It all comes back to feedback.
This simple truth is the capstone of what I’ve learned while being in my own “leadership arena” over the last two years. You’re not feeling satisfied or engaged at work? It likely stems from a lack of feedback on your work revealing the impacts of your efforts. Surprised and disappointed by your recent annual evaluation marks? This is a novel feeling because your supervisors failed to provide relevant, consistent, and constructive feedback over time. Is our team not meeting performance metrics or is just plain mediocre? It’s likely because we have not integrated accountability and feedback in our routine ways of doing business on the team.
Recently, I had a Cadet that I mentor share with me his dissatisfaction with the unclear methods of distributing evaluation marks (referencing organizational justice) across his company, the lack of supervisor engagement with subordinates, and the overall lack of feedback occurring across the chain of command. He truly didn’t even care about his subpar evaluation score. Simply, he stated, “Sir, I just want more feedback.”
I think we can all relate. Looking back on my own 10-year Army career so far, I can count the number of times I felt that I have received quality and relevant constructive feedback on one hand. Clearly, that is not sufficient for sustained leader growth and improvement.
Bottom line: we as humans and as leaders suck at feedback. We suck at giving others feedback and we suck at receiving feedback from others. We need to get better in actually doing it (the act of routinely giving and receiving feedback) and at doing it well (ensuring our feedback is high-quality). Improvement requires education, commitment, and repetition. I hope this primer provides you the education necessary to equip and inspire you to “get in the feedback arena” with your people, commit, and begin the important life-long journey of mastering feedback to improve your own leadership effectiveness as well as your peoples’ and team’s performance.
What is Feedback?
To start, it is important to be clear on what we mean by feedback in the leadership and organizational development sense.
To put it basically, feedback is the essence of leadership. In his book, Leaders: Myth and Reality, Stanley McChrystal called leadership more of a complex system of feedback loops and less a one-directional processes enacted by a formal leader.
For this primer, we define feedback as any stimulus that provides information about others’ reactions to or perceptions of our behavior or performance, which we can use as a basis for improvement.
It is a critical type of developmental communication that can occur in many formal and informal ways. This can include common stimulus or activities like:
- Receiving your annual performance evaluation with a discussion on why you received that score and/or how you performed compared to professional peers or expectations.
- Engaging in organizational 360-degree evaluations to receive perceptions on your performance and behavior up, down, and across your team.
- Targeted comments from audience members on the effectiveness of a lecture you gave or meeting you ran, commenting on what worked best or needed the most improvement.
- Events like the U.S. Army’s after-action reviews can be means for external observers or those internal to the team to provide assessment on how the team performed the mission or designated task, and how they can improve it in the future.
Ultimately, I personally prefer to conceive feedback as “truth in love.” Through feedback, members on high-performing teams can confidently and unemotionally look at one another and say, “I love you and I love (our team) and I truly want both to get better. To do that, we need to discuss some necessary hard truth.” I believe that healthy, professional, and appropriate feedback to others must always come from a place of love.
Why is Feedback So Important?
Feedback is hard; I’m sure we’ve all experienced this in some form or fashion. It’s uncomfortable, requires high levels of vulnerability from all parties, and is often subjective being based in perceptions (which are always flawed or biased). So why do we need to subject ourselves and our people to such hard and uncomfortable truth?
To start, I cannot think of any other way to improve ourselves as leaders or to improve our teams’ performance. We can reflect forever on what we need to grow in our leadership, or our team can deliberate forever together on what we need to do to improve. But if we do not receive any sort of external or more objective feedback on our effectiveness and performance, we have no mark to measure our own assessments off of.
I see high-quality, relevant, constructive, and consistent “truth in love” feedback providing several critical things personally to our leadership and collectively to our team:
- Improved self-awareness: Comparing others’ assessments of us and comparing to our own self-perceptions of our performance reveals our “self-awareness gaps” as shown below. Improved self-awareness directly leads to improved leader effectiveness. While internally-focused self-awareness emphasizes clarity on our own leader identity, externally-oriented self-awareness enables us to better see ourselves as others see us; we must strive to align those two perceptions.
- The best mechanism for accountability across our team: The best teams do routine things routinely – and that includes feedback. It must become common occurrence between members across the team daily; feedback cannot be novel. It makes me think of Alabama coach, Nick Saban’s quote, “Average players want to be left alone. Good players want to be coached. Great players want to be told the truth.”
- Creates a team culture of high-performance and learning mindsets: Consistent loops of feedback generate continued individual and collective improvement. We exist to be a high-performing team, right? But integrating this dynamic into our team’s culture also encourages a growth mindset, or a commitment to continued learning and growth. Through sustained feedback loops across the team, I recognize I always have room for improvement. This helps eradicate fixed mindset leaders or teammates – those who never think they are part of the issue or don’t’ have room for continued improvement; they have “arrived” as leaders.
How This Primer is Structured
This primer aims to equip you with the knowledge on the science of feedback so that you are inspired to commit practicing the art of it – to both improve your own leadership and grow your team. Mastering feedback is a life-long journey; we will always need to improve how we provide it to others and receive it from them. Like any skill, habit, or muscle, we must practice through repetition to develop it. It takes time…and sometimes some failure. But the impact of feedback, and the costs of not giving or getting it, are too high to ignore this important leader communication tool. We must start improving our feedback competence and confidence now.
Following this introduction, where we addressed what feedback is and why it is so important, the rest of this primer is organized as follows, starting with a micro-view of person-to-person feedback and moving to a macro one of creating a team culture of high accountability and feedback.
- Part 2: Key considerations when providing or receiving feedback with another person.
- Part 3: How to create feedback-loops for ourselves to improve our self-awareness and leader effectiveness.
- Part 4: How to create a team or organizational culture of feedback and accountability.
- Part 5: Providing examples of feedback loops that I’ve been exposed to or enacted in my own journey over the last two years.
- Part 6: Concluding by looking at what we can do now and providing other resources for continued learning and inspiration.
Remember, it all comes back to feedback…to that “truth in love.” Now, it’s time to get in the arena.
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