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The conversation around giving employees feedback has changed lately. For quite a few years now, the focus has been fair and square on driving the message that feedback is an essential part of encouraging performance improvement. Ok, it wasn’t always easy to hear, but if the giver learned to give it right, and the receiver learned to receive it right, then nothing but good could come of it … right? Well, maybe, and maybe not. There was always an elephant in the room, of course … deep down, none of us really likes being told we’re not performing well, that we could do better, that we’re doing really really well but there’s just this one little thing that needs fixing … it puts our backs up, wounds us, eats away at our confidence.
So, how do we reconcile these two positions? On the one hand, we have research, survey results and people themselves telling us we do indeed want and benefit from feedback – and not just positive feedback but negative feedback, too. On the other hand, we have what we’ve probably all felt at one time or another in our lives – feedback sucks!
The answer, we think, comes in two parts; coaching and culture.
Feedback tells us what is, whereas coaching gives us insights into what could be. Both have their place, but without the emotional, practical and solution-oriented support a coaching conversation provides, feedback on its own can leave us discouraged and often none the wiser about what to do to improve matters. Consider this example.
When he was CEO of Consumer & Community Banking for JPMorgan Chase, Gordon Smith had a 30-minute conference call at 9am each day with 500 of his call centre managers. They would unpick recordings of customer calls to search for what Smith called ‘moments of truth’ – experiences that defined how cardholders thought about Chase. One thing they learned is that callers hated being transferred; “You hear the tone from the customer drop when that happens,” Smith said. “As soon as you get to that first transfer, customer satisfaction begins to drop, even though the problem gets resolved.”
Now think about that for a moment. A CEO with 160,000 employees dedicates 30 minutes each day to coach front line managers to find new ways to deliver first class performance. A feedback approach might have focused on giving each manager stats on the number of calls their reps transferred and urging them to get those numbers down. No doubt some would have improved while others may have struggled to make a difference. Far more effective, was for Smith to surface the issue through respectful and mutually accountable discussion and then coach and empower the managers and their teams to spot what the best reps did and find ways to implement those practices throughout the division.
In holding daily coaching calls, Gordon Smith sent an incredibly powerful message to his entire staff – he demonstrated day in and day out that he valued them, their opinions and their ability to find solutions to problems. In coaching, we question, probe, press and challenge. We encourage, support and empower. We don’t need to know all the answers – what a relief! Far better to tap into the wealth of talent, ability, skill, experience, creativity and energy of each and every member of our team.
A coaching culture runs top down through the organisation – it’s not something you delegate, it’s something you sponsor and champion and keep alive with your own belief and commitment. You walk your talk! Coaching conversations happen each day and throughout the day in one way or another. Where feedback has a tendency to be a bit one-way, coaching is most definitely a dialogue. It’s also far more about spotting people doing something right than something wrong and drawing their attention to that, enhancing their awareness of what exactly they’re doing or could be doing to improve their performance. Where gaps exist, coaching helps us explore options in a trusting, psychologically safe way and – crucially – control and responsibility ultimately lie with the person being coached.
So, does feedback still have a place in a coaching culture? For us, the answer is a definite “Yes”, but it must come more from a coaching than a telling perspective. There will always be times when the more direct approach of giving positive or negative feedback will be what’s needed – there often won’t be time at the time to engage in a coaching conversation. But if that’s all people get, then feedback will usually fall short of creating any meaningful change and may well make matters worse. Feedback – even positive feedback – really needs to be wrapped up in something altogether more substantial and that thing is a coaching conversation, if not at the time, then as part of an ongoing commitment to the growth, development and wellbeing of the person being coached.
Feedback via on-the-spot conversations, scheduled meetings and 360 reports will rarely provide enough information, motivation and impetus on their own to lead to meaningful change. A 2002 study by Elizabeth Thatch, however, suggests that feedback combined with coaching led to peers and direct reports perceiving leadership effectiveness increases in coachees of up to 60%. Most tellingly, those who received the feedback and coaching reported that the single biggest impact for them was not the feedback data itself but their relationship with the coach. And really, that shouldn’t come as any surprise at all.
“I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game — it is the game.”~ Lou Gerstner, ex-Chairman of IBM
Feedback needs to be wrapped up in something altogether more substantial and that thing is a coaching conversation.
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