The Lost Art of Giving (Negative) Feedback

Feedback Pic

Earlier in my military career, a respected mentor of mine commented that “the Army has lost the art of giving negative feedback.” That statement resonated with me and has stuck with me for years since then. From my experience, Army leaders either fail to provide quality feedback to their subordinates intended to improve them, or do so in an ineffective and destructive manner (which undermines the ultimate purpose). We either are too afraid to have the hard conversations, fail to make time to provide feedback, or (worst case) we out right don’t value developing members of our team or organization with feedback. No matter the reason, it is our subordinates who suffer because a critical aspect of their leader development is missing.

I want to provide some in-depth reflection on the topic of “feedback,” based on both my professional experience as well as recent formal education. Below are my thoughts on effective feedback, which include lessons to consider and tips to incorporate into your own feedback methods.

My reflections are predicated on the assumption that quality feedback requires considerable time and effort. Like rehearsing for an important briefing, providing feedback takes deliberate preparation and rehearsing. It also takes courage to have hard conversations, which many shy away from

Feedback is an important component to leader development. Though it may not be an identified component to your unit’s formal and codified Leader Development Program, that program will certainly be lacking without incorporating an effective feedback system.

Defining Feedback

I believe the best definition of feedback is objective information about someone’s performance. The key word in the definition is objective. Subjective assessments of someone like “you’re doing a poor job,” “you’re lazy,” or “I appreciate the hard work you’ve been putting in,” are not constructive comments that bring value to your evaluation of a subordinates’ performance. It is for this reason that military evaluations need to incorporate quantifiable results for the evaluated person’s performance.

Feedback serves to provide two primary functions for those who receive it: instruction and motivation. Feedback is instructional as it clarifies roles, responsibilities, expectations, and/or teaches new behavior. It is also motivational when it serves as a reward or promises an extrinsic reward; merely receiving a positive and reinforcing comment on a challenging project or task alone can serve as a type of reward.

Ultimately, feedback materializes in a variety of ways, which is especially true for the military. The most common method of providing feedback are evaluation reports. However, other methods are just as effective in providing feedback, though these often are seen as routine “check-the-block” requirements rather than opportunities to provide valuable feedback. Counseling is feedback; this is for both routine counseling (initial, monthly, quarterly) and event-related (evaluating performance following major training events). Feedback can (and should) be informal as well. Feedback is given and received during sensing sessions, informal interactions with members of your organization on a daily basis, and during your Leadership by Wandering Around (LBWA) time.

It is important to note, however, that one aspect of military feedback will always be subjective. We are required to enumerate subordinates on their evaluations when comparing them to their pool of peers in the organization. The critical challenge is basing that subjective assessment from you (the leader) on as much objective supporting data as possible. That way, the evaluated subordinate can best understand why they are ranked that way (i.e. a platoon leader being assessed as #5 of 21 LTs in the battalion based on: platoon PT scores, maintenance operational readiness level maintained, squads’ performance placing at the battalion’s squad stakes competition, ratio of Soldiers qualified at the weapon qualification range they were charged in running, etc.).

Recipient Considerations: Are They Ready, Willing, and Able?

Organizational hierarchy alone is not enough to validate your feedback to members of your team or organization. Your structured superior-subordinate, boss-employee, and leader-follower relationship is not going to automatically make your feedback to someone valuable or credible. One major consideration you need to always be aware of are recipient considerations. Such considerations can include their characteristics, such as their self-efficacy (their belief in their ability to succeed or accomplish a task), amount of time served in the organization, experience level, their inherent motivation, and so on. Another consideration is the recipient’s “cognitive evaluation” of your feedback. They have their own opinions of the organization’s system fairness (such as performance evaluations), performance-reward expectancies, and reasonableness of standards; likely their views on such influencing aspects are different from yours, and will alter how they perceive your feedback.

As you prepare for your feedback session, take these (and similar) recipient considerations into mind to ensure your comments and overall session are effective.

Lessons to Consider for Improved Feedback. Though I provide recommended tips to providing feedback below, there are also some critical lessons to consider when preparing and structuring your feedback. These lessons are from a large base of “organizational behavior” research in studying feedback provided within professional settings.

  • Feedback acceptance from the subordinate should not be considered as a given; it is often misperceived or rejected. This is most highly applicable in intercultural situations.
  • You, as a manager or leader, can improve your credibility as a source of feedback by developing your expertise of your subordinate’s work and responsibility, and creating a climate of trust.
  • Negative feedback is generally misperceived or rejected. How you provide and structure this type of feedback is critical to encourage accurate reception.
  • Feedback needs to be tailored to the recipient. Cookie-cutter feedback will quickly erode trust.
  • As you can assume, explicit feedback is too infrequent in most organizations. Formal feedback systems are usually lacking in quality, if they exist at all.
  • Average and below-average performers need extrinsic rewards for performance (tangible rewards or incentives). High performers respond to feedback that enhances their feelings of competence and personal control (intrinsic reward).
  • People perceive the feedback you provide them as more accurate when they actively participate in the feedback session versus passively receiving it. Ensure you address each point through a discussion. “To be effective, feedback needs to be two-way, engaging, responsive, and directed towards a desired outcome” (quote from Richard Diedrich of The Hay Group, via The Psychology of Executive Coaching). 
  • The higher one rises in an organization, the less likely they are to receive quality feedback (if any at all) about job performance. Thus, it is important for you to appropriately take the initiative and seek it out.

Feedback Tips. Finally, I want to conclude with six tips to consider when providing feedback to members of your team or organization. These stem from a combination of my experience and recent education in organizational behavior / development.

  • Focus on performance, not personality or “general impressions.”
  • Feedback must be founded on accurate and credible information. Similar to general impressions above, feedback content needs to be objective and tied to tangible events or information that the subject and turn to for a better understanding of the criticism you are providing.
  • Feedback needs to be specific, and linked to goals. This is in line with the theory of SMART goals (goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, results oriented, and time bound). Goals can be a combination of performance and/or learning based.
  • Feedback must be timely. Late feedback is about as valuable as ignoring subordinate destructive behavior. Though challenging on a routine basis, making the time to provide feedback in a timely manner following a specific event or deliverable is important. The same applies for routine feedback opportunities like monthly, quarterly, or initial counseling. Doing those late or in a rushed and last-minute fashion shows your subordinate that this (their development) is not important to you.
  • Provide feedback to coach towards improvement, not just for final results. Feedback is not meant just as an “After Action Review (AAR)” tool following key events or a deliverable. Feedback can and should be provided over time to direct growth, celebrate small wins and improvement, and encourage continuous development.
  • Pair feedback with clear expectations for improvement. Telling someone they are falling short here or can improve there needs to be followed by a discussion on how. This is the essential part to providing feedback as a leader.

Picture credit

3 thoughts on “The Lost Art of Giving (Negative) Feedback

  1. Great ideas to think about. I’ve often struggled with how to have the tough conversations. I have a hard time stopping myself from framing the conversation in negative terms (e.g. “I don’t like…”, “stop doing…”, or “don’t do…”).

    I’ve decided to do my best to couch the conversation in positive ideas with the goal of getting better. Sometimes I use the rhetorical device of comparing strengths and weaknesses. What does the junior think are his or her strengths and weaknesses? What do I think their strengths and weaknesses are? How do they want to be better? How can I help them be better? Often we see things the same way. Simply getting the idea out in the open makes it much easier to discuss. I think it is especially true if the conversation is less of a correction and more of a starting point for improvement.

    Like

  2. Good and concise article. I find that time is most valuable. Like Christmas shopping, don’t wait till the last minute. If you see something in June that you know your significant other will like, get it then and stash it away till the holiday. If you wait till the last minute, the recipient can tell you didn’t put a lot into the effort. Same goes for gathering content about your team members. When you observe the behavior, make notes (preferably written) and stash away for the time when it’s appropriate to give the feedback. This of course takes time, organization, and effort, but the quality usually turns out much better.

    The part about gaining expertise in your subordinate’s job I would say cannot always be realistic in what Peter Drucker refers to as our “knowledge worker” environment. Some jobs become so technical that leader is unable to effectively gauge the quality of the work. For example, if you hire a web programmer, say even as a contractor, and you don’t really know the job (that’s why you hired it out, right?), then you’re at a real disadvantage for providing solid feedback. It’s not like you can say, “Oh, wow, what clean code you wrote there,” when you have no idea. Sure, you can look at the results…but again, much can be hidden behind a sloppy job. Kind of like a dishonest auto mechanic who bills excessive hours for a job that took less than one hour. How do you know? Trust is key.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s