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October 20, 2016

Feedback: 11 Steps to Success

Elizabeth Eyre


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The world of politics attracts regular media attention but, in recent monthsthe spotlight has been focused more than ever on it due to various political contests on both sides of the Atlantic.

For a profession that’s so focused on performance, it's odd that politicians belong to one of the few employment areas untouched by performance management (PM).

Since the late 1970s, HR professionals have developed the now-widespread process of people discussing their strengths and weaknesses with their managers, being set objectives, and being offered support.

Recently, former HR practitioner and university lecturer Martyn Sloman, who now writes on social and political issues, described a party political situation several years ago with which he was personally acquainted. Martyn explained that a (now former) politician "was a decent fellow but lacked the skills to be effective" in politics. A senior party official advised that local officials should agree on the areas where the politician was deficient, give him every opportunity to improve, and support him in the process. Only after this had failed should there be a move to remove him from office.

"Some years later, as I moved into HR, I learned that what had been described was PM," says Martyn. "The PM model that I used was based on three 'Cs:' commitment, compliance and consequences.

"Changes in behavior are most likely to work when the individual recognizes the problem and is willing to do something about it. If securing commitment doesn't work, compliance involves imposing a solution, and the final step consequences involves telling the individual the potentially serious implications of continued under-performance."

Martyn believes that a legitimate criticism of Western political systems is that increasing numbers of politicians have no working experience outside politics. This means that they never been given the "support and challenge" that underpins performance improvement.

Consequently, these politicians can deny their deficiencies – blaming everyone except themselves. Martyn adds, "There's no prospect of commitment and we move straight to consequences – leading to dire electoral prospects."

Even outside the formal PM process, politicians receive vast quantities of feedback. The amount of this feedback can blind them to at least some of its truths. In any case – according to research by Columbia University neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner, cited at a NeuroLeadership Summit in Boston, MA – people (not just politicians) who receive feedback apply it only about 30 percent of the time.

Ken Blanchard – the U.S.-based management and leadership expert, speaker and author of more than 60 books, including The One Minute Manager – is credited with saying that, "Feedback is the breakfast of champions." According to Ken, who, unsurprisingly, advocates truthful, timely feedback, "I first heard that phrase from a former colleague, Rick Tate.

"He explained it in sports terms. Can you imagine training for the Olympics with no one telling you how fast you ran or how high you jumped? That idea seems ludicrous, yet many people operate in a vacuum in organizations, not knowing how well they're doing on any given task."

While we should all accept feedback gladly because it can provide insights to help us to improve our performance, all of us also – know the fear of feedback because it can be personally destructive. This fear can make us apprehensive about – even resistant to – receiving feedback.

In a work setting, if not necessarily in politics, there are ways to overcome this apprehension and resistance. One such process is:

  • Don't presume that the "feedback-receiver" sees his or her behavior in the same way that you do.
  • So, acknowledge that you're expressing an opinion.
  • Ask to hear the other person's opinion, too. These insights can help you to secure commitment when you get to step 11 of this process.
  • Use neutral language, avoiding words that carry negative connotations.
  • Don't place blame.
  • Focus on what the "receiver" does (performance) not how he makes others feel (personality) – because it’s easier to be more objective about actions than feelings.
  • Ask for similar feedback from the "receiver" about yourself and the opinions that you're expressing.
  • Be brave enough to ask, "How am I contributing to this problem?"
  • Listen carefully and "actively" throughout, then...
  • Respond appropriately, being as positive and specific as possible.
  • Secure a commitment – as Martyn recommends. Make a specific request for a behavior change. Be open to counter-offers but conclude with an agreement on the goal.

This process must be conducted one-on-one never publicly. Bear in mind, too, that people tend to become what you encourage them to be, not what you nag them to be.

Richard Lowe, the Director of Training and Digital Learning Solutions at Hewlett Rand, says: "There's a misconception that PM is, effectively, an annual appraisal – yet feedback should never be just trotted out once a year. PM should happen every day.

"If managers are trained well in PM, staff should feel coached, stretched and motivated by the process. PM is as much about catching people doing things right as it is about correcting and feeding back improvement opportunities."

Kathryn Horton, the owner of U.K.-based training company Turning Factor, says, "It's common for people to fear feedback because it can stem from criticism of their behavior and performance. Yet giving feedback should be a motivational experience for both the giver and receiver, as it gives transparency to your communication and views."

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2 comments on “Feedback: 11 Steps to Success”

  1. Good points, Elizabeth! I agree that politicians would benefit from some work outside the political realm. I also appreciate your reminder, "... that people tend to become what you encourage them to be, not what you nag them to be."
    As to the feedback politicians receive, much of the positive is simply sucking-up for future favors, and the negative is just to get under the politician's skin. The ultimate feedback comes in two forms: re-election or "don't let the door hit you in the ***." Neither is useful to improving performance.

    1. Thanks Bruce for your comments and thoughts. Wouldn't it be great if there were a better means to give feedback and improve performance for politicians? Any suggestions or ideas?

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