Created by Carolin Peinecke

Feedback – just do it!

Recently a participant in a leadership development programme said this about the feedback culture in his company: “I have no idea whether my boss is satisfied with my work. I hope so. Usually you find out straight away if something is wrong!” He wasn’t happy with this state of affairs.

In many cases he would have liked a constructive critical debate about the results of his work. Because he couldn’t really be sure if ‘everything’s OK’ or how his performance was really perceived. For him constructive feedback would also be an expression of appreciation both of his work and of him as an individual. The permanent absence of feedback triggered negative thoughts and uncertainty in him. For me this training sequence confirmed once again the key significance of developing a good feedback culture in successful individual employee development and in furthering constructive collaboration within an organisation.

Our message to the participants in our development programmes is that successful leadership is constructive interaction with the team and with each individual employee.
This is the core insight of a systemic understanding of leadership. We thus focus on communication as the determining instrument in leadership activity, without which the synchronisation of goals and expectations would be left to chance and only rarely be achieved efficiently. In addition to the clarification of expectations, continuous feedback loops take on a key significance.

To illustrate this, we use the image of the children’s game ‘hit the pot’.
The employee is the child with the blindfold. The goal is the cooking pot under which a sweet is hidden. If, at the beginning, the child receives no feedback on ‘cold’, ‘warm’ or ‘hot’, he mostly reacts in one of three ways: he stays where he is and waits, he starts hitting around wildly with the wooden spoon or he takes off the blindfold and quits the game in frustration. An employee who receives no feedback can only react in the same way. He would rather do nothing or does something that risks going off in the wrong direction or quits, giving the task back or leaving his position or even the company. Therefore reflecting on the way a leader makes use of the classical tool of feedback in his or her day-to-day leadership activity is an essential part of our work. Unfortunately, the reports of our participants do not paint a positive picture of their day-to-day experience. Feedback is used as a leadership tool far too rarely or is reduced to cases where there are problems to be dealt with. If giving and receiving feedback doesn’t form part of the normal leadership repertoire in an organisation, this is often a sign that the topic is considered problematic at an individual level and is filled with fear. It is often challenging for leaders to overcome their reservations and openly address their observations and wishes because they fear that they will damage their relationship with their employees. Sometimes leaders are also not sure if a topic is really relevant for feedback. To what extent is it permitted to bring in personal matters relating to work? Do you not just have to accept the employee as he is? What can really be changed?

Feedback is used as a leadership tool far too rarely
or is reduced to cases
where there are problems to be dealt with.

It is also interesting to observe that openly expressed recognition and appreciation of employees is also not always given as it should be.
Quite the opposite – many leaders have difficulty in describing good performance as such.
This is a pity as most employees would like some feedback on their actions more frequently than they get it. Where different perceptions have been aligned – which entails a comparison of their own view with an outside view – it provides them with a sense of security. If employees regularly and promptly receive answers to questions such as “How well am I running my project” or “How good was my presentation? and “Where is there still room for improvement?”, this represents the most valuable source of learning and boosts individual personal development. Gaining mutual acceptance and appreciation is the positive effect of interaction in which giving and receiving feedback becomes the everyday norm. It’s like being ‘warm’ in the children’s game. On the condition that there is a healthy balance of positive and critical feedback.

In our leadership development programmes we place great value on addressing and changing the participants’ basic attitude to feedback.
In many practical participant examples of employees who in their opinion are not performing, we can demonstrate that the employees have often not even understood what the expected good performance is. Many leaders fail to begin the working process with a clear statement of expectations. But this is the start of everything. If there is a clear statement of expectations at the beginning, feedback can very easily be built on this. Together leader and employee can discuss how well the expectations have been met. Feedback is not a tool that is exclusively intended for annual performance appraisals. Feedback has to be provided continuously. Remember the game of ‘hit the pot’: watch how much more quickly the blindfolded child moves around the room if he regularly receives feedback and how much better he feels in the blindfolded role when he is sure he will succeed. The basic maxim is to take every opportunity to make use of feedback. Saying ‘warm’ whenever you can just like in the children’s game - even if it’s on the run – can speed up the pace of work and boost the satisfaction of employees in the simplest of ways. It is for this reason that we accord such a key significance to feedback in our leadership development training – whether as a situational behaviour or as a process. Without feedback there is no performance.

But how do you implement feedback as a process?
As is so often the case, the responsibility lies in the upper layers of management. If feedback is to be applied in a consistent and binding way within an organisation as a leadership tool, it needs to be embedded in the culture of communication and trust and developed as such with the overall idea of developing leadership culture. In my view, this entails making feedback itself an explicit and constant topic in addition to knowing and applying the general rules of feedback. Management teams need to explicitly agree and follow up on how they will cultivate more feedback, individual leaders have to be made aware of their development responsibility and each individual employee needs to be constantly encouraged by various means to provide and demand feedback.

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