Tuning in to feedback

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:22 pm

It’s not squealing, it’s feedback

Jo Hawkins Donovan


Feedback – the breakfast of champions. My friend Anne Curley, president of Curley Communication, used that phrase when we were talking about feedback. We see or hear this word about a hundred times daily, and I remember when the only meaning I attributed to "feedback" was that squealing noise coming out of the microphone while I was delivering a speech somewhere.

For many of the people I coach, feedback still seems like a squealing noise. I think of the term a lot in my work or, rather, the concept of getting a handle on how we come across to others. In many organizations, the only opportunity for feedback is the annual performance review. I coach one executive in a large corporation who estimates that preparing for and delivering reviews — not to mention getting ready for his own reviews — can consume most of the managers’ energy for two months of the year. This is all weightier since the review process is usually tied to compensation.

There has got to be a better way.

Many organizations are now using a 360-degree feedback system, sometimes in place of the conventional performance reviews, sometimes piled on top. This no doubt provides more data.

Those three-sided mirrors you see in most clothing stores do give you a better idea of how you look in the outfit than the one flat mirror in the dressing room. And sometimes that is good news and sometimes not.

I remember hearing Mike Vance, the creativity guru, say about 360-degree reviews, "Now you have nine people telling you how you screw up instead of one!"

Some organizations use a refinement of the 360-degree process that puts teeth into it. That is attaching one-on-one coaching for each of the participants following the delivery of the feedback. I’ve provided that type of coaching, where the participant sets priorities for change based on the 360 review, then works with the coach to activate behavioral change right away. When the organization makes such an additional investment, employees have support and direction. They take steps to close the gaps between the skill levels necessary to do their jobs well, and their performance levels reflected in the eyes of their peers, bosses, subordinates and often themselves as well.

The more responsibility you have in the organization, i.e., the higher up you are in the ranks, the more difficult it is for people to give you honest feedback, especially negative feedback. All bosses need to keep this in mind. They need the "breakfast of champions" more than anyone, yet it is just human nature that when a power differential exists, there is a built-in fear of the consequences of pointing out — even hinting at — areas for improvement.

I’ve done a fair amount of executive coaching in one organization where all the reviews are "upward". It took some time for employees in this organization, a large insurance firm, to trust the process. Now that they do, I think it works quite well.

Of course, running through this whole feedback concept is the individual’s level of self-trust. The more grounded we are, the more clarity we have about any feedback coming our way, including accolades. Most of the people I meet have the intention of doing well at their work, of learning and growing into new levels of responsibility and contribution to the organization. When they have the sense there is no more to learn, nowhere else to go in the system, they get restless. If you add to those good intentions an honest appraisal of their own performance, feedback from others can be welcomed.

All feedback needs sifting through. We need to decide if there are components that really are about the messenger. We need to calmly accept the gifts in it, and to feel any sting in it as that may be the most valuable piece of all.

That sting may be the signal that this feedback resonates with our own appraisal, touches a place we know darned well needs attention. And this feedback, whether it comes in some formal review, a 360-degree process, or a remark dropped in between compliments during a hallway conversation, can be the impetus to buff up an area of our lives.

Of course in open systems, the ideal is continuous feedback. We need to learn how to communicate with the people around us and to form strong enough relationships to do just that. She just got, well intense, about how she asked for what she wanted, and scared when she thought it might not be forthcoming. Needless to say, with these emotions raging, she lost touch with her charm and instead of inspiring a cooperative spirit, inspired "push-back". I talked with some of the "ticked-off" colleagues periodically while I was coaching this woman, and they were so gratified that she brought them into her confidence. They became strong supporters during her change process, providing honest feedback which gave us both clear data about her turnaround. Sweet success.

Dealing with people who report to you, this process needs to be on-going, not set apart as a dreaded time of the year. I believe it works best when feedback is tied closely to the mesh between the employee’s career aspirations and organizational goals. It is a manager’s job to know those career aspirations of direct reports as intimately as he knows his own. Then feedback can be as welcome as it is from my golf coach, especially when I just relax and swing that danged club and he says "Yes, Ma’am!"

Jo Hawkins Donovan has a coaching and psychotherapy firm in Milwaukee, and can be reached at 414-271-5848 or jo@hawkinsdonovan.com. The firm’s Web site is www.hawkinsdonovan.com. Hawkins Donovan will respond to your questions in this column. Her column appears in every other issue of SBT.

April 12, 2002 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

Sign up for BizTimes Daily Alerts

Stay up-to-date on the people, companies and issues that impact business in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin

No posts to display