December 2016

Feedback: The Essential Communication Connection

by Perry Martini, Ph.D.

Much has been written and said about the concept of feedback. We experience feedback as young children and into adolescence from our parents. Moreover, feedback intensifies once we start attending school through the thousands of essays, quizzes, and tests we take over the course of our education lifetime. Teachers, parents, and in some cases peers provide plenty of feedback on how well we are doing in life and in school. For those fortunate to attend higher education, college professors provide feedback almost daily in the classroom and/or online.

Feedback in a different form awaits at work. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, twelve million people will lose a job each year, and countless others will worry that they may be next. More than a half million entrepreneurs will open their doors for the first time, and almost as many will shut down their doors for the last time. Thousands of other businesses will struggle to get by as debates proliferate in the lunchrooms and boardrooms about why they are struggling. Feedback, both internal and external, becomes an issue to success or failure.

It is estimated that between 50 and 75 percent of all employees will receive performance reviews this year which determines bonuses, raises, promotions and at times our self-esteem. Unfortunately, many think this type of feedback at the end of the year suffices. Feedback is a two way street and must be an ongoing process. People frequently give feedback to those that will listen and conversely find that there will be others that do not want to hear anything that might cause negative or constructive feedback.

Effective feedback is that information that is clearly heard, understood and accepted. When giving feedback you have control as to what is being said, so it is in fact communicated effectively and meets these three critical areas. Developing effective feedback is essential in connecting with your people, and following a few simple steps can make a difference both at work and at home.

Feedback should be about behavior or actions taken and not about one's personality. The most important rule on feedback to keep in mind is that you are not communicating opinions on who someone is but rather only commenting on how they behave. Do not be tempted or drift into discussing aspects of personality, intelligence or anything other than behavior. Moreover, you have no idea as to the effect on anyone else, only on how something made you feel or what you thought. Presenting feedback directly from you makes it much easier for a recipient to hear and accept it, even if it is negative or constructive. This approach is "blame-free" and much more acceptable, causing one to listen carefully when feedback is taking place.

Be specific — always. This is particularly important when things are not going well and you have to deliver a constructive message. Avoid general terms and vague third person references. The more specific the better, as it is far easier to hear about a specific event or situation rather than to hear, "you always" or "you constantly" do this or that.

It's not very effective to tell someone about something that offended or pleased you six months later. Feedback definitely needs to be timely so that all concerned can still remember the specifics of what occurred. Don't meander in the conversation — get to it. This doesn't mean you shouldn't give it considerable thought — just make sure feedback is timely so it is effective and appreciated.

As a leader it is imperative that you are aware of how to pick your moment prior to delivering feedback. Effective leaders have developed the skill to be aware of the emotions and feelings of others, especially when they are different. Choosing the suitable moment and environment to deliver constructive feedback is progress in completing the essential connection.

As leaders we tend to forget that in order to provide effective feedback we must ourselves be able to receive feedback. In order to be an effective teacher or instructor one must be a good student. As simple as it sounds, it is usually the most important ingredient in effective leadership and communications. If you have not been coachable, or are not one who accepted feedback well moving up the ladder of success, it will be difficult to provide effective feedback to others.

Be constantly aware of why feedback is essential to effective leadership and the methods you employ. Problems and issues at work can be solved if feedback is used effectively by the entire chain of command. The rewards are great and the stakes have never been higher.

Perry J. Martini, Ph.D., is a 1971 graduate of the United States Naval Academy and later earned three Masters Degrees in Business, Education, and International Affairs. He holds a Doctoral Degree in Education with Distinction from The George Washington University. Perry was a Naval Aviator and served for twenty-seven years in multiple leadership positions. He is currently the Director of Executive Leadership Programs at Academy Leadership, and an accomplished author and speaker.