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  • Writer's picturePhil Cole

Seven Ways to Begin Giving Constant Feedback (and Avoid the Pitfalls of the Performance Review)

The functional approach to leadership talks about feedback not just as a critique of individual group members’ performances of work, but as the concept of gathering information from where it is generated by the customer and transferring it to where it can be used to improve the group’s process of work. The concept of an interchange allows us to view feedback in a different manner.

Effective feedback allows the receiver to discover new ways to perform the work – new processes for individual tasks and new behaviors within interactions that can become interchange or emotion relationships. Feedback creates space for the function of learning. It allows members to find ways to accomplish excellence.

By contrast, traditional feedback processes such as performance reviews create anxiety about shortcomings that limit learning, or fail to reflect the reality as seen by the receiver and therefore create distrust. If feedback leads to the receiver falling back to “the way things are always done”, then the process isn’t working. Instead, feedback should create excitement and forward-focus, which will help overcome the discomfort of the actual behavioral change.

To do this, we must constantly talk about the process of work. This is constant feedback. We recognize the excellent characteristics of task products and their connection to the excellent final product (and meaningful change), and we recognize both productive and unproductive behaviors that produce these characteristics. In other words, constant feedback is an ongoing discussion about how well the work is going.

The goal of constantly talking about the process of work is to build two things:

  • the interchange relationships that support transferring information about the quality of output

  • the emotion relationships that allow for criticism without emotional injury

When these relationships exist, members learn to constantly evaluate their actions and seek out improvement in their individual processes and group interactions. This lessens the discomfort of change and enables the formation of other relationships that support effective, sustainable change. In a virtuous cycle, feedback relationships enable additional improvements, which create positive relationships that support feedback. Over time, this produces an ongoing process of learning which creates ongoing improvements in the quality of work. Of course, these relationships are possible only with the foundation of a clear shared vision that connects individual efforts to a meaningful change.

However, talking about performance in this way is often uncomfortable. If we haven’t done this before, then we will of course experience the discomfort of learning when we start now. It’s also an unusual behavior in that we do not generally discuss the work process with others, particularly when we are in individual contributor roles. As a result, we learn to “pay attention to our own work” and “let people do it their way.” These learned behaviors continue to influence us even when we become supervisors and leaders. We feel uncomfortable talking about the process of work, even when it is our responsibility.

Here are seven quick tactics that we can use to start doing this immediately:

  1. Recognize misalignment with the story of vision by focusing on outcomes. Acknowledge when an outcome did not live up to the group’s standard of excellence, and the specific characteristics of excellence that were missing.

  2. Focus our process-related feedback on the task or interaction, not on the person. What action worked and what didn’t?

  3. Focus on the outcomes of interchanges and emotion relationships. What is the outcome that could have been different, in another member’s feeling or completion of a task, if there had been a different relationship in place? What behavior would have produced this outcome?

  4. Absolutely recognize the good. Point out what worked well, which leads to how it can be even better. We often forget the good, because we don’t notice it. This one is extremely powerful in a constant feedback process.

  5. Recognize our own contribution – “I could have done this better” – even if it is only a part of the problem. This models behavioral change, recognizing mistakes, and constantly looking for impact on relationships and alignment with vision. Modeling is one of the most powerful places to learn, even unconsciously, and members will adopt our example.

  6. Give timely feedback. The transfer should occur in the process of work or as closely after as possible, not later. If it matters, change it right now. This is contrary to the annual performance review cycle.

  7. Align performance standards and expectations with outputs, not task performance. Don’t tell people how to do their job, tell them what their work should accomplish for the customer and should contribute to the group.

These tactics create an organization where behaviors don’t get stuck. In Kurt Lewin’s model of unfreeze/change/refreeze, behaviors are constantly “unfreezing” and therefore available for improvement. Further, by modeling and practicing personal change, this constant feedback creates space for change by building emotion relationships of safety and growth. Finally, it creates interchanges that provide the raw information about successes, failures, and possibilities that are necessary to change. These factors, all together, make constant feedback a critical part of the functional approach to leadership and organizational change.

Our constant feedback doesn’t have to be for an individual. Instead, we can start a discussion within the group. This requires that we not provide solutions, but rather giving people the information that they need to see possible greater excellence and then find solutions. Again, consider feedback an interchange that moves information from one point within the organization to another. Don’t point out individual mistakes (because individual tasks may have failed because of functional failures), but rather the shortfalls of the final product from the customer’s perspective. How did the work fail to create the meaningful change, and what characteristics caused this? From this, members of the group will be able to practice learning as they work towards the excellence of the shared vision.

When the group develops a habit of constant feedback, members experience less discomfort in change. In fact, this constant feedback can create the opposite: discomfort with remaining the same. When everyone around is changing and the resources are available, then individuals want to be part of growth. This doesn’t replace the discomfort of trying something new, but it is a counteracting feeling that pushes people forward. In an abstract mathematical sense, the sum of these two discomforts is the actual difficulty of change. We’ll talk more about this – and how it creates a functional concept called shared accountability – in the next article.

Here is your first step to practice giving constant feedback:

  • What information does your group need to hear so that they can find more productive solutions?

  • How will you provide them with this information – what will you say, when will you say it, and how will you know that they have heard what you said?

As you think about your answers to these questions, go back to the seven tactics above and pick one or two and make a plan to do them in the next week.

If you want to dive into more organizational culture change through the functional approach to leadership, check out this introduction:

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