Colin D Ellis
Leadership | Culture | Success
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Don't wait until it's too late to give feedback

Everybody needs feedback, regardless of age, role, experience and length of tenure. Finding out whether you’ve met or missed expectations is a crucial facet of personal growth and productivity, yet most managers are rubbish at giving it and most people are rubbish at asking for it.

When a child tries something new and either fails or succeeds parents are quick to provide immediate empathetic feedback. Praising the behaviour regardless of the outcome (‘you showed great courage there’) and using it to inform future action. It’s a parent’s responsibility to help children acquire new skills, to learn and grow as best they can.

Yet when we get into work, the same rules don’t seem to apply.

Instead of encouragement, praise and empathy, there’s growling, gossip and blame. Sometimes there’s shouting, abuse or the silent treatment.

Yet organisations still need growth and maturity so that people can be the best most productive versions of themselves, such that goals can be hit and strategies achieved. But there’s no way this will ever happen if people are only given meaningful feedback twice a year as part of an old-fashioned, discrete task-based assessment process that everyone hates anyway. 

Regardless of how they’re dressed up, these bi-annual stack-ranking processes take too long to complete, involve complicated form filling and are often based on what a manager can recall (good or bad) from the previous four weeks. They’re all fed into a ‘machine’ and the scores are then calibrated (ugh) to produce even splits of grades across the organisation.

I’m getting demoralised just writing this…

Deloitte is just one of the forward thinking organisations that have done away with this process as they found they were wasting close to two million people hours on them!

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be setting targets. They just work better when they’re done at a team level rather than individual level and when the feedback on progress is continuous.

However - like most life skills - no-one teaches us how to give or receive feedback. Consequently, we grow up fearing feedback. It starts with setting expectations well (no-one teaches how to do that either) and I’ve dedicated a whole chapter to it in my new publication The Project Book which you can download for free here.

Once expectations around performance and behaviour are set then you have a strong foundation from which to provide empathetic feedback to ensure that the job gets done. Without this foundation then you can expect procrastination and ‘busy’ work that provides very little in the way of tangible outcomes.

People that get regular feedback perform better, for longer (flow) periods. The human brain responds to it. Indeed the limbic system works best when people are motivated, take action and receive feedback on the things they’ve done well and the things that could be improved.

And in my experience - as a former employee, manager and as a father - when feedback is provided on the behaviour, rather than a skill, it creates a much stronger reaction.

When feedback is provided on skills there’s a danger of elevating people because they’re ‘special’ or making them feel inadequate because of something that’s ‘missing’. 

But when we provide feedback on the behaviour we’re reinforcing that we want to see more or less of it when they’re addressing any task, not just the one you’re providing feedback on.

If we don’t get the behaviours that we’re looking for, then they have to be dealt with there and then. Not to wait with crossed fingers in the hope they’ll get better, but immediate feedback on the situation, behaviour displayed and the impact that it had. This ‘Situation, Behaviour, Impact’ (SBI) model has been around for a while now and is a simple approach to providing more regular insights into the good and bad of what people do.

It requires courage, discipline and prioritisation to ensure that expectations are reset to provide the basis for future feedback.

Good behaviours are infectious and they are the difference between vibrant cultures of success and stagnant cultures of failure. Good behaviours need to be celebrated to ensure that they become common practice.

Author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found in his book Flow that ‘The reason it is possible to achieve such complete involvement in a flow experience is that goals are usually clear and feedback immediate’. Without flow there’s no productivity and without productivity there’s no consistency of results.

Don’t wait until it’s too late to provide feedback. The culture and the future success of the organisation depends on it.