Feedback: The essential component for growth

Feedback. The mere idea of it makes many people cringe – an almost universal reaction for both managers and employees alike. Although it’s a necessary component of professional and personal growth, it’s also unfortunately associated with negative information and/or judgments.

There are many kinds of feedback. Ken Blanchard, who says that “feedback is the breakfast of champions”, uses the analogy of a bowler who can’t see the pins to demonstrate how visual feedback helps that person know where to throw the ball. Seeing; hearing; feeling; these are all types of feedback that are vital to our lives and don’t typically induce anxiety. Others do.

Photo Credit: Joonas Tikkanen

Photo Credit: Joonas Tikkanen

It’s Actually Good For You!

In theory, the need to tell an individual how his or her performance is affecting the overall mission of a company would appear to be a no-brainer. Yet many managers only give feedback when required, probably because both managers and individuals share the belief that feedback is generally negative. I would suggest that this misperception exists precisely because managers only provide it when there’s a problem, rather than as part of a company’s regular “maintenance” plan.

There are two types of feedback: formal and informal. Performance management is a prime example of formal feedback. It’s necessary for innovation and employee growth. The Performance Management Review (what the Navy refers to as an “Evaluation” or a “Fitness Report”) is official documentation that compares the objectives of a position to the employee’s actual performance. Although typically done on a yearly basis, some companies include a mid-term review as well. This communicates to the employee what has actually been achieved in relation to initial performance expectations and provides time for the employee to make course corrections, if necessary. The annual review often provides the foundation for future employment decisions.

Informal feedback is on-the-spot communication (sometimes called “just-in-time feedback”) between an individual and anyone who provides it. This is where a manager may compliment or critique a recent performance, or a co-worker will share gratitude for support. Most people are familiar with half-time breaks in sports – those are on-the-spot feedback sessions wherein a coach will evaluate the team’s successes or failures thus far, and then provide suggestions for how to maintain or improve in the second half. While just as critical as formal feedback, the informal setting can address issues as they arise instead of rehashing them at a later time.

It All Comes Down to Innovation and Growth

Daniel Pink tells us individual motivation is driven by three factors: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. (Drive, Riverhead Books, 2009) The feedback cycle supports all three of these factors.

Purpose: The idea that employees know how their assignments are connected to the organization’s goals, i.e., how they provide value to the team. Informal feedback allows managers to immediately show employees how their actions or work assignments connect with both their team’s and the organization’s objectives.

Autonomy: Autonomy focuses on how independent each individual is when working on an assignment. Even with complete autonomy, individuals require both formal and informal feedback to know that they are successfully accomplishing their goals or, if they’ve drifted off course, to learn what corrections need to be made in order to get back on the right path.

Mastery: “Mastery” is not about being the expert at a particular job or skill; instead, it’s about the ability to learn, grow and develop. This can only happen through the use of feedback because it enables employees to see their progress, understand what they did correctly and also where they need to do more work. When they see how feedback helps them improve and succeed, it provides incentive to keep moving forward and get better at newer, more advanced skills.

The ultimate goal of the process, be it formal or informal, is to ensure that the manager is communicating standards and expectations, that the employees feel valued, and that there is a safe environment within which to ask questions. That’s what really makes an effective and productive team.

For a more specific exploration on using feedback to create innovative self-managing teams, check out my next edition of Thoughts From the Front Row.

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