Riddell: The importance of feedback (column)
March 21, 2017
It is hard, if not virtually impossible, to find any industry today that is not characterized by rapid change. From newspapers to restaurants to construction to farming and everything in between, every occupation is being subjected to an undercurrent of technological advances, the likes of which are seldom appreciated by those outside of the affected industry.
One commonality across all of this change, however, is the reality that with change comes uncertainty. With uncertainty often comes diminished productivity. The management challenge then becomes helping employees deal with the uncertainty thereby minimizing the diminished productivity.
In this day and age of social media complete with digital assistants (underscored by a possibility of third party eavesdropping), texting appears to be the method of choice for communications. While certainly adequate for factual reporting or clarity of direction, neither of these are at the heart of an employee's angst. There are three questions the average employee wants to know, needs to know. "Am I doing a good job?" "How can you help me?" and "What does the future look like?" Interestingly enough, none of these questions lend themselves to an answer through texting. Let's take a minute to understand why texting responses to these questions is symptomatic of ineffective management.
The first requirement of effective management is to provide talented employees with the opportunity to maximize their contribution to the organization. Far too often, this requirement is seen strictly in terms of capital expenditures—better computers, better software, better office chairs, etc. While not to diminish the importance of these environmental aspects, companies can get along quite well with older computers, older versions of software and even older chairs. But they cannot survive with employees who are not adequately trained to utilize the assets. The answer to the first question regarding the quality of the job being performed is founded on this utilization. But most importantly, however, this opinion of utilization has to be supplemented with the answer to the second question pertaining help to do even better. Only through a constant addressing of the first two questions, can any optimism be given to a response to the third questions regarding the future.
The minute you as a manager or owner make the commitment to engage in direct conversation regarding the above-mentioned questions, you need to be prepared for exposure to a new reality. First, this face to face guidance takes more time than a few keystrokes followed by a "send." But the managerial benefit is you get to immediately read the response in the face and body language of the recipient. You have the satisfaction of seeing, feeling, ultimately knowing and believing that the intent of the message you were trying to impart was indeed, received and understood. Whatever your answer to the quality of work, it is paramount that the receiver has an unambiguous understanding. You also need to have an unambiguous read on the response.
Only once this first evaluation/communication has been established can any productive conversation regarding improvement or assistance be conducted with any chance of a positive outcome. The same holds true for the prospects for the future. Ultimately, this future state has to include a direct personal benefit for the individual and the discernment of this connection cannot be determined through a text response.
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Another issue that accompanies direct communication attempts is the discomfort that can also be present. While there are many who will condemn negative feedback and avoid confrontation, one does not have to lead to the other. While it does require some thought, honest evaluation does not have to evoke angry responses. But, constructive criticism does require honesty. The challenge is insuring that the honesty is received in the spirit it is intended. Again, the ability to read and listen to the responses of the person being engaged is critical.
Finally, giving feedback is not an event. Feedback is an ongoing process, one that constantly builds upon a previously established foundation or framework. Now texting does become a great tool for reinforcing the content of the face to face discussions with a sense of ongoing support. It can help provide a jog to the memory or a jog to an emotional connection, when you just cannot physically be present.
Time and time again, exit interviews with valuable employees reveal that the number one reason they leave their previous employer was they disliked working for their previous manager. When asked what they most disliked, poor communications almost always tops the list. The sad part is that this is a managerial shortcoming that can be readily addressed but also one that appears to be in an ever-increasing short supply.
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