Feedback, poor much aligned feedback!
Feedback is one of the themes on the internet in the last 10 days and as a psychologist, I almost always weigh in.
The lay meaning of the term tends to be: Can I give you some feedback?
That’s a polite beginning, and as with all politeness, it obscures a depth of tension. Think of “Won’t you come in?” “Do come in!” “Come in.” ” Come!”. The more polite we are, the more tense we really feel.
So in this sense, “Can I give you feedback?” means, “Can I tell you how irritating you have been been?”
The best response is for us to put on our “active listening” hat, option 3, angry.
An angry person wants their anger to be acknowledged. Accept their anger and restore their status. It is not hard.
Then, if there is a practical issue too, deal with it. But first deal with the social issue. They feel “dissed”. Restore their status by accepting their right to feel dissed and to tell you about it.
Professional meaning of feedback
The proper meaning of feedback, though, is “distance to a goal”. This is the essence of motivation. The mouse runs faster when it sees the cheese. And because it is the essence of motivation, feedback is the most powerful tool in the psychology of high performance.
Once a university asked me to teach employee engagement to MBA’s in 3 hours. Not possible. Teaching the principles of feedback, practicing them till we are fluent, and using them in context, is a language that takes more than three hours to learn. And it is too important to be tossed off as a topic.
So this is a long post. But I hope you find it useful and towards the end, when I speculate on how we can improve the “feedback” we collect about training, and how we can do better HR when we manage the feedback loops in an organization, I hope you jot down some ideas and give me feedback.
Three types of feedback
Feedback tells you whether you achieved your goal . Feedback means it is informaton given after the event.
Feedback has all these elements and characteristics.
- We have a goal and we need to know what it is. In an organization, we all need to know what the goal is.
- We have a way of measuring how far away we are from our goal. How close are we to our cheese?
- And we are told the distance to the cheese after we have stopped looking for it! If the task is repetitive, like target practice, feedback after each trial is useful. Top class medical transcribers raise their performance another 20% if you tell them each day how many words they typed!
- But if I tell you after a year, the information is worthless. So why do give it?
- Sorry to be dismissive, but if your boss is giving your feedback after the event and maybe a year later, he or she is not exactly on top of things. Think big banks running the 6th richest country in the world onto the rocks of bankruptcy. Giving feedback at the wrong point of the system is disastrous. Think seriously about getting a better boss.
- And in HR, it is our job to monitor how feedback is used and to design it into jobs properly.
So this is feedback. It is useful when we have a repetitive task but it must be delivered before we begin the next trial. No wait, let me be more precise, before we start preparing for the next trial.
Feedforward tells us about our goal and, importantly, the context of the goal. Feedforward is provided before an event.
- The best example of feedforward comes from the military.
- SMEAC – Situation, Mission, Execution, Administration, Communication
- The boss is required to lay out the team’s operation on one piece of paper giving
- the goal for the organization level above him or her (situation)
- his or her goal – the group mission in one sentence (mission)
- the goals for each member of the team in one sentence each (execution)
- any non-standard resources (administration)
- the points at which we must communicate (feedback which becomes feedforward to someone else).
- So we need information at three levels of the organization. We need to know who is doing what around us. We need to know how we will coordinate.
- Sadly, I’ve only seen this done in the best organizations. When I offered assessment centres to these organizations, we included delegation tasks in our assessment centres because they quickly reveal whether a manager understands the organization. And organization, not control, is what managers are responsible for.
Feedfoward is provided before work begins. It is taught carefully in the military and we can learn a lot from them. In my experience, when something goes wrong, almost always I can track the problem back to information that is missing from the description about the situation. We didn’t brief people properly about the context.
Continuous feedback, which oddly does not have a specific name, is the third type and is the most important for high performance. This is feedback that comes from the task itself. It is fairly immediate.
- You’ll have noticed that in the SMEAC system, we delegate a goal with one sentence only. I ask you, if someone is fully trained, why do they need more than that?
- A trained person will get on with the task and is obtaining information from the work as it progresses. A chef works on sight, smell, touch. The feedback is inherent in the task.
- We experience flow when the feedback is built into a task. We experience flow when time vanishes because we are so engaged. We are inside the task. We enjoy doing skilled work in a skilled way and if we want engaged, happy employees, or motivated, happy students, this is what we have to get right. They must have tasks where the feedback comes to them from the task itself.
- Bad jobs remove feedback. I refer to bosses who “steal feedback”. They intercept information and stop it going back to the person who does the job. They cause accidents. “Stealing feedback” is like making someone drive blindfolded and directing operations from the back seat. It is micro-management.
- The military are aware of this problem and carefully judge communication loads. Lieutenants command three sections so the co-ordination task is sufficiently demanding and leaves no time to interfere with their sergeants.
- If information goes to a manager rather than to the person doing the task, don’t be surprised if the task does not get done and the whole team runs into trouble. The manager is attending to information that should be going elsewhere and they are not attending to their own role which is acting as the coordination point between 5-10 people and between that group and the organization at large.
- Sort out this feature of task and organizational design, and your productivity leaps forward. Depending on the your baseline, you may get gains of 10% or 20%. I’ve seen gains of 100%, 200% and in one remarkable case, 1200% with no capital outlay. Just HR doing its job.
- And best of all managers have time to manage – that is coordinate and attend to the environment.
Continuous feedback leads to high performance. And it creates the highly pleasurable sensation of flow.
Feedforward tells us what needs to be be done. It is the critical briefing about the context of a task before we begin it.
And feedback tells us what we did yesterday.
So if feedback is about yesterday, why is it used so extensively in business?
I think it is because people want to express anger and their anger is about status. A boss is establishing status.
Sadly (IMHO), English-speaking countries have masculine cultures. We spend a lot of time establishing the pecking order. Not all cultures do this. They don’t have to put other people down to feel good.
And because we spend a lot of the time engaged in one upmanship and oneupmanship is really impolite, we have to deny what we are doing and be “polite” on the surface.
Let me spell out what this means in practice. In Commonwealth countries, officers and “men” don’t eat together. Or didn’t. Has this changed? In European countries, they do. This I understand (has it changed), makes joint military operations between the UK and our allies very difficult. In less masculine countries, artificial status differences are unacceptable. You lead by doing your job.
Interestly, this is the difference between Gen Y and the Baby Boomers. Boomers who think they are liberated still subscribe to the pecking order culture. Gen Y don’t. 16 year olds befriend 50 year olds happily on the basis of common interest. They are less experienced in some respects and more skilled in others and expect to be incorporated on the basis of their contribution not their place in some kind of queue.
So what has this to do with feedback or the distorted way we use feedback?
Everything. The industrial system, a la Taylor, works on a principle of Gap Management. Not “Mind the Gap” of the London Underground which is a useful bit of feedforward. But a gap that is presumed. This is how it goes.
I am the boss. I define the way the world should be. And I must make sure you live up to that idea. First, I assume there is a gap and I look for it. Second, I assume the gap is a bad thing so I suffer negative feelings. Third, your performance in so far it differs from what I imagined disappoints me. Fourth, I am the boss, so my feelings of disappointment anger me. See how it goes? Now is the time someone says, “Can I give you feedback!”
An alternative to gap management, anger, and “feedback” at work?
There is an alternative and even the Americans “get it”! For quite a while now. It goes by the rubrics of positive psychology and positive organizational scholarship.
People get distracted by the word “positive” assuming this to be advocating “politeness”. We all know people who advocate vacuous pleasantness and optimism but who are mean and vicious underneath. When we come at the world with a masculine, pecking order, mindset, positive seems all wrong.
So lets let’s put pecking orders aside and look at the alternative.
In many situations, if not most situations, defining a goal in advance is unrealistic. Even it is possible, we will lose out a lot. In the military, they say no plan survives meeting the enemy. We always have to improvise on the day. Under these conditions, you can see that gap management and feedback is counter-productive.
So why do we do plan? The military say it is not the plan, but the planning. We prime ourselves with relevant information so that we can process unfolding events as they happen. But we allow alternative ideas to develop.
That does not mean chaos. It means the opposite. And it does not mean a boss who has no idea what is happening.
It means a boss who is picking up communications, or feedback, from each of us, reconstructing the overall picture, and holding that up to us so we can see our collective position.
When we have an annual feedback review, this is what should be happening.
The boss, who is responsible for the annual cycle should be saying, “This is where we were a year ago. This is what our challenges have been. This is where we are now. This is where we are going.”
In a large organization, again, this is situated at the three levels.
- Situation – which includes the actions of other departments around us.
- The aggregate team level – where we came from and where we are going.
- The members of the team and the team structure – who was with us at the beginning, the role they were playing, how we morphed to who is with us now, and the general role each person is playing now.
How different this is from the rituals of anger and one upmanship that are played out in most of the organizations we know.
21st century management is about “eating with the men” and feedback is about showing how you have improved the organization. Your team wants to hear. Your team wants to applaud.
Feedback in Training
I started writing this post because Jackie Cameron (@jayseetoo) was talking about feedback in training. This is how I think we depart from our tradition of gap management in training. Let me know what you think and we can develop these ideas together.
My understanding of the training situation
In a training situation, a person comes into the room with a goal. But by definition, they do not know all the goals they could have. If they did, the training would not be useful to them.
They also come into a group situation (unless you see training as 30 separate bodies sitting passively like physical objects). And they interact with each other to mutual gain and quite often to mutual irritation.
Irritation and anger are part of life. We need to stop pretending they aren’t. Though they feel bad, they aren’t bad. They are simply emotional signals that we feel we aren’t being heard.
With this description of training, what “feedback” do we need?
1 How did our goals change during the training course?
I want to know how our goals changed during the training session. And that includes the goals of the trainers. We aren’t doing gap management – one person doesn’t know everything! Thus I ask, whose goals have changed, and how?
I see training as a timeout where we follow a process which culminates in the comparison of the goals we had when we began with the goals we have as we return to the world and our lives.
And it is possible that we end a training course annoyed and disappointed! That’s OK. We may have been deluded at the outset about the possibilities available to us.
My evaluation questions go like this:
- Did taking this course help you define goals more clearly and help you get more out of life, or alternatively, avoid taking a wrong turn?
- How much did you gain as a % of the fees we charged you? Or, how much would you have spent if you had continued in the wrong direction?
2 Are we confident about our new goals?
I want to know that a person can act on their own and so I want each person to actively work on their own plans.
A person might come to the conclusion “bin this subject – it is not for me”.
They also might end the course by deciding to follow up another question.
Both are acceptable outcomes to me. What I want to know is whether they have moved on in some way.
The end of a course is a time of “adjourning” too. People are moving from group to individual action and they need to visualize and mentally rehearse using the material as an individual and without my support and the support of the group.
So I collect the goals expressed at the end of the course and analyse them in my post-course review and evaluate extent to which they are active and specific.
I also add this evaluation question:
- How confident are you that you will complete this action?
Self-efficacy is not sufficient for completion but it is necessary for completion.
3 Were we in good company?
I also want my course to be a resource to a person as they go through life and it is here I get the most important feedback on what I could do to improve the course.
I ask these questions, or variations, thereof:
- Are you proud that you took this course?
- Do you believe that the people who were on this course with you will do what they say?
Collective efficacy boosts performance and if people are proud to be in the room, they will learn heaps more.
I add practical questions here too.
- Have you met people, or renewed contact with people, whom you will contact after the course and find helpful in your work?
4 Did I believe I you?
And then I ask the humdinger of the question:
- Do you think that I believed in you?
The Pygmalion effect has a dramatic impact on people’s self-efficacy.
And I might also ask an open question:
- How did I express my belief in you?
5 Did I believe in this group?
And lastly, I’ll ask myself this extremely important question.
- Did I believe in this group?
If they ring me up next week, would I be happy to take their call?
Am I happy to have them follow me on Twitter and would I find their tweets interesting?
Can they follow me on Facebook and do I trust them to respect me?
What did I learn from this group and when I gave the summation and showed who we were when we began and who we were at the end, what did I feel and why?
If my evaluation of my group is not positive, I simply shouldn’t be leading them.
That is the challenge to English-speaking corporates. Why are the people in-charge allowed to be uninspired by their “followers”? It is not good enough.
I’ve also learned to ask this question positively: What happened today and “WHY DID IT GO SO WELL?”
HR and the urge to give feedback
Those of us in HR need to monitor these urges to “give feedback”. What is the real issue that has flipped this group into a negative spiral?
Once we notice that a group is so annoyed with each other that they are “giving feedback”, we should do something. This is my thought process. Yours?
- Is the job badly designed and is the boss interfering in the level below? Or rather what are the goals above the boss, at the boss’ level, and the level below?
- Has the group task been badly designed and are the communication points between team members miss-set? Maybe we have been over-ambitious?
- If one team member has tripped up, why? Was their goal consistent with circumstances and resources?
- Is it a matter of training and selection – did we trip up? Did we set up one of our employees and their colleagues for a fall?
If you aren’t able to facilitate a return to an upward spiral by going through these qustions, I will eat my hat. Try me out. I far prefer to wear my hat so this is a serious offer.
But remember, you may have to accept a lot of anger at the outset, dressed up as “feedback”.
And if you can’t do that, it’s probably because you don’t believe in this team enough, and maybe you should get another person to take on the job!
21st century management
21st century work is not about one person defining the goal. It is about all of us working out what is possible.
Managers play an important role in negotiating and facilitating our sense of what is possible and simultaneously defusing strong emotions when these threaten to set us all on a downward spiral.
A manager’s role is to hold up a mirror so we see our collective dream in sharper relief and heighten our confidence in each other.
It is beautiful when we see it happening.
And did this help you at all? Do you have a reaction which would help me? Are we in better place than we were before?
I am. Writing helps organize thoughts. This is a pretty rambling post incorporating culture, feedback and organization with management, HR, training and selection but it has helped me heaps. Thanks and sorry about remaining typos and grammatical errors. There is a lesson in this. Don’t write long posts. So thanks. If you are reading this, you’ve stuck with me for a long while.
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Commenting on my own post! Check out Steve Roesler’s 3 evaluation questions on Jackie’s blog (see above). Begin there!
Thanks for a thought provoking and thorough analysis about feedback. Greatly appreciate your insight. It is something I want to reread and ponder about.
Hi Jo – wow, what can I say. So much great stuff in there. I will use the questions you suggest tomorrow after the training. I will tell them why -let’s see what they say too…and maybe get them to join the debate?
I need to come back and reflect on this some more later in the week. I am keen to see how this can be developed!