Colin D Ellis
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If You Don’t Tell Me How I’m Doing, I’ll Never Know

I remember saying these words to my line manager back in the late 1990s.

As a fledgling project manager it’s fair to say that I often let my own unique communication style take over in meetings. I’d overuse humour, talk over the end of people’s sentences and lacked attention to detail.

I’m able to tell you this because my line manager – during our weekly meeting – told me so, citing examples and comments that people had made. I’d learnt from an early age that getting feedback was critical to improving performance, so I made some notes and resolved to ask for help in addressing the issues faced.

Ready to get down to work, I was then told that they’d been getting this feedback for a number of weeks and confidence in my ability to deliver was low, especially given the complexities we faced.

I was stunned. They’d been getting the feedback for weeks…?

When I was asked for my thoughts I said: ‘If you don’t tell me how I’m doing, I’ll never know. Nothing will improve. I’ll lose any credibility that I have, the project will fail, my confidence will drain and no-one wins. Please, if you get any feedback on my performance, tell me right away so that I can do something about it.’ 

From that moment on, I resolved to ask for regular feedback and sought to learn from my mistakes and from the wisdom of others.

Not all advice is good advice, however well meaning, but asking for it was the first step to improving my performance and becoming clearer on what was expected from my performance.

I think it’s very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better. I think that’s the single best piece of advice.
— Elon Musk

The ProjectNPS at-a-glance interface


As part of my Conscious Project Leader training program (and completely unique in the world of project management capability development), I use ProjectNPS to gather feedback from stakeholders on the service currently being provided by project managers so that it can be benchmarked. I’m continually surprised when senior leaders baulk at this, worried at how the feedback might be interpreted by the project manager.

My response to this is, ‘what’s the consequence of them not finding out?’.

If they’re doing a good job they may never be told that and not feel cared for or wanted by the organisation. Also, the opportunity to use them as a role model or mentor for others may also be lost.

If their performance isn’t where it should be then the best case scenario is that the team will work around the project manager to get the job done; the worst case is that the project will fail and the team will provide generic feedback on the project (not the project manager) as to why and problems will re-surface on their next project.

In both situations, no-one will learn anything and nothing will improve.

Personal feedback is absolutely critical in improving the performance of project managers (or any employee for that matter).

The Office of Personnel Management in the US agrees and they say that in order to be effective, feedback requires three elements:

  1. Specificity - feedback should be delivered by a named individual and relate to a particular goal, objective or milestone
  2. Timeliness - don’t wait until the end of the project or an annual review to provide feedback. Regular feedback and issues-based feedback should be provided as soon as possible so that action can be taken
  3. Manner - feedback must be presented accurately, positively, factual and complete, with suggestions for improvement. Endless criticism will eventually be ignored, with the person providing it perceived as a trouble-maker.

Individuals who are fearful of feedback are often not willing to look at their own performance. Emotional maturity is the second most important contributor to project success, so what does it say about the emotional intelligence of a project manager who doesn’t want to get better at what they do?

Organisations that collect feedback on projects not people, run the risk of the collective being blamed rather than focussing on the behaviours and skills of those leading them. Collecting it on a project is old fashioned and doesn’t reflect the fact that project management is a service and the expectations of the stakeholders need to be set and met regularly in order for projects to be successful. It’d be too easy for the project manager to say ‘that’s someone else, not me’.

Improvement is personal, so feedback has to be, too.

We live in a society that now expects instant reviews and feedback – the sharing economy is built on the concept of capturing and disseminating feedback. From rating systems to recommendations, we are increasingly comfortable with the process of providing and acting on reviews. It’s inevitable that businesses would recognise and respond to the demand for ‘always on’ feedback by replacing annual performance reviews with more regular feedback cycles. 

Software company Adobe has used a ‘check-in’ approach for years, in which a manager would continually ‘check-in’ on progress providing feedback, development, motivation and mentoring on a regular basis. General Electric (GE) enables its 300,000 employees worldwide to receive instant feedback about their performance through an app. The Team Sky professional cycling team uses a quick and simple smartphone app to set expectations and capture performance evaluation and opportunities for improvement. Accenture sidelined its annual performance review for an ongoing feedback system, Deloitte ditched annual reviews and, according to HBR, more than one third of US companies ‘from Silicon Valley to New York... are replacing annual reviews with frequent, informal check-ins between managers and employees’.

The movement to ‘always-on’ feedback as a mechanism for improvement is in full flight. Are you on board?

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