The Best Leaders Give (and Take) Candid Feedback

November 21, 2017

 

I grew up in an Air Force family.  My Dad was a fighter pilot and he had no hesitation in telling me (or my three brothers) how we were doing.  Whether he was praising us or scolding us, he approached it in the same manner…straight and to the point.  His approach became clear to me years later when I became a fighter pilot.  In the fighter pilot community, we challenged ourselves to be perfect.  From mission planning, through the flight, until our debrief was over.  We examined every aspect of the sortie, acknowledging success and critiquing failure.  It was in that environment that I learned how to take candid feedback about my performance…and it was often humbling.  As I became a Flight Lead and Instructor Pilot I became pretty good at giving (and receiving) candid feedback.  Whether I was a Captain or a General, line pilot or commander, I became comfortable with candid feedback; I became a better pilot and leader because of it.

 

As I rose in rank and took jobs out of the cockpit I realized that my upbringing was the exception to the norm; very few communities handled feedback the way mine did.  Though we had mandatory feedback forms and annual performance reports it was obvious that most people weren’t comfortable giving (or getting) candid feedback and instead chose less intimidating options such as platitudes (“You’re doing fine”) or evasion (“I’ll tell you if you’re messing up”).  Later in my career, I made feedback a mandatory discussion item during every “New Commander’s course” I mentored.  Here’s what I told them:

 

  1. Give feedback in a professional way and in a professional setting.  Make the point up front that this feedback is about job performance; don’t allow it to be seen as a personal attack. Give feedback in an office setting (instead of some comfortable setting away from work) and protect your comments from being overheard/observed by others.

  2. Document the results.  I refused to take disciplinary action unless a supervisor could show me where she/he had informed/counseled the person in question about their substandard performance.  All too often I heard “Well I told them multiple times”.  Maybe so, but organizations (and HR/review boards) typically want documentation that counseling was conducted before taking disciplinary personnel actions.

  3. Understand the emotions involved.  I’ve seen everything: anger, tears, relief, and reluctant acknowledgment.  Though it could be challenging, I stayed neutral in my engagement and tone regardless of what was happening across from me.  If it became confrontational I would bring in an assistant to make sure I had a third-party to document the session.

  4. Have a plan for areas that you say need improvement.  You can’t just say “You’re not good at this…” and leave it at that.  Good leaders offer the resources, training and coaching to help their people improve.  The person getting the feedback then has to decide whether to accept the help offered and move forward – not always easy.

  5. Make sure you’re asking for feedback.  Pay special attention to the results of a climate assessment and ask for inputs from those who work for you.  You’ll be amazed what people will tell you in an anonymous survey.  Take the feedback, acknowledge its importance to the workforce, and integrate changes where it makes sense.  Not all the feedback will be positive so keep your emotions in check.  Your people are watching to see how you handle negative feedback.

  6. Even your superstars can get better. They – perhaps more than anyone – will listen to feedback and use your suggestions.  Don’t let your focus on the “problem children” cause you to ignore your top performers.  Everyone likes positive feedback – give it to them, along with any small changes that might help them grow.

 

Leaders who master the art of feedback can help their workforce – and organization – become a high performing team with unequaled results.  I watched it happen as a fighter pilot and senior leader in the greatest Air Force in the world!

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