The Feedback Imperative [Book review]

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Just today I’ve had numerous bits of feedback. An online purchase showed me how far through the process I was. My Kindle app used the speed of my reading to tell me how much longer it would take to finish the book. I was sent a letter from my solicitor asking me to complete a feedback form on a transaction they’ve just done for me. Feedback is everywhere.

And yet managers prefer to fire or manage out troublesome people who could potentially have been ‘fixed’ with feedback. Many of the younger people on your project teams expect feedback from their managers more frequently than older team members: it’s one of the defining traits of Millennials, although I’m personally not big on stereotyping a whole generation. She glosses over the best feedback approaches for older team members: I suppose they just have to put up with the change in management style to one that is feedback-heavy even if it isn’t their thing.

Having said that, it’s a good read. The Feedback Imperative is a book about why talking gives you better results. It’s a coaching model for how to give staff feedback without annoying them, and it starts with defining feedback.

Feedback: A definition

“Feedback is information from past action that is used to guide future action,” writes author Anna Carroll. “The movement of the information from past to future action is called a feedback loop.” She goes on to say: “The usefulness of feedback is dependent on the accuracy of information collected.”

So why don’t we give it?

The trouble with giving feedback

I’m certainly not the best at giving feedback, and I think it’s even harder in a virtual team as some messages play better when you are face-to-face. I agree with Carroll’s assessment that managers in all fields don’t give as much feedback as we should. She suggests several reasons for this:

  • We’ve forgotten how useful feedback can be
  • We’re too busy
  • We’re not trained in how to give it and it doesn’t come naturally
  • We’re afraid of saying something wrong and ending up in court
  • We believe our fantastic employees are self-directed and responsible for their own development so they don’t need it

And of course the fact that “managers are simply reluctant to speak the truth to their employees,” as Carroll puts it.

I’d add to that the peculiar role that project managers have: as we generally don’t have line management responsibility over our team members it doesn’t feel like it is our responsibility to provide that feedback.

How feedback impacts your project’s results

Carroll reports that over 65% of people say that their performance review feedback contained surprises. Whether that review is carried out by you or their line manager, surprises are bad. You wouldn’t surprise your sponsor because it would probably cause them to panic. The same happens to team members given surprising feedback at their appraisal: it upsets them.

Carroll says that it’s part of the reason why people leave their jobs, and if you are at a critical point in your project then people leaving isn’t good. Your team don’t want to have to guess if they are doing a good job; they want to know. She writes:

A manager must help each employee make sense of and prioritise all the information they are receiving, and continuously answer the burning question “How am I doing at my job, and how do I need to change what I am doing in order to improve?”

Getting ready for everyday feedback

A large chunk of this book covers how to get ready to handle everyday feedback, the kind of comment you give to someone at the end of a meeting when they’ve presented well. It’s not about performance reviews or formal feedback sessions that are bounded by policies and processes. In other words, exactly the kind of feedback that project managers should be giving their team regularly.

“Everyday feedback is so much more powerful than performance review because you can tap into a motivation people already feel strongly about: learning and succeeding,” Carroll writes.

She says that if feedback stresses you out then you should remember that your team member will pick up on it, so could be a worse experience for you both than it needs to be. She talks about reframing the feedback interaction in your head as a positive experience for you both. If you still aren’t feeling positive about talking to your team, then there are some techniques she has to help.

The Feedback Imperative
65% of people say their performance review comes as a surprise: don’t let that be your project team

Practical tools

The book includes practical tools like how to identify which of the four styles of giving feedback you prefer to use. It includes charts, checklists and personal assessment tools and discusses strategies to maximise effectiveness.

Carroll talks about how to deal with the four main “showstopper” reasons why you might be reluctant to give feedback. She says these are:

  • Lack of skill
  • Belief of how it will affect you or others
  • Irrational “brain stress” forcing you into fight or flight mode which means you are unable to think logically
  • Lack of support.

She provides tactics for dealing with each of these, so no more excuses!

Talking about feedback before giving it

One of the big interesting points in the book for me was the fact that you have to let people know that you’re increasing the amount of feedback you are going to offer. Carroll writes:

If you start giving feedback without warning, your folks may assume that they’re about to be fired or put on a performance-improvement plan. They may not know that you’re setting up feedback meetings with everyone, and they’ll search for reasons why they are being singled out: “Why is she focusing on me all of a sudden?”

You need to stress the importance of two-way feedback and explain how you feel it demonstrates transparency and trust. If they see you changing their behaviour, hopefully they will be influenced by your example and offer more feedback to you and each other. Some people will still expect that you’re about to fire them, but her advice is to keep going!

The main argument of the book is that everyday feedback, constant collaborative ‘streaming’ of commentary, is better than formal, structured performance reviews. Carroll believes that this reduces workplace stress and decreases the risk of unhappy employees – both things that you should want for your project team.