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Feedback – The Essential Leadership Skill

Originally published September 18, 2007

There are no easy answers or shortcuts to solutions for most issues in business or in life, but one skill – the ability to effectively deliver constructive feedback – is the closest thing we've found to the mythical managerial silver bullet. It's too bad that this powerful tool is under-appreciated, under-utilized and, in many organizations and individuals, under-developed.

Consider the many benefits of effective individual and organizational feedback practices:

  • Effective, timely feedback helps leaders deal with individual performance problems and corrective issues. This builds accountability, encourages productivity and ensures that poor or misplaced performers are dealt with expeditiously.

  • Regular feedback strengthens an individual's performance and encourages development. This is especially important for early career leaders who benefit considerably from attention, but it is also a powerful benefit to senior leaders who tend not to receive quality feedback on their own performance.

  • Constructive feedback helps teams and individuals learn, improve and innovate. Good feedback practices promote the exchange of alternative ideas and serves as a check against the tendency to rubber stamp ideas that are better rejected.

  • During periods of instability or rapid change, feedback is critical for success. The ability for associates at all levels to honestly discuss successes and failures and to debate next-step options is essential.

The Problem(s) with Feedback

The fundamental problem with feedback is that people are uncomfortable both giving and receiving it; thus, it is commonly avoided. During our research interviews for our recent book (Practical Lessons in Leadership), we were surprised at the feedback on feedback.

  • A majority of managers indicated that they lacked confidence in their own ability to deliver feedback effectively.

  • Managers were reluctant to engage when a correction was needed, which underscored the biggest management mistake most commonly reported by our participants – acting too slowly on a performance problem.

  • Leaders routinely wished their own managers were better at delivering feedback.

  • New or early career managers reported receiving little frank guidance about their performance, yet they universally believed that feedback was critical to their development as leaders.

Separate from the research interviews for the book, we maintain an ongoing survey about feedback; and consistent with the above findings, a majority of the respondents thus far have described themselves as "somewhat uncomfortable" delivering feedback. These same individuals agree as a majority that there is a strong correlation between a leader's feedback skills and the leader's overall effectiveness. Additionally, not a single respondent indicated feedback as a skill that they are evaluated on in their organizations. The fact that most firms may be missing this boat doesn’t forgive insightful, motivated leaders from learning an important lesson from these data points and resolving to improve their skills accordingly.

Why Is Feedback So Difficult?

If, as we submit, feedback is a powerful leadership tool, why is it seemingly so under-appreciated both in practice and in the broader body of leadership literature? We believe there are at least 3 major reasons:

  1. Leaders are generally not trained in how to deliver effective, constructive feedback. During our research interviews, we could find very few leaders who could recall specific training on developing and delivering feedback outside of casual instruction on how to conduct performance reviews.

  2. Organizations ape their leader's behaviors; and, unfortunately, many top leaders do not demonstrate frank dialog. Sad, but true.

  3. In general, most people are uncomfortable critiquing others and tend to avoid these potentially awkward or seemingly confrontational discussions. This is a very human issue and one that is easily overcome with the right training and repeated practice.

The good news is that effective feedback skills are easily learned, and with the support of a firm's leaders, a culture that encourages constructive feedback can supplant one where the tough issues are avoided in favor of maintaining a collegial environment.

Characteristics of Effective Feedback

Honing your feedback skills requires conscious effort, focus and repeated practice. In our own activities, we've found it useful to educate leaders on two useful toolsets that provide context for effective feedback as well as a road map for planning and delivering feedback discussions.

The first toolset, The Six Dimensions of Effective Feedback, provides the manager with a reminder of the key components of any feedback discussion.

Effective feedback is:

  1. Focused on behavior
  2. Timely
  3. Candid
  4. Specific
  5. Brief
  6. Driven by a business rationale

The Feedback Mastery Model builds on the Six Dimensions by offering a road map for developing, delivering and gaining action from any feedback situation. The steps include:

  1. Observe
  2. Classify
  3. Prepare
  4. Engage
  5. Manage
  6. Follow-Up

While the models are conceptually straightforward, developing and refining the skills required to effectively deal with the entire feedback process takes time, focus and practice. However, once mastered, the consistent and visible reinforcement of feedback by a leader has a powerful effect on the culture of a team or company. Individuals and teams begin to recognize that they are accountable to each other – not just the boss – for results, and everyone understands that performance issues are recognized and dealt with in a timely and professional manner. These are the building blocks of a grassroots feedback culture.

What Does a Strong Feedback Culture Look Like?

The beautiful thing about building a culture is the ability to shape behavior through history and examples. When individuals see others behaving in a certain way – particularly successful, respected individuals – those behaviors and skills influence practices throughout the organization. When those behaviors are positive, beneficial behaviors (unfortunately, this is not always the case), great outcomes can seem effortless. Consider the following top-down example that had some bottom-to-top outcomes:

The company president had a commitment to feedback that was legendary. She was known for a calm, direct style that was described in terms we would all like to hear about ourselves: honest, helpful, straightforward, “takes the time….” As busy as she was, the president made an effort to deliver feedback in person as often as possible, and routinely made the connection with the “receiver” more often than summoning that person to her office. This had a remarkable effect on the probability for her feedback to hit home. She evened the playing field, presented the concern in a way that sounded more like a helpful suggestion than a command and created an opportunity to reinforce a personal connection to the overall company mission. She had another personal habit that is talked about amongst co-workers more than 10 years after she moved on. She had a goal to send one hand-written note of thanks or appreciation at least once a day, and it may have been for a significant accomplishment or something that wasn’t mission critical but that nonetheless was worthy of positive reinforcement. Many times, these were just a sentence or two, and nothing fancy, but they were handwritten and they did convey genuine appreciation. These notes were extremely powerful in times when paper mail was still common, so imagine how impactful a practice like that would be today! The net result is that people hated to disappoint her (and were confident she would tell them if that happened), and this sentiment spilled over to her direct reports, and their direct reports and so on. They weren’t all “good practitioners,” but most were. Why wouldn’t you want to be like her?

Her desire to make sure everybody knew where they stood resulted in an overhaul of the company performance review form and process. This did not begin as an HR project. A cross section of managers and individual contributors all played a role in the redesign, and you can bet that when it came time to roll out the updated review program, it was readily embraced. The downstream result is that the management team in one of her business units took it upon themselves to dig into emerging practices and research on reviews, feedback and performance that resulted in the development of a proprietary online 360-degree tool that was ultimately adopted by the whole organization at a time when these tools were not broadly known or used.

Sure, this is a nice story, but what about their results? The results included a steadily increasing contribution from a profoundly mature piece of business (one that others before this president suggested as a candidate for a fire sale), notable growth in a more contemporary piece of business that included several successful acquisitions that spurred its growth in size and value, and the startup of a new business unit based on emerging technology that involved some meaningful risk but the concomitant reward potential. Oh, and let’s not forget a successful NYSE IPO and ultimately a lucrative acquisition by a large international player following a bidding war with a disappointed suitor. It is certainly fair to say that the great results were not primarily the result of a great culture that acknowledged the power of feedback, but it is fair to suggest it may not have happened without it. As a testament to the acquired company’s culture, they ultimately served as the basis for many of the combined entity’s people practices versus a more common outcome where the acquired have to learn all new lessons.

5 Suggestions to Improve Your Organization's Feedback Culture

Certainly there are many issues involved in developing effective individual feedback skills and in transforming an organization from one that avoids the tough issues to one that openly encourages input and debate. If, as we submit, organizations with a strong feedback culture are organizations that tend to perform better, it is worthwhile to pursue strengthening this skill set in leaders at all levels. Our suggestions include:

  1. The top leadership of the firm must advocate a policy of "robust dialogue" as Charan and Bossidy describe it in their book Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done. Robust dialogue is characterized by openness, candor and informality and always capped off with action.

    A great example of this in real-time action is the turn-around process that Alan Mulally is leading at Ford Motor Company. In the July 23, 2007, issue of the Wall Street Journal article, Mr. Mulally describes a key tactic that involves talking with and listening to hundreds of individuals from the employee, industry and dealer ranks. He indicates, "When you get that much input from that many stakeholders, you get really good, robust feedback about the way it is. So you take that and develop a strategy and a plan to deal with that reality."

    Additionally, he goes on in the article to describe the change in tone and approach that he has instituted with his senior management team – the new tone emphasizes getting the tough issues on the table and dealing with them as a team. He cites as an example the bold step taken by a senior manager to delay the launch of a new vehicle due to quality concerns. This vehicle is a key part of Ford's near-term turnaround plan, and the willingness of the executive to make a politically unpopular decision was cited by Mulally as a critical example of how his top managers should interact and problem solve. The willingness to confront this tough issue indicates an improvement in the feedback culture of the firm.

  2. Make issues, problems and progress transparent to all. Glaxo's CEO, Jean-Pierre Garnier reportedly includes daily phone calls to employees and constant updates on issues and progress posted to the firm's intranet concerning their crisis situation for their diabetes drug, Avandia, as the primary means to keep everyone informed.

    Individuals at all levels should be encouraged to highlight problems, and leaders must keep their associates and constituents informed on the status of major issues as well as progress toward resolution. This approach ensures proper focus on problem solving and mitigates a great deal of unproductive speculation.

  3. Set expectations that top leaders demonstrate effective feedback practices. A firm's key leaders should be trained in effective feedback techniques (for example, The Six Dimensions and Feedback Mastery Model mentioned earlier in this article) and held accountable for providing constant, consistent input on individual and group performance. Additionally, all leaders should actively solicit feedback on their feedback skills.

  4. Feedback is not just top-down – leaders must create the forums for employees and stakeholders at all levels to offer constructive, business-focused criticism and to engage in divergent thinking and problem solving.

  5. Successes should be visible – leaders must provide visibility for people and teams that solve problems, innovate and exhibit the behaviors that reflect a healthy feedback culture.

If you are uncomfortable delivering constructive feedback, you are not alone. As our research indicates, even the most experienced leaders can struggle in offering constructive feedback to their associates. However, armed with the understanding of the importance of developing your feedback skills and the proper tools and approaches to focus feedback on the right business and performance issues, every leader can become a feedback master.

Next... Mining leadership development opportunities from an effective strategy process.

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