IAN MANN REVIEWS: The key skill most managers lack

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Feedback (and other dirty words): Why we fear it, how to fix it, by M. Tamra Chandler and Laura Dowling Grealish

There are two skills most managers lack: running good meetings and giving effective feedback. The second skill, feedback, is such a problem that one could be lulled into believing that giving quality, effective feedback is an oxymoron.

Feedback is so often destructive that we are more likely to associate it with a weapon rather than a tool. It is too often a judgement passed without context, rather than an observation offered with understanding. It is used to fix people rather than to help people.

People are (genuinely) our most important asset. Your business is limited to the level of your people. Without meaningful feedback your people don't grow, and they will never reach anywhere close to their potential.

We must get the most out of our people, and to do this we must help them grow. Belittling, reprimanding, bullying, motivating, bribing, encouraging and regularly evaluating, doesn't produce the results. Bruised, insulted, shamed and humiliated people don't perform better, but neither do the encouraged, praised, or rewarded.

So, what is there to do? Authors Chandler and Grealish assert: Give quality feedback.

This book is an explanation of both what that entails and how to do it. The authors have no illusions as to how difficult it is to be superb at giving feedback and how difficult it is to make people open to feedback. Given all these challenges, they provide a method.

"Our best solutions", the authors explain, "focus on building organisational strength for growth-oriented feedback." And this is best when it is not in the traditional manager-to-subordinate framework, but on a human-to-human basis, without regard for rank and title. It is about people and work, and helping each other thrive.

Traditional annual reviews have generally failed to deliver better performance. They've also done much to skew our perception of what real feedback is.

The definition of feedback provided by the authors is quite different to the common definition and provides a most succinct guide.

"Feedback (noun): Clear and specific information that is sought or offered with the sole intention of helping individuals or groups improve, grow, or advance."

Clear and specific information

Let us unpack this definition: "clear and specific" The feedback needs to be specific enough to make it meaningful, providing clear understanding and inspiring action as appropriate. "You did great, Mate!" is not feedback. What specifically was 'great' so that you can repeat that?

Quality feedback must either be asked for (the most effective kind,) or offered as a conversation, not a lecture. The lecture version presumes that the person lecturing has the correct perspective about the issue and all the facts. The feedback that 'you spoke down to managers', when in fact you were asked to speak to the new interns, was a misinterpretation of perspective and the facts. A conversation would have clear that up quickly.

(Walking out of the meeting.) "Thabo, I felt you spoke down to the managers."

"Nah, Vuyo. They had asked me to address my comments to the interns."

Focus on growth

The "sole intention" must be to "help individuals or groups improve, grow, or advance". If the feedback ever fails the 'sniff test', it will be rejected verbally or silently, and feedback will unlikely be sought from this person again.

The primary purpose of feedback is to improve matters. When a behaviour, approach, action, attitude, or other factor is getting in the way of doing things optimally, that is usually a signal that some improvement feedback is necessary. The issue is not the past, that has passed, it is the future -that is to be the focus of the feedback.

The last part of the definition is to "grow" the recipient. All personal growth is a never-ending journey, which as its purpose that we become a better version of ourselves every day.

To achieve quality feedback often requires that it be given or requested in the moment, in conversation, and in small bites. This makes it far more digestible and effective. An overwhelming information dump is all too much to absorb.

Focus on the positive

Positive feedback is most often more effective than negative feedback. Clearly, if you're witnessing a colleague about to jump off the high dive into an empty pool, stop them. Working with your colleagues, your managers, and your teams, how often are the people around you that far off track? Rarely. Positive feedback tells people to keep doing the good work, to do it even more frequently, do it better, and hone their strengths and contribution.

Positive feedback is inspirational and provides the impetus to try harder.

The problems with our current view of feedback requires that we first build the prerequisite condition – trust. It is the vital ingredient that makes feedback work. Trust allows information to flow without friction.

"To build trust, we need a track record of engaging in feedback conversations that help and don't hurt," the authors caution. We can't force anyone to trust us, but we can be kind and thereby build an environment of safety.

The precursor of trust is human connection. Genuine connection drives trust, and trust drives feedback, so fixing feedback must start with building human connections. This in turn requires an investment of time and effort.

Is it worth the time and effort? Surprisingly, the most common complaint about feedback is, "I don't get enough." Despite the mess we've made of it, most of us want more feedback.

More is more

The Institute for Corporate Performance and the Center for Effective Organisations (CEO) published a joint study called "Performance Feedback Culture Drives Business Impact." They found that the top driver of measurable improvement was the adoption of a culture of work performance feedback.

The study focused on listed US companies and found that the top third in terms of feedback differed from the bottom third in significant ways. Their financial results were double those of the bottom third, including net profit margin, return on investment, return on assets, and return on equity.

"If you've been looking for the secret sauce to increase your effectiveness as a leader, you can stop looking: it's feedback!" the authors assert. And that is a very plausible assertion. Read the whole book - it is an easy to digest, practical guide.

Readability         Light +---- Serious

Insights              High --+-- Low

Practical              High +---- Low

Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on strategy and implementation and is the author of 'Strategy that Works' and 'The Executive Update.' Views expressed are his own.

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