Good or bad, feedback is a must in business

Posted on Written by Jerald F. Robinson
Jerald F. Robinson

What do you think of feedback? Do you like to give it? Do you yell at football referees when they make a questionable call? What about that digital “thingamajig” you bought at Christmas … and took back a few days later because it did not work? And what did you yell at the slow clerk who was making excuses to everyone? Yes, we often offer negative feedback, especially under some stress.

Do you like to receive it? Do you like to be told that your new outfit is striking and does wonders for you? Do you like to be told how striking your new Buick looks … just like on TV, they say. Do you like to be told that your driving stinks (even if only with hand gestures)? Do you like to hear criticism of your decisions, even from persons unaffected by them? Do you like to hear complaints from your kids about being late to pick them up from soccer practice? It seems that much of the feedback we receive is less than complimentary. Thus, we may tend not to want feedback at all.

Feedback, however, can mean different things to different people. My wife thinks of the reflected voice heard at times on the cell phone line when there is some interference. To her, feedback is bad; thus, she always seeks to avoid feedback. This is not an unusual reaction by managers either.

If you go to a chain restaurant, you may be a “lucky customer” whose restaurant tab has a possible $4 discount on the next meal, if you will only call the 800 number and provide “feedback” on the various aspects of your dining “experience.” The company management presumably seeks the feedback to be able to improve the future “experience.” This feedback is both anonymous and is not directly affecting the manager who will receive a tabulated result. We might call it safe feedback. Thus, the organization seeks it.

When we receive telephone inquiries about our political preferences, most people refuse to provide that feedback. It may be viewed as “not safe” for us. Thus, the feedback that is collected could be biased because so many decline to provide it.

Think about your children or grandchildren. Can you recall knowing they had been bad in some way and how they acted in a way in which you knew they wanted feedback to confirm their behavior was not acceptable? Failing to get that feedback, they then believe the previously bad behavior is now acceptable. Feedback must be timely to avoid even more undesirable results.

“How am I doing, boss?” was the name of a popular training movie in the 1970s. The clerical employees in a department were not receiving any feedback, and they came up with unorthodox ways of telling the manager of their need for feedback. This is important both to new hires and all members of the work team.

Then there is the required and hated-by-all “annual” performance review. The manager hates to have to prepare for it. It takes a large amount of time, if done properly. However, the typical manager hates to sit eye-to-eye and tell the employee what has been done well and done poorly during the evaluation period. And consider the employee now who does not really want to hear the things that might be said. Feedback is feared and not wanted to be said or heard.

Goodness, we are in a sorry situation. In previous columns, I have addressed this issue and made suggestions for improving the interaction. However, the performance feedback is uncomfortable for all.

And a Web search suggests that, according to “women’s magazines,” men are always seeking feedback on their boudoir proficiency. Anticipating positive feedback makes one feel good about the feedback. Likely, we will like feedback that is positive in any situation.

There is an old saying in management education: Feedback is the “Breakfast of Champions.” This is a 1960s takeoff on the then-popular slogan for Wheaties cereal. A new spin for us in 2010 on this slogan can be proposed: What if marine industry managers were to begin the new year by actively seeking feedback from their department/staff members?

What an idea! Are you up for it? If not, turn the page and move on. Otherwise, read on.

Roger Connors and Tom Smith, founders of the consulting firm Partners in Leadership, offer some splendid ideas for improving management performance in their book, “The Oz Principle.” (This writer has no affiliation or connection with the firm or book.) The authors argue that managers will be more accountable if they seek feedback. I look at the process as a significant tool for a manager to modify their behavior in such a way that employees become accountable.

Here are some suggestions you might consider:

Every action by senior managers affects their organization, and each of these managers has strengths and weaknesses. Companies can’t grow unless senior managers grow. Older senior managers as well as younger ones can grow. However, senior managers rarely get honest feedback, so they never really can identify how they might be more effective. Feedback is needed and can be achieved in most business settings. If senior managers will start the feedback regimen, other managers will follow their lead.

The feedback regimen is most easily accomplished by any manager new to a position. A “new kid on the clock” can get more honest feedback than an established manager at first. Stopping and asking various employees (and managers) for one suggestion of how you could be more effective in your management job is a good start.

Established managers might need to rephrase the request for feedback. You should be seeking particular feedback as an established manager, especially a senior manager. I am adding some examples of the type of questions you might ask. You can rephrase as you wish to make it natural for you. You might wish to have some feedback discussions in your office, in the other’s office or at a person’s workplace. It is important that the giver of feedback be given freedom to express without interruption or rebuttal. And always conclude the brief interaction with a “Thank you for your feedback. I do appreciate your willingness to share, and I will seriously incorporate your ideas.”

How am I doing in communicating to members of our department in a candid manner? Follow-up: Can you share with me one example when I have not communicated well? I need to know where I am not doing a good job. Help me.

What feedback can you give me about how I’m solving problems important to you? Follow-up: What are some critical problems in our company/     department/work group that should   be addressed.

Give me some feedback about how I’m making important decisions and whether I involve other managers and work team members.

What can you share with me about whether you believe our work unit is directed toward results deemed important for the company? What should we be doing that we are not doing?

Do you see any evidence of me taking advantage of feedback and really using the ideas? Follow-up: Can you give me any examples?

Give me some feedback about how well I accomplish doing things I say I will do.

What feedback can you offer me about the level of trust in our department/our work group/our company? Follow-up: Can you give me an example of where the lack of trust has hurt our performance? Second follow-up: What are some ways to improve the level of trust?

Each feedback encounter should last maybe three to five minutes and should not appear to be any formally organized series of encounters. It should be – and should be viewed as – spontaneous on your part. When you are receiving feedback, you should take notes on what is being said. The names of the responders should not be recorded. After the interaction, take some time to write the ideas in a more useful fashion. Needless to say, never take any punitive action toward anyone who has shared their views, even if they offered news that is hard to swallow. We all need feedback.

Let 2010 be a feedback year, and I hope you will try to make full use of continual feedback to improve as a manager at your company. Happy New Year.

Jerald F. Robinson, Ph.D., is professor emeritus – international management at the Pamplin College of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He can be reached at (540) 449-5870 or by e-mail: JFR@vt.edu.

This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue.

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