The Feedback Primer Part 5: Making the Abstract Tangible – 3 Example Feedback Loops for Your Consideration
After spending much of this Feedback Primer saturated in abstract concepts about feedback, I want to offer some tangible ideas to consider moving forward. My hope is that by sharing three examples of organizational feedback loops, we can see how all the concepts introduced in this Primer so far integrate to materialize quality developmental feedback for ourselves as leaders, and for our people. More importantly, I hope sharing these examples inspires and equips leaders to create their own. Adopting these examples is certainly feasible, but I challenge you, as leaders, to think how you can adapt them to best fit your team’s specific needs, contexts, and restrictions.
As you read through the examples, pay attention to the diversity of the feedback loop dynamics (from part 4) and how leaders can practice the nuances of giving and receiving feedback well within them (offered in part 2).
A top-down, formal feedback loop I created for direct reports (those serving immediately below me in the org. chart directly reporting to me) is semi-annual counseling. When I describe this feedback loop as “counseling,” it does not mean therapy or clinical counseling; it means a focused developmental conversation as the US Army uses the term.
These sessions are focused on the person’s overall performance over the last 6 to 12 months and perceptions on their potential for future leadership opportunities and responsibilities. These are strictly developmental, though, and do not directly impact their evaluation markings. I want the conversations to be honest and explore potentially hard-to-touch topics; that is not realistic if the person knows these conversations are attributed to ratings.
Developmental counseling conversations like this can take whatever form best fits yours, theirs, and the organization’s needs (as well as your authentic style), but below is a rough agenda that I use for my specific conversations.
- Discuss their “one big thing,” which is their current personal developmental focus. We discuss why this is their OBT, what their goals and mechanisms are to achieve development, and assess progress made. You can learn more about OBTs here.
- Understanding their “self-awareness gap” by looking at their self-described leader strengths and weaknesses, and how they compare to the trends from feedback received from others (performance evaluations, peer evaluations, etc.).
- Other relevant developmental topics to include their personal and professional goals for the future, what their current self-developmental habits are, and their assessment and feedback for our team / organization.
- Finally, we conclude with a two-way focused feedback session on performance. I provide several prepared feedback comments that I challenge them to consider as they look toward the next 6 months based on my perceptions and interactions with them, as well as my session preparations. I also require them to provide me feedback, in the form of my top 3 strengths and 3 developmental needs as their supervisor.
Just as we discussed feedback as a process in part 2 of the Primer, the counseling session is a multi-step process, both for them and me. Here are the main steps actioned in support of our semi-annual counseling. These kinds of logistics help enable the most quality conversation possible.
- I have them contact me to schedule a two-hour session; I feel that making them take the initiative to schedule the session encourages them to take ownership for their own development and seeking feedback. We schedule two weeks in advance on my calendar (further out the session is, the better chance I can fit other urgent things that come up around it, to prevent cancelling it).
- Of the 2-hour window, the first hour is strictly for me to deliberately prepare for the session. This is where I review all their evaluations, feedback forms, reflection papers, and other relevant data available. This helps paint the most complete view of them possible as I work to form perceptions of their strengths, weaknesses, and to provide my feedback comments for them. Personally, I need extensive preparation time to ensure I have well-developed thoughts and comments to maximize the conversation’s value.
- I also want them to thoughtfully prepare for the session. I don’t want them coming into our meeting not having thought through things themselves. I have found the more prepared they also are for the conversation, the more quality the session. As a forcing mechanism, I require the person to complete a formal memorandum answering several questions and send it to me 24 hours before our meeting. The questions are precursors to our discussion topics and their feedback comments for me (to ensure their comments are well-thought-out and high-quality, not hastily created in the session). Here is an example prompt that I provide my people to prepare their pre-counseling memorandums.
- The second hour is for us to meet and talk. While I have prepared notes and feedback to drive the conversation, it is very much a two-way dialog. Sometimes conversation does not go according to agenda. This is ok. I want to focus on what is most relevant to them. Our planned conversation generally follows the agenda I listed above.
- Within a few days following our conversation, I informally follow-up with them about the session. I may ask a question about something specific to our session or use the general go-to “what’s on your mind following our counseling?”. This enables a quick check-in to ensure the feedback was received well.
- More formal follow-up occurs in our next scheduled counseling session, approximately 6 months later, where I use the previous counseling session’s notes that I took as a foundational guide for my preparation for the next meeting.
Informal 360-Degree (or Peer) Feedback
Introducing quality 360-degree feedback does not require thousands of dollars to buy new software for the team. We can create these surveys with Google Forms and a Google account. By doing so, we can create tailored feedback based on the topics or themes of our choice.
Structuring the system. Depending on your team’s size, having people complete 360-feedback surveys on everyone else is likely infeasible. So, we must think through how we should cohort our people into small groups for the feedback surveys. I keep feedback groups small, around 10, to make it sustainable and feasible for people to complete amidst their busy days. In a team of 127 people, that means I create 14 small groups. Each group has their own Google Form feedback survey that lists the set of questions for every person in the small group. I use an Excel spreadsheet to track the 14 groups, who is in what group, and the unique URL for their specific group survey. You can cohort small groups in numerous different ways, which can include strictly peers or layered personnel (superiors, peers, and subordinates) together that tend to work closely together; figure out what structure works best for you and your team (currently, I stick with peers). Once I designate the groups and create the Google Forms surveys (one per small group), I email the unique survey URL with instructions to the members of that group. For my case, I send 14 emails, each with the different survey URL.
Creating the survey. Creating the survey in Google Forms is extremely easy and can be mastered with a minimal amount of research and trial/error. We do need to work out what we want to ask in the survey, though. What metrics do we want to collect feedback against? We must balance seeking high-quality and thorough feedback through the surveys, but not making them overwhelmingly long and burdensome. You can select any variety of preferred metrics to look at through your questions. Personally, to keep the surveys succinct and maximize leader development impact, I focus on three primary metrics with a total of 12 short questions per person in the survey (10 Likert Scale, 2 free text). The metrics I analyze are listed below. Here are the questions that I currently use for my team’s feedback surveys on Google Forms. As you can see, I phrase the questions to focus on the person’s behavior, not in vague or abstract language.
- Leader attributes & competencies: As a US Army organization, we assess one another along the Army’s defined leader attributes and competencies – character, presence, intellect, leads, develops, and achieves – to determine to the level that person aligns to what the Army says a leader is and does.
- Team values: Authentic leaders not only lead in the ways inherent to their personal and preferred styles but lead in accordance with their organization’s values. To assess leader authenticity and organizational alignment, we ask to what level that person lives out our team’s espoused values.
- Personal perceptions: Provide an opportunity for people to share qualitative data through free text comments of that person’s performance and leadership over the last 6 months in the form of one positive and one negative perception they have.
Providing survey feedback. How we report the feedback to our people is important. It needs to be easy to read interpret and concise. My method is structuring the feedback into a one-page report for each person, which I create in Microsoft Excel. Here is an example of the feedback form that I create. The major portions of the report are:
- Any relevant administrative data at the top. As you can see, we call this form our “leader inventory.”
- Qualitative data of the person’s leader attributes and competencies feedback. In a table, we compare their self-assessment numbers (everyone completes a self-assessment by answering the survey questions about themselves on the Google Form as well) to their group’s assessment and also compare that to their peers’ averages. I export that into a spider graph to help clearly reveal gaps or alignment between self, others’, and average assessments. I believe a combination of reporting the numbers and the graph maximize peoples’ clarity and accuracy in interpreting the feedback.
- I provide the same qualitative data and spider graph for their feedback on living out our organizational values.
- At the bottom of the form, I provide a table with the anonymous perception comments. I provide the comments as stated by others; I do not alter them in any way.
While providing the feedback in a report is one thing, helping people make sense of and work through the feedback received is different. It is also critical because we all need help receiving feedback better, as addressed in part 2. Leaders should consider how we are deliberately helping people identify the major points of feedback or trends, and coaching or mentoring them through addressing it. Mechanisms can include formal counseling sessions as addressed earlier or activities like peer coaching, discussed below.
Note about this method. While the resources are easily accessible for any leader to initiate these informal 360-degree or peer feedback surveys, they do take considerable time to complete. Creating the surveys, extrapolating the survey results, and creating the feedback reports by hand all take lots of time. As a leader, your time is valuable, I know. So, we just need to be able and willing to commit the time needed to carry these out. For reference, when I created this system from scratch, I committed approximately 10 person-hours toward creating the surveys, pulling survey data, and creating the feedback reports for my 127-person team over a three-week window.
A final feedback loop example is formalized peer coaching relationships within the team. While I have written on why we all need a peer coach to become better leaders, I believe the value of having a formal peer coach can be summarized into a few short points:
- Thinking partner: A coach is different from a mentor. While a mentor often uses added experience to provide perspective and advice, a coach is a thinking partner to encourage and help us explore our own ideas.
- Developmental support: Trying to improve our performance and leader impact requires us to get outside of our comfort zones, which is hard. It’s uncomfortable. A peer coach can support us through those challenges with support, encouragement, and helpful perspective.
- Accountability: While support is important, we also need someone to push us out of our comfort zone; so many of us will not do it on our own. Our peer coach can be that necessary challenge to push us through development and keep us accountable.
- Why coaches should be peers: I argue that formalized coaching relationships within our teams should be paired as professional peers. This removes professional boundaries that would have to remain up between superiors and subordinates. It makes the environment safer to explore challenging ideas. It also keeps the focus on coaching and not a threat of creeping toward mentorship with experienced advice-giving.
Though we can all seek out peer coaches on our own, I think leaders formalizing these relationships within the team can codify this feedback activity as a “routine thing our team does routinely;” it advances the message that providing one another feedback is a basic daily expectation to make us a high-performing team. There is no right way to designate peer coach pairings. Soliciting peoples’ preferences can support buy-in into this feedback loop, but that also runs the risk of it becoming a popularity contest or friends choosing friends (potentially limiting the accountability potential). I prefer the model of friendly professional acquaintances – where the two people are friendly, but not personally close. This enables the development of relational intimacy in time while being able to share the hard “truth in love” to one another. Having the two also not directly work together on the team (if possible) can be valuable to integrate diversity of thought and experiences within the relationship.
While my personal desire is that peer coaching conversations are a basic daily occurrence, my own team’s context and limitations do not currently make that feasible. So, I carve out 75-minutes once a month for peer coaches to formally meet. They discuss the below listed topics during the session and capture main points of their conversation on a peer coaching reflection form (example reflection form here). This encourages deliberate reflection as well as collects those thoughts for later use (I maintain the peer coaching reflection forms in the person’s “developmental counseling packet” and use them during my preparations for the counseling sessions introduced earlier).
- Identify, clarify, and discuss their “one big thing.” This is the primary mechanism for accountability and support as people continue working on their one big developmental goal. Talking about progress, challenges, and getting some “peer pressure” on it can help keep this OBT relevant and the person committed to it.
- Other relevant topics. I provide a rotating conversation topic to discuss each month to explore new ideas and add some diverse flavor to the conversation. Topics tend to revolve around feedback and personal development. One example is to have peer coach pairs discuss questions like: “how do I make it hard for others to give me feedback in big and small ways? How can I make myself more available for feedback from others?”
- On my mind. On the session reflection form, I have people express their emotions following the conversations as a mechanism for them to think through and clarify how they are feeling through these developmental conversations. It aims to help them get comfortable with their feelings as they struggle through development – and why they feel this way.
Again, this part of the Feedback Primer takes a very tactical look at what feedback loops can look like as leaders begin to think through how to develop them for our respective teams. While there is no right approach or activity, we need to think through the ones that will maximize developmental impact while being feasible and sustainable within our team’s contexts.
Finally, as we look to layer multiple feedback loops into the team, as discussed in part 4, remember to seek diversity across the feedback dynamics to make truth in love as developmentally complete as possible.
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