Feedback: The Right Way

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Feed Back dictionary description

Feedback is a critical and valuable management tool.  For managers, it is the engine of continuous improvement.   For employees, it is the gift of valuable insight. 

Unfortunately, many managers feel uncomfortable giving regular feedback, which deprives them of the ability to affect change.  And, many employees mistake feedback as criticism and miss the message.  The Feedback Model—when practiced and used correctly—creates an environment where giving and receiving feedback is painless and easy for both parties.

Leaders at any level in any organization owe it to their team members to provide them with regular, constructive positive, and negative performance-based feedback.  Without it, people do not know if they are doing things right or wrong.  Feedback creates the opportunity to improve, which is embedded in modern, lean-agile management practices. 

The willingness to seek and accept feedback differentiates good from great performers at any age, in any context.  My daughter was the goalie on her high school lacrosse team.  As a senior, she won the prestigious Coach’s Award for asking how she could improve after every practice and game. 

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Mark Horstman and Mike Auzenne of Manager Tools, who helped me grow as a manager.  They have produced hundreds of podcasts on effective management practices.  I used many of their lessons to build high-performing teams in leading companies. 

Feedback is For the Future

The purpose of feedback is to change and improve for the future.  We either want to reinforce “good” or desirable behaviors, or change “bad” ones.  It is a way of setting and adjusting performance based on specific, observable behaviors. 

Feedback is not punishment.  Nor is it a veiled form of criticism.  For feedback to be effective, it needs to provide the recipient with clear, expected actions and behaviors. 

The Manager Tool’s Feedback Model

The Manager Tools’ Feedback Model is a simple, 5-step process:

  1. Can I give you feedback?
  2. When you do X…
  3. The impact is Y…
  4. Can you do Z instead – or – Can you continue doing Z…
  5. Thank you!

Communicating feedback is quick and can be delivered in just a few minutes.  Since the input is fact-based, it avoids emotional turmoil for both the provider and recipient.

Can I give you feedback?

Asking the person if they are open to feedback is the first step.  People will only be influenced when they are receptive.  An acceptable answer is, “not now, but later.”  We should respect that the intended recipient might be too busy or distracted at that moment.

Giving feedback immediately after an argument will not be effective.  Brain science shows that it takes at least 20-minutes for our stress hormones to return to normal after a conflict.  During this period, we are in flight-or-fight mode and our thoughtful, analytic brains are not engaged.

When you do X…

Feedback is performance-based.  Therefore, we want to describe specific, observable actions.  This allows the recipient to anchor their attention to a well-defined event.  It also avoids discussing motivations, thoughts, or feelings which we cannot discern. 

We can observe that someone arrives late for a meeting.  However, it is nearly impossible to know why, nor does it really matter. Communicating the importance of timeliness is the key message.

For example, rather than saying: “Why are you always late to the daily meeting?”

Try: “When you arrive late to the daily meeting…”

Feedback can also be used to promote productive behaviors.  When providing positive feedback, it is also essential to cite clear examples. 

A colleague had a new employee do an outstanding in their first week.  On Friday, the manager flashed a thumbs up.  While receiving praise is good, this feedback was not specific.  It did not communicate what the new employee did well. 

The impact is Y…

Describing the impact provides valuable context.  It allows the recipient to understand the consequences.  All too often, we are unaware of how we affect others or how our actions are perceived.

Feedback should not be confrontational or emotional.  Describing the impact of behavior without anger, frustration, or fear also builds crucial emotional intelligence. 

For example: “When you arrive late to the daily meeting, it disrupts the flow, and people need to repeat what they have already covered.” 

Can you do Z instead…

The goal of feedback is to change future behavior.  So, providing clear, actionable recommendations is a critical part of the Model.  Articulating the desired actions is valuable to both the provider and recipient. 

Describing desired behaviors requires the manager to reflect on and clarify their own expectations.  By receiving clear expectations, employees avoid trying to discern them through trial and error.   

For example: “When you arrive late to the daily meeting, it disrupts the flow, and people need to repeat what they have already covered.  Can you avoid scheduling back-to-back meetings so that you can be present and prepared when the meeting starts at 10 AM?”

Thank you

We should end the feedback with a “thank you.”  We want feedback to be a positive experience.  Thanking the recipient is an earnest acknowledgment and appreciation for their participation in the process. 

For example: “When you arrive late to the daily meeting, it disrupts the flow, and people need to repeat what they have already covered.  Can you avoid scheduling back-to-back meetings so that you can be present and prepared when the meeting starts at 10 AM?  Does that make sense?  Thank you!”

Feedback and Continuous Improvement

In Lean-Agile organizations—from manufacturing to software development—continuous improvement is a core principle.  Toyota’s Lean Manufacturing Model brought the phrase Kaizen (small change for good) into the vernacular.  The Agile Manifesto echoes the importance of regular reflection and improvement.

Most organizations practicing continuous improvement focus on business or operational processes.  Adjusting how we collaborate and work together as a team is cortical  The feedback model gives us the tools to have these conversations.  We can extend this observation-impact-change framework to our retrospectives or Kaizen events.

A growing number of large organizations are abandoning the traditional performance review systems.  Nearly all managers and most employees are dissatisfied with the process.  Many of these companies are trying to replace the annual review cycle with more regular feedback.  Managers that incorporate the feedback model into their daily and weekly management practices know how useful the model can be.

© 2020, Alan Zucker; Project Management Essentials, LLC

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