Feedback and Appraisals

I ran a training session for a group of 15 managers from a favourite client of mine yesterday on How to Make Appraisals Work.  I started the session as I often do with a question:

When you are being appraised what is it that you most want to get from the process?

The first answer I got?

We want feedback!

In other words we work all year and this is the one opportunity to get feedback on how we have done.

This is one of the most common problems in making appraisals work.  Managers store up feedback throughout the year and then try to fire it all off at appraisal time.

Feedback should be given little and often throughout the year to influence behaviour and performance in real time.  Not in the annual feedback fest that is sometimes called appraisal.

Without Valleys There Can Be No Mountains

I am not sure where I first collected this quote but the more I think about it the more I see its relevance to effective management.

To me it means that wherever there is a great strength there is also a great weakness.  You cannot have one without the other.  Ying and Yang. I think this relates to a Jungian concept that whatever light shows us our way forward will always cast a corresponding shadow.

If this is the case then it becomes impossible to minimise a weakness without compromising the strength with which it is paired.

It also means that whenever we see a weakness we should look for the corresponding strength.  This is important because so many managers become almost obsessed by fixing problems rather than by celebrating and maximising strengths.

So when you find yourself recognising a weakness in yourself or others – spend a few moments looking for the corresponding strength.

Putting it into Practice

The new year has started off with a couple of interesting management development contracts.  One in an FE/HE college and one in a housing association.

In both cases the reaction to the training has been very positive.  Managers have started using 121s which I am really pleased about – but once again – have found it difficult to start to give affirming or adjusting feedback.  The main barriers to giving feedback seem to be around ‘self-image’.

Perhaps it is a lack of confidence as a manager (it really is your job to give and get feedback if you are a manager – this is not negotiable!).

Perhaps it is fear of an emotional reaction (although we train feedback models that keep the chances of this very small).

It may be that managers are just not sufficiently clear about the behaviours they are trying to influence in pursuit of performance.

Or it may just be the fear of trying something new, of saying different words, of picking up on things that have historically been overlooked.

The one thing I do know is that once managers start to give and get great feedback rapid progress becomes possible.

1. Say ‘Thank You’ and Smile…

When one of your team members offers you a suggestion that you have already thought about but discounted.

Instead of saying thank you and smiling, many managers will respond to this situation by giving way too much information. For example:

“Yes I had thought about that but decided with the current focus on xyz now would not be the time”.

From the managers perspective this is a rational, open and transparent response.

But what does it sound like from the team members perspective?

There is a good chance that they will interpret this statements to mean some or all of the following:

  1. I am way ahead of you because I had already thought of that.
  2. I am cleverer than you because I can see why the suggestion is not that good (had you really forgotten about the current focus on xyz?)
  3. You are wasting my time by dragging me back to things that I have already considered
  4. Please don’t waste my time unless you have MUCH better suggestions to bring to the table

So instead just greet the suggestion with a big smile and a genuine thank you.

You might say that you will certainly put their ideas ‘into the mix’.

You might ask them how the suggestion might be made to working in spite of the current focus on xyz.

You might choose to give them some affirming feedback to encourage further sugestions in the future.

But mainly you just smile and say thank you.

Management Skills in the Music Business

I have recently had the pleasure of working with an extremely talented vocal coach, Dane Chalfin at the Leeds College of Music.

Dane wanted to improve his effectiveness in giving feedback to his students so that he could more powerfully influence the development of their vocal talents.

In my first session I taught Dane a basic feedback model which aims to:

  1. identify the specific behaviours that need to be reinforced or avoided
  2. describe precisely the impact of these behaviours on the vocal performance, on the long term health of the voice, and on the likelihood of the student having a successful long term singing career!
  3. asks the student what they think they could do differently (assuming we are trying to minimise a behaviour) or just asking them to keep it up – if it is a behaviour that we are trying to encourage.

Unlike many managers, Dane had no problem experimenting with what I taught him, and within days was reporting wonderful results!  He especially loved the way that now students were thinking about what they could change (posture, phrasing, breathe control – so many variables!) and learning to manage their own vocal performance – rather than relying on him to diagnose the problem and prescribe a solution.  Teaching students this ability to coach themselves is the hall mark of an outstanding manager and I am sure will stand Dane and his students in great stead.

Today I got to do a follow up session with Dane watching him work with students and it was a remarkable experience.  I was able to watch Dane work with a couple of talented young vocalists helping them to improve their vocal performance significantly in a matter of minutes.  In the space of a few minutes students would present the piece they were working on.  Dale would listen, observe and then coach them into trying new approaches and styles – which initially took the students well out of their comfort zones (‘this feels wrong’, ‘its really weird’).  However by using  feedback to help the students to recognise the impact of these new habits on their vocal performance and they were soon able to recognise the benefits of the new behaviours and pledge to practice them until they become habits.

It was a real privilege to see the process unfold and great to see some management techniques being used so effectively in the music business.

The Power of Praise and the Greater Power of Feedback

“Nothing else can quite substitute for a few well-chosen, well-timed, sincere words of praise. They’re absolutely free – and worth a fortune.” – Sam Walton

“Nothing else can quite substitute for a few well-chosen, well-timed, sincere words of feedback. They’re absolutely free – and worth a fortune.” – Mike Chitty

You see the thing about praise is that it can tend to be quite general.  When you praise someone for their great work they are not always sure exactly which aspect of the work you thought was so great.  I think praise is great – it just won’t always get you more of the behaviours that you are seeking.

When you give feedback the recipient understands exactly which aspects of their work you value so highly because you describe their behaviours and the impact that they had – specifically – significantly increasing the chances of you getting more of that type of behaviour in the future.

Building the Social System for High Performance

Whenever you see an organisation doing something consistently well, you can be sure that there is an effective social system behind it. The social system is made up of both a hard and a soft landscape. The hard landscape is that of meetings, information flows and decision making processes. The soft landscape is to do with behaviours, attitudes, values, respect and commitment.

Effective managers recognise their role in developing both the hard and soft landscapes of the social system – but recognise that it is the soft landscape – the way people and teams work together that really drives culture and performance.

When trying to initiate change, less effective managers work on the hard landscape. They change the organisational structure, replace key people or alter what is measured and rewarded. While such changes maybe necessary, they are NEVER sufficient.

It is the interactions between people that need to be changed, the information flows and the decision making processes. If people are not having the right discussions or behaving in ways that drive values and performance then the managers’ job is to influence them to adopt different ‘value creating’ behaviours.

In most cases this can be done using feedback. In other cases it may require more concerted efforts at coaching for the desired behaviours.

Recognising and shaping the behaviours that drive values and performance is the hallmark of an outstanding manager.

The social system changes and enables the organisation to perform consistently well because managers use mechanisms that ensure that the right conversations happen consistently and frequently. These conversations improve the quality of decision making and encourage behaviours in people’s every day work to accomplish the elusive goal of culture change.