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“Feedback is the breakfast of champions”…..but best eaten blindfolded?

“Feedback is the breakfast of champions”…..but best eaten blindfolded?

 

“Aggregation of marginal gains” is an often-quoted, sports related approach to continuous improvement. The idea that the aggregation of small, even microscopic, changes to individual elements within a process can greatly improve overall performance requires an attention to detail that many would consider almost obsessive.  However, when those small changes add up to shaving off hundredths of a second that make the difference between a gold or a silver medal, it is easy to see why they are so important.

For organisations, it is more likely to be connected to process improvement for the sake of gaining efficiencies which, ultimately, are aimed at saving or making more money. Service providers are interested in how they can work better, quicker, more efficiently to ensure the customer sees value in its service.

So, it’s all about continuous improvement.  Learning how to be better. Gathering data on what works and what doesn’t.  In short, feedback.  Ken Blanchard wasn’t wrong when he said, “feedback is the breakfast of champions”. “Champions” are those people or high-performing organisations who have never been afraid of failure and have been able to build on successes. How do they know which is which? Easy….feedback.

When we think about feedback in an organisation context, we see how, very often, external forces will drive strategic direction.  What’s the market doing today? What’s the demand for our services? Are we in the middle of a global pandemic? These questions will inform how an organisation should prepare itself to continue to operate.  Feedback given by those external forces will affect changes in how the organisation reacts.

When we think about feedback for individuals, we see a shift in focus towards application of skills and personal behaviours.  We may want to offer feedback on how something could be done better or on how we believe colleagues could potentially improve how they operate as a team. Typically, individual feedback is driven more from a place of judgement by another individual rather than an external force, which might explain why it is so often considered very difficult to give.

If we knew that feedback ultimately leads to improvements in overall performance, wouldn’t we give it freely at every opportunity?

Let’s examine the typical processes that may be in place within organisations to provide feedback – employee surveys, 360-degree feedback and the performance appraisal process. The former processes are very much kept anonymous, whereas the latter is generally a face-to-face conversation, specifically aimed at providing a performance appraisal in the context of a particular timeframe. Arguably, most organisations see feedback coming from anonymous sources much more readily given and more constructive in terms of affecting behavioural or organisational change. It would appear that, whilst it may be agreed that things don’t improve without some element of feedback, it is best delivered blindfolded.  Going back to Blanchard’s quote about breakfast, isn’t it the most important meal of the day that should never be skipped? If so, and we therefore should be eating it every day, why do we continue to do so without knowing who is serving it to us or even whether it’s going to taste very nice?

If you think about it, it really shouldn’t matter who is serving it or whether it tastes nice. What matters most is that it is there and we do something with it.  Rather than a quick slurp of coffee as we head out the door, we should be sitting down to a hearty buffet with a group of like-minded people, ready to talk about how things are going and the state of the world today.

So what’s the key? How do we create a culture in which people are happy to share feedback openly together, unafraid of negative consequences or creating arguments over who did what and where blame should be apportioned for task failure.  External forces are what they are, no changing that.  Internally (I.e. within our organisation unit), and with regard to individuals, we are free to set whatever culture we deem necessary to allow the best flow of information.

On the Personal Leadership Programme, we draw on McGregor’s X & Y theory and the “Johari Window” to examine both the function of feedback and the most effective environment for feedback to be given; the best “breakfast table” if you will.

In a world where McGregor’s theory X is prevalent; I.e. managers assume people only work out of fear, don’t have great ideas, avoid responsibility and need discipline and supervision, you can see how feedback is very much kept hidden and, when eventually given, individuals are “blind-sided”. We can also never truly be sure whether individuals have a level of self-awareness that means they already know their own short comings so having them thrown back at them in a less than constructive manner is not entirely helpful.

In a theory Y culture, where leaders assume individuals take pride in their work, want to be the best they can be, have great ideas, fully accept responsibility and are self-motivated, it is easy to see how feedback will be received much more openly and in the manner it was intended. Its value is recognised and it is openly requested, knowing that it will lead to improvement and stronger performance.

Now think about your own teams.  Do you give feedback openly and without the need for anonymous processes? How is it received?  How do you, as a leader and an individual, react to feedback? I can almost guarantee that you said “yes” and “pretty well” to the first two questions. Go back and think again about what evidence you have.  If you lead by example and truly believe that feedback is the breakfast of champions, you begin to display the behaviours that allow others to openly provide feedback.  In doing so, they can only expect you will be equally as constructive in offering reciprocal feedback.

In essence, as a leader, you are responsible for creating the conditions for individuals to feel comfortable offering feedback.  It’s your breakfast table.  Do you really want everyone to be sat around it blind-folded, or do you want them to see the great things on offer and share in your success?

Some things to consider:

  • How do you typically react to feedback? Would you want to give you feedback?
  • What do you know about the characters in your team(s)? Do you know them well enough to know how feedback will land?
  • Think about what an individual might be trying to achieve and be curious about the process of getting there. You may find that the goal is the same but the path isn’t one you would have taken.
  • Feedback is a gift. When someone gives you it, don’t be ungrateful (even if you don’t really like it)

 

 Written by David Crossland | Head of Organisation Development | Jersey Electricity plc

Read David Crossland’s other blog on Covid-19 here