 days, and employees perform a count for the entire warehouse. Not only does this have dramatic effects on labor cost, but production (thus revenue) takes a hit during the shutdown as well. Additionally, because the counts are so far apart, the possibility of inventory variance, inaccurate counts, and other substantial issues are dramatically increased. By performing cycle counts once a month, organizations keep the inventory counts fresh and accurate, while avoiding the drain on time and resources (as well as production shutdown). So, by providing feedback to your team members constantly, rather than a few times a year, allows for more communication and discussion with your directs, and translates into increased opportunity for growth, improvement, and success.

Regardless of where and when you deliver the feedback, another essential piece is to remain consistent with your feedback- both positive and negative. If, in the past, you have chastised certain behaviors or actions– it is imperative that you do not make exceptions for these situations due to variables such as mood, resource, current company health, etc. For instance, let’s say you have made it clear to a team member that being late is unacceptable. You have had several discussions concerning this behavior and it is understood. A couple months later, one of the more senior team members starts coming in late, but nothing is mentioned. This type of scenario breeds resentment and distrust. These types of inconsistencies in feedback will likely result in even more issues than you originally started with.

From Every Direction

Most of the time, when feedback is discussed, it is in the context of a manager providing feedback for one of his/her team members. But this brings up a good question—if we are passionate about providing employees with feedback and solutions (from a different point of view) in order to help them change for the better, shouldn’t we be asking the same from them? Feedback is not a one way street. Every organization should actively engage in feedback up the ladder, down the ladder, and unilaterally in order to provide the most comprehensive analysis of managers, team members, and peers.

One of the things I try to do on an ongoing basis is ask my team members for feedback. I value each and every one of my directs—and I rely on them on a daily basis (just as they rely on me). At my company, we hire passionate and intelligent people—only the best. We do not hire team members of this caliber to have them sit and be quiet. Their ideas, innovations, pushbacks, concerns, and visions are not only welcomed, but EXPECTED. This includes constructive discussions on our relationship, and my management. The only way that I can get better as a leader is to ensure my team is getting everything they expect out of me, and more. Hiring smart people and ignoring their ideas and feedback is like buying a Ferrari and letting it sit in a garage. Something that I have had to get better at is taking in feedback from my team without getting defensive. What I have found is this; if you trust your team, and they trust you, the mutual feedback process is ultimately built on each party’s desire for the other to improve, and ultimately succeed.

“Hiring smart people and ignoring their ideas and feedback is like buying a Ferrari and letting it sit in a garage.”

One of the most controversial topics in this arena is peer to peer feedback. If performed correctly, peer reviews can be very beneficial for a team’s growth and success. If you do plan to initiate peer reviews, it is best to go with a structured method of feedback collection, such as the 360 feedback surveys. By providing proper dialect around the meaning and purpose of these reviews, along with assuring their anonymity, most team members are able to understand the value of the exercise, and generally will end up taking away valuable feedback. However, other forms of unstructured peer feedback have a history of spurring resentment, malice, and distrust among team members. It is crucial that you supplement any form of peer review with a thorough background discussion and proper format and execution.

We have discussed feedback from the top, and from below, as well as lateral feedback. This leaves the most significant form of feedback an organization can receive: CUSTOMER FEEDBACK. I could easily write a book on this, so I will save that for another piece; but know, that if you are not having honest and blunt conversations with your customers about your relationship, product, service, delivery, and overall status with them—you are doing it wrong. Most customers will be honest with you if you ask. In fact, most of your customers are likely stewing in their complaints silently; according to a recent study, for every customer who bothers to complain, 26 other customers remain silent. The onus is on the organization to reach out to the customer and ensure they are being treated properly and expectations are being met. And the best part about this process—most of the customers will respect and appreciate the mere act of checking in on them.

“If you are not having honest and blunt conversations with your customers about your relationship, product, service, delivery, and overall status with them—you are doing it wrong.”

As companies continue to improve and innovate, standing out amongst the crowd will be vital to winning and onboarding unique and passionate talent. Adopting and perfecting a structured feedback model for your organization will help secure one piece of the puzzle. Do not be the company that leaves your people “fearing the dismal buzzer”.