This is part 7 of the 3×5 Leader Development Handbook. I encourage you to start with the introduction here if you have not yet.
I believe too many leaders in the 21st century have lost the art of giving quality and relevant feedback to their people. Such feedback has become a novel experience for so many. In my own experiences within a nine-year career in the Army, I can only recall four instances where I received relevant, eye-opening feedback from a boss or peer that challenged my current ways of thinking and assumptions about my performance. Such feedback cannot be so novel if we desire to become an organization that prioritizes leader development.
This is so challenging, though, because it requires leaders to no longer hide by either using position to be exempt from receiving feedback or not demonstrating the courage to tell the truth about others’ performance. We must demonstrate the candor and care for our people to tell the truth, which makes our 2nd and 3rd generation leaders better and more inspired to keep getting better. This is what leaders “getting in the arena” is about. With practice and time, we become more comfortable in telling the truth to our leaders about their performance, growth, and potential, no longer making it such a novel experience in the work place. Ultimately, we hope that quality feedback (truth shared in love and care for our team members) becomes a commonplace and routine method of leader development that goes up, down, and across the organizational chart.
Feedback is a critical component to developmental counseling, which we introduced as part of developmental communication in part 6 of this Handbook. While setting expectations is the foundation of counseling (leaders must set expectations in order to provide feedback on meeting those expectations), we focus on the challenging topic of feedback within this section of the Handbook.
Counseling, and specifically feedback, are the second method within the 3×5 Leader Development Matrix that we aim to model our developmental process off of, as shown below. When we use the word counseling, we do not mean the profession of clinical or psychology counseling. Developmental counseling, similar to the U.S. Army’s definition, is a process leaders use to outline a subordinate’s initial performance expectations and to routinely review that subordinate’s demonstrated performance and potential.
In determining the essential building blocks of a high-performing and learning organization, as shown below, feedback is the critical foundation that all other elements are formed upon.
- Feedback: Helping our people and our whole organization become more self-aware.
- Coaching as we discussed in part 6 of the Handbook.
- Hiring, on-boarding, & socializing: How we get new members committed to who we are, what we do, how we do it, and why we do it.
- Developmental process & programs: Deliberate individual and/or collective learning and growing activities.
- Recognition & evaluations: Giving necessary credit to those that deserve it and who make us better.
- Promote: Train, equip, empower, and inspire our 2nd and 3rd generation leaders to assume the responsibility of the future of our team and purpose.
What is Feedback
Feedback is information focused on how someone is doing in effort to achieve an established goal, mission, or expectation. It is not advice, praise or recognition, evaluation, or coaching. We all have opportunity to give and receive feedback in our leadership roles; it is imperative to practice and grow in doing both well. Feedback is the primary mechanism to improve our emerging leaders’ self-awareness; there is a positive and direct correlation between leaders’ self-awareness and their level of performance. Leader self-awareness is crucial developmental domain and one I identified within the Leader Development Matrix’s three domains. We have numerous opportunities to give and receive feedback every day.
In his book, Leaders: Myth and Reality, GEN (Ret.) Stanley McChrystal proposes a new definition of leadership, which challenges our century-old assumptions about what leadership is and what leaders do. He claims that leadership is more about being part of a feedback loop within a system of followers and other relevant stakeholders within a specific environment, than it is about being at the top of a command chain or in a formal position.
The Role of Feedback
Feedback fulfills a number of essential roles in our leader development process and our developmental communication:
- The data we receive from feedback is a leader development resource: it provides clarity about our needed changes and insight on how that gap can be closed.
- It motivates our people: feedback leads one to desire to close the gap between their current “self” and their desired self. If a leader, subordinate, or peer showcases the candor and care to share constructive feedback well, it motivates us to rise to the occasion, be the best teammate we can, and improve our leader contributions to the organization. It helps inspire commitment to the team and to getting better, not merely compliance.
- It gives us an understanding where we are now such as strengths, performance and effectiveness measures, and primary needs for development.
- Stimulates us to better evaluate ourselves and ask questions like: what am I doing well? Where do I need to improve? How do others see me? What’s important to me?
- Finally, feedback contributes to the power of leader development because the process, either formal or informal, helps us fully understand our situation and become motivated to capitalize on future learning and leading opportunities.
Key Features and Requirements
As we consider how to best integrate feedback as a quality and routine leader development method within our organization, there are a few features and requirements I recommend to consider:
- Feedback must come multiple sources: up, down, and across the organizational chart. We should aim to create a culture of feedback where we receive it from our boss, peers, subordinates, coaches and mentors, and other stakeholders within our organization. Feedback should become such an integral part of leader development that no one is above receiving it.
- Aim to maximize feedback touchpoints: ensure we integrate constructive feedback in all of our formal, routine developmental communication events like evaluations, initial counseling, routine counseling (monthly or quarterly performance counseling), following key project or training events (like an After-Action Review), mentorship and coaching, 360-degree assessments, goal-setting, etc.
- Demonstrate quality and care: feedback must be driven by a love, care, and concern for those that we provide feedback to. Our words, tone, and intent must communicate: I want to share this feedback because I care deeply about you and our team, and I want to make us the best that we can be; I want to help!
- Relevance: too often, we unintentionally give “low-calorie” feedback. This can be cookie-cutter comments, confusing and unclear thoughts, unfounded speculations, etc. Our feedback must be relevant, well-thought out, and action-oriented.
- Must be done within a safe and supportive environment: we all desire to get better and make our organization better. In order to encourage leaders to not hide, we must foster a culture where we encourage our people to get in the arena, try their hand at new leadership opportunities, and be ok with failing. We follow-through with our leaders in the arena to help and encourage them to learn from their mistakes; it requires both challenge and support.
- We must develop our peoples’ feedback skills: to avoid “low-calorie” feedback, we must educate and coach our teammates how to give high-quality and relevant feedback. One simple model to teach and start with is SBI: rely on communicating the SITUATION, BEHAVIOR, and IMPACT during feedback. So, it can look like, “during (insert specific event or situation), your (action or behavior), indicated that (impact)…or led to our team to (resulting impact).” This helps keep feedback relevant, anchored to a specific experience, and focuses on behavior and impact rather than addressing the person’s personality or who they are.
- A culture of quality feedback requires dedication: it takes leaders’ time, considerable preparation, and lots of practice. Every one of us can improve our ability to give outstanding feedback; it will take a lifetime to master. Thus, we must commit to refining and improving our candor, care, and abilities to give the best feedback possible.
How to “Do” Feedback
So, after outlining all of this theory about feedback, we need to look at how we can start doing it within our own organizational context. Below are a few recommendations on how to get started.
- Role-model and set the example: leaders first need to role-model a willingness to receive feedback from others. By setting that example and being willing to receive feedback from peers and subordinates, it inspires others to do the same. If we first get in the feedback arena, others will follow.
- Establish and enforce formal feedback activities in your organizational processes like counseling: hold your subordinate leaders accountable in their requirements to conduct initial, routine (weekly), event, and evaluation counseling. By requiring these, you at least create the space for feedback to occur, allowing your leaders to practice. For example, in my current role as a tactical officer of a Cadet company at West Point, I’ve established a system where I formally meet with my Cadet company commander and First Sergeant once a week to coach them through current/upcoming decisions, but also to provide them feedback from my perspective. I do this bi-weekly with my Cadet staff executive officer and operations officer, and also bi-weekly (opposite weeks from XO and operations) with my Cadet platoon leaders and platoon sergeants.
- Create peer feedback events: develop a formal system for peers to offer one another feedback. You can be creative in this area; it will take a sizeable time and effort investment to prepare and follow-up. It can be an online survey, hand-written form, use either/both Likert-scale and written response questions, rankings, and so on. Leaders need to figure out what will work best for their organization and people. I personally like the model from this Harvard Business Review article; it is both simple in its approach and aims to be as objective as possible.
- Create additional, creative spaces for feedback: one company found that by merely leaving the last 5-minutes of a meeting for feedback to one another, their feedback volume across the company increased seven times. By simply creating more space, opportunity, and touchpoints for feedback, we can improve its inclusion across all we do.
- Solicit feedback during your Leadership by Wandering Around time: use informal opportunities like this to solicit thoughts from people across your team, especially your most junior people. It helps you get a better pulse on what’s going on and allows you to role-model as mentioned above.
If you are interested in learning more about the art of giving/receiving feedback, I encourage you to check out these additional resources:
- The Feedback Primer Series, 3×5 Leadership
- The Lost Art of Giving (Negative) Feedback, 3×5 Leadership
- The Art of Giving Negative Feedback, From the Green Notebook
- An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey. Read about one of the three companies studied in this book, Next Jump, and how they use feedback as the foundation of their organizational culture.
The next part to our 3×5 Leader Development Handbook addresses the third method within our Development Matrix, which is creating a developmental program in our organization.
As always though, lead well, friends!
The content and thoughts within this article are my personal views only. They do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Army or the United States Military Academy.
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