Feedback – the Most Misunderstood and Poorly Executed Leadership Task

The Culture Hacker blog series continues this week discussing the critical role of feedback in performance enablement. Last week I talked about the importance of enabling your staff, with a focus on providing them with the right training, tools, and information. Enabling your staff also requires consistent and constant feedback, which is our topic of discussion today.

Feedback is a process by which information is returned to a person about the outcome of their actions, processes, or activities. Feedback can provide either positive or negative insights about performance for improvement. Without feedback, your associates will feel underappreciated and unrecognized for what they do well, and continue to frustrate customers and you by not performing as they could or should. As we have indicated before in our discussions about training, 20% of learning occurs through managerial feedback, so this is a critical part of the performance enablement process.

Let’s begin by distinguishing between two types of feedback – formal and informal. Formal feedback is often epitomized by the annual and dreaded performance appraisal, though it is also seen in disciplinary action and your company’s official recognition program. I want to begin by saying that formal feedback is important, but in many businesses it has become outdated and stagnant, and it does little to enable or improve the performance of a team. The other point about formal feedback is that without informal feedback it is has little meaning or relevancy with your people. The reason the annual performance review is often dreaded or discounted is because the information contained within it is a surprise, outdated, and without foundation. In other words, it has not been built upon timely, objective, and consistent everyday or informal feedback.

For informal feedback, the basics are simple – it must be timely, fair, consistent, and balanced. Timely means the feedback should happen when the performance occurs. For this to happen, you must be in the operation or working alongside your staff. While formal feedback is often conducted in an office, informal feedback must happen out from behind the desk.

Fair means that you are considerate of the conditions, environment, and what is going on in the moment that performance has occurred. Let’s face it – sometimes due to business levels, the amount of training that has occurred, the onboarding that was done, or even what’s happening with the associate personally, performance will be compromised. As a leader, be considerate of what has caused the performance issue to occur.

Consistent means you cannot just give feedback when you feel like it, or at certain times, and only for certain people. There should be no special rules for special people. Ensure that you spend time in the field with everyone so that you can coach each person consistently.

Balanced means you provide both positive feedback and feedback for improvement. As managers, we often only provide feedback when something goes wrong, creating a situation where quickly the feedback – regardless of what it is – will be ignored.

Over the years it has become obvious to me that many managers are uncomfortable and unable to give credible and confident feedback to their staff in the operation. As a result, it just doesn’t happen. At SGEi, we now conduct an informal feedback coaching class with training programs that are offered to staff. For any training program to work, and for staff to be able to able to perform optimally, informal feedback from the manager must occur.

We utilize a simple model to teach managers how to give feedback in the operation. The model has evolved from the Situation-Behavior-Impact feedback model (SBI) that describes the situation in which the behavior occurred, exactly what the behavior was, why it mattered, and what the impact was. We have evolved the model to be more interactive. Rather than delivering another lecture, you should ask the employee what the impact of the behavior might be and how to correct it. The model is provided below with an example of what might be said. Please also note that this model can be utilized for both positive feedback and feedback for improvement.

Culture Hacker Informal Feedback Model

By establishing a culture where regular, transparent, and objective feedback occurs, you will be in a position to have a meaningful formal feedback program. I am going to talk about recognition and counseling in my next blogs, but I want to address the performance appraisal process here, as it is the least effective feedback mechanism utilized in most organizations today.

We have all had that annual review that left us confused, frustrated, and even angry. There are many reasons the annual review leaves people frustrated, but most simply it is usually because it is seen as a single event that is outdated and irrelevant. Just by being better with informal feedback, you will immediately make the annual review more meaningful. Additionally, you have to remove the annual element of the process. Formal performance reviews should occur at least twice a year, but preferably four times a year, and possibly even monthly. Now I know that you are going to say that it is impossible. In its current state, I agree, but with some modifications, so-called annual performance reviews can be transformed into something manageable and possible.

First of all, managers get daunted by the task of remembering an employee’s year-long performance and then writing it down. If we begin with a clear understanding of what performance is, as I have described in a previous blog, then the results should speak for themselves. When it comes to how they perform based on values, there should be a collection of feedback from coworkers in the department, on other teams, and on your own. By providing monthly check-ins, you are merely recapping results and informal feedback in a quick and efficient manner. This conversation does not need to be more than 15 minutes, and requires less than a sheet of writing. There should be no surprises.

Once this has been established, you will have relevant and objective feedback to feed into an annual or bi-annual review. Most of the writing and thinking will already have been done. What makes these reviews more important than the monthly check-ins is that you should discuss new goals and have the employee develop plans of achievement. Yes – call them achievement plans rather than improvement plans. Everyone seems to be on an improvement plan. Make it an achievement plan even if they have things to improve, because it just sounds more positive.

For some great insights into how to deliver a great performance review, please read The Reality of Employee Development by our previous Organizational Learning Manager.  Here are a few more pointers from me.

  • Think about the setting for reviews: while it should be private, it does not have to be an office. I have often found a different setting to be more conducive to a conversation, which is what the review should be.
  • Have employees rate their own performance. You should not be the only one who has to prepare for this important conversation.
  • Be honest. There is no value to you or the employee if the feedback is not real and transparent.
  • Make formal feedback a part of your scheduled routine every week by writing notes and feedback about the staff; that way it does not become a large task that is rushed and poorly managed.

I hope you found this informative. Look out for next week’s blog on recognition, as it is one of the most important cultural mechanisms that direct employees toward desired goals and performance. Thanks for reading, and send us a note if you’d like to talk to SGEi about your team’s feedback model.

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