01 March 2012

The Feedback Dilemma

"Planes are safer when the least experienced pilot is flying, because it means the second pilot isn't going to be afraid to speak up."   --Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers

Does your organization emphasize the importance of clear and open communication (which includes listening) as much as it does being on a "team?"  Probably not.  And yet clarity in ideas, conversations, and interactions are sources of oxygen allowing systems to breathe properly--which is a sign of a healthy team. 

Problems at the office or factory are often rooted in a lack of mutual understanding about expectations, goals, deadlines, procedures, and who the customer really is.  A readily available tool of management to address this situation is the right use of feedback--or "feedforward" as our friend, Marshall Goldsmith, likes to say.  

How Is Feedback Used?

Some examples:
  • Employees need to know what their supervisors are thinking in terms of job performance, and not just during formal reviews
  • Management is helped by getting real-time information from those around them--even if it's something they don't want to hear
  • Workers require candid conversations from colleagues for instruction, to gauge how things are going, and to achieve mutual goals
  • Businesses should hear from customers in order to know how they are doing, what not to change and where improvements should be made

Holding Back

Why are associates reluctant to explain how they feel about something?  It could be from past experience.  Speaking up may have been taken the wrong way so employees learn to be silent.  Unfortunately this means valuable information remains hidden from those who might need it most.  Thus the dilemma.

According to organizational psychologist, Dr. Michael Woodward, two factors that influence how individuals communicate in group settings, such as staff meetings, are "personality and position." 

Thoughts are eventually shared because employees have to talk--often with a trusted peer or spouse.   Some of the more useful internal focus groups take place at lunch.

Studies also show the hesitancy to candidly convey how we feel has cultural roots as described in the Outliers chapter about air safety and the "theory of ethnicity." 

Improvements in Aviation

Recent news stories confirm a reversal of deadly crashes in the airline industry over the past several years.  The conclusion:  Air travel in the U.S., at least, has never been safer. It has been a decade since passengers have died in a crash involving more than 100 people.

This is a dramatic turnaround from the 1990s when, as someone observed, "planes were falling out of the sky."

One of several reasons for this improvement in safety has to do with pilot training.  The history of aviation has shown a strong, if not dictatorial role for the captain, causing co-pilots to not speak when necessary or speak but not be heard--often with deadly results.  An example of this is the 1982 Air Florida crash in Washington, D. C.

Captains are now trained to solicit input from all members of the flight crew.

For their own health and safety, businesses and nonprofits could learn something about improving the free flow of information from changes in aviation practices. 

A Definition Of Terms

How do we begin improving this essential part of our professional relationships?   In addition to cultural issues, we can start by understanding the different kinds of feedback and improving the quality of our exchanges. 

In his practical book, Getting It Done (Harper), author Roger Fisher offers enlightenment on a largely undefined process.  In addition to aviation-type "warnings" mentioned above, corporate feedback, says Fisher, has three key parts:

Appreciation
To encourage and improve morale. This is an expression of gratitude or approval of another’s effort. It is an expression of emotion, designed to meet an emotional need.
Advice
To help individuals improve their skills. Advice consists of suggestions about particular behavior that should be repeated or changed. It focuses on the performance, rather than on judging the person.
Evaluation
This relates to making wise decisions about personnel and their assignments. An effective way to do this is by ranking the subject’s performance in relation to that of others or against an explicit or implicit set of standards.

Why does feedback go awry:
  • We fail to understand there are different types of feedback
  • We co-mingle the types (doing two things at one time—sending mixed signals)
  • We use one type (appreciation) when we should have used another (evaluation)
Think for a moment about the last time you gave or received feedback. Was it clear?   Appropriate for the circumstances?  Or did you get (or give) appreciation when you should have received (or given) advice?   

In a future post I will share "tips" on giving feedback from the book, Helping, by Dr. Edgar Schein.

Properly used feedback has the potential to be a positive force for your organization. 


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