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In high-performance organizations feedback is a sine qua non

“It has been said that to avoid learning and growing, do nothing, say nothing, but end up being nothing. In high-performance organizations, feedback is a sine qua non (an essential condition)”, according to esteemed INSEAD professor Manfred Kets de Vries. Of course, prof. Kets de Vries is, as always, right. According to my HPO research, there are no less than five HPO characteristics in which feedback plays a role: management frequently engages in a dialogue with employees; employees spend much time on communication, knowledge exchange and learning; management coaches employees to achieve better results; management always holds employees responsible for their results; and employees are trained to be resilient and flexible. In strengthening these characteristics, it is important that managers give constructive and positive feedback to employees, so they can learn from their performance and possibly mistakes. HPO managers do not tell people how they should achieve their goals but do give them immediate and concrete feedback on their performance. At the same time, managers need to ask personal feedback from individual employees and colleagues in an informal and non-threatening environment, in which they comment on the manager’s behavior and whether they see the manager as a role model. In addition, it is important that employees give each other regular feedback to make sure their team functions as optimal as is possible.

In high-performance organizations feedback is a sine qua non

However, as we all know, giving and receiving feedback is not easy. It can even be an awkward and painful process when not done properly. Fortunately, there has been a flurry of books to help us with the feedback process. Without doubt Radical Candor, written by the former Google executive Kim Scott, is the best known of these recent books. This book turns out to be both about how to be a good boss and a personal story on Scott’s working life and experiences. Scott sees good relationships with employees as core to a manger being able to fulfill her/his responsibilities of creating a culture of guidance that will keep everyone moving in the right direction, to understand what motivates each person on the team well enough to avoid burnout or boredom and keep the team cohesive, and to drive results collaboratively. To be able to build these good relationships she advices to care as a manager personally for your employees and tell your people when their work isn’t good enough and when it is. This combination care and feedback Scott calls ‘radical candor’ which will build the trust you need when interacting with your employees. In the remainder of her book she delves deeper in the various aspects of radical candor and she gives a lot of advice and tips. However, although the personal stories are entertaining at first, you are left with the feeling that much of that advice has been driven by Scott’s own experiences which not necessarily means it is suitable for your own situation. Also, the stories she recounts about well-know people with whom she worked like Larry Page, and how these people give feedback, are interesting but as many of us will never be in a position of for example Page you wonder how useful these tales really are.

A probably more practical and useful book is Aanspreken? Gewoon Doen of Dutch author Gytha Heins. This book is based on research among 500 Dutch managers and employees into the question “Suppose we would consistently give feedback to each other and through this are able to ban non-effective behavior from the workplace, what would the benefits be?”. Based on the responses Heins calculated we would become 28 percent more productive, achieve 12.5 percent more sales, have 16 percent lower costs, and cut employee illness and turnover with 15 and 11 percent respectively. She also defines giving feedback: ‘the naming of behavior that is not acceptable to you, in personal contact with the person that shows this behavior, on an equal basis, with the intention to get this person to behave differently in this respect.’ Heins’ book is chock-full of advice about how to conduct the feedback process, how to behave during this process (both as giver and receiver of feedback) and the pitfalls and mistakes you can make during the process. In fact, too much to describe here (I do hope there will be an English version of this book in the near future!), but I will mention some of the (for me) highlights:

  • not giving feedback means tolerating and allowing the behavior in question to continue
  • giving feedback consist at least half of the time of listening
  • innate behavior cannot be changed but learned behavior can
  • new behavior can only be learned by positive reinforcement
  • give feedback as quickly as possible after the person has shown the undesirable behavior
  • understand the intention behind the unwanted behavior, maybe the person had (initially) good intentions with it
  • put feedback in words that describe the effect the unwanted behavior has on you, do not use vague and general terms
  • ask feedback on the manner in which you give feedback!

Another book I like very much is Feedback First of Evekink and Becker. In fact, the quote of Prof. Kets de Vries at the beginning of this blog comes from this book. It is an interesting writers duo as Becker has been a pilot with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, and Evekink was manager at well-known large companies such as Phillips. They define feedback as ‘information we give and receive about actual and ideal behavior, with the intention of improving it’ and introduce the CLEAR+CALM framework for effective feedback. CLEAR is about being factual and focused on improvement when giving feedback, and stand for Constructive (prepare the case), Language (words matter), Evaluate (manage reactions), Action (reach an agreement), Relationship (move on). CALM means staying cool to be able to listen, question and improve, and stands for Consider (put yourself in the shoes of the giver), Awareness (know yourself), Listen (control yourself), Manage (actively question). The book goes on to give example questions you can use in each part of the feedback process, and also describes various situations where feedback is given and what the effects are. As such, the book is not only easy to read but also easy to use.

Inevitable there is overlap between the three books I have reviewed in this blog. That is not bad because it means that there clearly are several specific actions and behaviors you always need to undertake and show when giving or receiving feedback! I hope this blog and these books will help you in your feedback process. And: do not hesitate to give me feedback on my blog 🙂

More info

Evekink, H. and Becker, S. (2016), Feedback First, Clear & Calm

Heins, G. (2017), Aanspreken? Gewoon Doen!, Boom Uitgeverij

Scott, K. (2017), Radical Candor, St. Martin’s Press

Marco Schreurs

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