43. Effective Feedback

A recent tweet about President Trump’s desire to exclude officers from a discussion on ground conditions in the Middle East sparks a discussion on effective feedback. What does it take for feedback to be truly effective? It’s just three things.

I was on Twitter recently and came across a tweet from a soldier who stated:

“Fighting on the ground is rank irrelevant – officers and enlisted are fighting the fight. If you want to ensure that people speak freely than don’t have E4s speaking next to E7s. This idea that enlisted are monolithic and are afraid of any officer is false in my experience.”

This tweet was made in the context of President Trump’s desire to discuss conditions on the ground in the Middle East with enlisted personnel, and with enlisted personnel only, specifically excluding the officers. So what are we talking about here? We’re talking about feedback. And not just feedback, but effective feedback. Let’s breakdown the soldier’s tweet. The first sentence says,

“Fighting on the ground is rank irrelevant – officers and enlisted are fighting the fight.”

This is a naive and overly simplified statement. Yes, on the ground officers and enlisted are fighting the same fight, but discipline is maintained by a chain of command. To meet mission objectives, the enlisted carry out the orders of the officers. The officers are held accountable for the orders they issue. This relationship alone is a differentiator among those fighting the fight. Officers and enlisted personnel are not equal simply because the responsibilities levied by the chain of command doesn’t allow it.

In the business world, this is no different, where CEOs, directors, and managers exercise control over subordinates in meeting goals and objectives.

Military personnel operate at different levels, as well: Strategic, Tactical, and Operational. Long-term strategy for the service or conflict is defined and resources are allocated at the strategic level. The President of the United States, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Service Secretaries operate at this level. At the tactical level, short range or geographic plans are developed to meet the overall strategic objectives. The Major Commands provide tactical leadership to subordinate organizations, such as military bases. And at the operational level, the plans developed at the tactical level are put into action. Military bases and individual units operate at this level.

In business, this is no different. The board of directors and c-suite define the strategy for the organization. Tactical planning occurs at the department level by VPs and Directors, and those plans are carried out by managers and supervisors at the operational level in workcenters.

Each level offers different insight for those operating within it. And it’s important to note that no one person at any level has the complete picture on strategic execution. This is why feedback both up and down the chain is so important. Although those operating at the operational level don’t need to understand the overall strategy, they certainly need to understand the tactical objective placed before them. And although those at the strategic level do not need to know the specific details of operational undertakings, they do need to understand any obstacles that could interfere with meeting strategic objectives.

Next, let’s consider the next sentence in the tweet:

“If you want to ensure that people speak freely than don’t have E4s speaking next to E7s.”

Basically, what this is saying is if you want unfiltered information, then ask junior enlisted and senior enlisted separately. I would agree with this statement in that an employee may be reluctant to criticize his department or the organization in front of his supervisor. It’s as simple as that. When I served with the Air Force Inspector General, I would assess the leadership of the organization through separate conferences with junior and senior enlisted personnel. This is no different in the business world, and although I don’t think you can ever achieve 100% unfiltered feedback, you place more people at ease by collecting information from different peer groups.

Finally, we’ll consider the last sentence in the tweet:

“This idea that enlisted are monolithic and are afraid of any officer is false in my experience.”

The use of the word ‘monolithic’ is an interesting choice, and I’m assuming it’s referring to the enlisted corps as a whole and acting as one unit, rather than as individuals. And by ‘afraid’, I’m taking that to mean “reluctant’. Anyway, I disagree with this statement. In my experience, junior enlisted personnel are just as reluctant to speak freely in front of officers as they are in front of senior enlisted, especially those in their direct chain of command. In the business world, how willing would an employee be to provide criticism to the VP of their department or to the CEO when asked in a combined setting? My thought? Not very.

So what does this all mean? I think feedback is necessary at all operational levels and is a critical factor in measuring goal attainment. To be effective feedback must be timely, targeted, and tied to goals.

  1. Timely: Feedback should be gathered as close as possible to the event or situation you’re evaluating. Down the chain, this can be an attaboy to a subordinate or a course correction; and up the chain, maybe appreciation for the support on a project or frustration with an obstacle that interfering with goal attainment.
  2. Targeted. Feedback should point to specific actions or behaviors and the effect they have on goal attainment. An example of targeted feedback to a subordinate would be “the data you provided for the report was through and was essential to our equipment allocation” and up the chain, “the new spending approval process is causing late vendor payments.”
  3. Tied to Goals: This is the only purpose for feedback. Effective feedback must provide a clear connection to a specific goal or outcome. Down the chain might be, “Patient satisfaction with the registration department has dropped below the 90-percent goal.” while up the chain, might be, “the new patient registration software is adding 10-minutes to the check-in process and patients aren’t happy.”

And with this example, it’s good to keep in mind that all feedback is contextual; whether up- or down-the-chain, it’s given from the point-of-view and with the available knowledge of the person providing the feedback. Although the manager may be in a better position to understand the situation in relation to the overall strategic or tactical plan, he must also seek to understand the situation from the employee’s point of view to establish employees perception to place the situation in the correct context.

And now you know what I think.

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