Feedback Is Essential, But Difficult to Master

Feedback Is Essential, But Difficult to Master

Friday, April 1, 2022

Feedback is an essential component of the developmental journey of all leaders. Despite feedback being a core component of the Army’s leadership doctrine, and a topic widely researched within organizational behavior, leaders still struggle to effectively leverage this tool to develop subordinates and improve their performance. Too often, leaders’ use of feedback is either sparse, solely focused on assessment or diluted. It becomes diluted when leaders attempt too much by pairing assessment with developmental feedback, which usually lands poorly and confuses the receiving subordinate.

Army leaders across all organizational echelons have an obligation to not only deliver regular feedback to subordinates, but also to thoughtfully create impactful developmental experiences for them. Crafting a continuous and high-quality journey of development can improve subordinates’ performance, motivation, growth, engagement and even retention. Feedback is one important component of that continuous journey. Successfully employing different types of feedback can directly support elements of developmental experiences to ultimately achieve these ends, making Army leaders and formations better.

Ongoing Journey

In their 2016 book, An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey report on what they call “deliberately developmental organizations” through a compelling visualization: “Imagine so valuing the importance of developing people’s capabilities that you design a culture that itself immersively sweeps every member of the organization into an ongoing developmental journey in the course of working every day.”

They go on to say that through its community and practices, a deliberately developmental organization “slips its hand under its people, wherever they may be in their developmental journey, and supports their forward movement when they are ready.” This approach closely aligns with the Army’s emphasis on leader development as captured in its leadership doctrine, especially the Army leadership requirements model and the People First priority. Critical to being a deliberately developmental organization is creating and maximizing the impact of developmental experiences for subordinates.

Developmental experiences have three key elements, according to the Center for Creative Leadership’s Handbook of Leadership Development, by Ellen Van Velsor, Cynthia McCauley and Marian Ruderman. These elements—assessment, challenge and support—combine to make developmental experiences more powerful. As the handbook argues, “Whatever the leader development experience is, it has more impact if it contains these three elements.” These elements motivate people toward learning, growth and change, while also providing basic necessary learning resources.

Assessment, most often provided in annual evaluation reports, gives leaders an understanding of where they currently stand—their level of performance, strengths and developmental needs. Challenge forces leaders out of their comfort zone so they reach new levels of incompetence and discomfort, and requires them to develop new capacities or ways of thinking. Challenge can look like high expectations, shared candor and accountability, targeted crucible experiences, pursuing goals and responding to failure. Support sends messages of belonging and that subordinates are safe within the unit. It helps them handle the struggle of developing. This can include activities to build self-efficacy like unit branding items (T-shirts, for example), handwritten notes, mentorship and recognition events such as issuing awards for exceptional performance.

Essential to this approach is the inclusion of all three elements to create truly impactful developmental experiences. Leaders need a wide range of learning experiences. Just one or two of the elements alone is insufficient.

Only providing assessment does not create a sense of belonging or a path toward growth for a subordinate. Similarly, assessment and challenge without support lead to unsustainable, nondevelopmental crucibles. Too much support devoid of assessment or challenge creates underachievement and lost opportunities for subordinates’ growth. There may be certain events when challenge is more heavily weighted than support, like a deployment or a combat training center rotation, and vice versa. However, over time, leaders must employ and balance all three elements to maximize the quantity and quality of developmental experiences for subordinates.

Types of Feedback

Feedback is a simple, yet effective, tool to elevate the effectiveness of developmental experiences. But, as stated above, leaders’ feedback tends to be sparse, focused only on assessment, or tries to simultaneously assess and develop, diluting the feedback’s affect. A more comprehensive framework of feedback can help leaders concentrate their efforts, ensuring they employ the best type of feedback for the desired developmental effect.

Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, a 2014 book by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, argues that there are three types of feedback: evaluation, coaching and appreciation. Evaluation is feedback on where the subordinate stands. Coaching occurs as conversations aimed at helping subordinates learn, grow and change to meet new challenges or correct existing behaviors. This type of feedback tends to be in the form of counseling within the Army. Appreciation is recognition and thanks; it lets subordinates know that their efforts are noticed and valued. Each type of feedback aligns to an element of developmental experiences: evaluation leads to assessment, coaching creates challenge, and appreciation nurtures support.

Like the Center for Creative Leadership’s elements of developmental experiences, leaders balance these three types of feedback as they lead, interact with and develop subordinates. A lack of appreciation feedback fails to cultivate safety, confidence and belonging. Absence of coaching feedback stymies subordinates’ motivation and does not co-create a path toward growth with them. Insufficient assessment inhibits subordinates’ self-awareness.

Leaders also must segregate the three types of feedback; the feedback is more effective when each type is offered separately. If packaged together, such as in a single counseling session or evaluation report discussion, one type of feedback will drown out another and even confuse the receiving subordinate.

For example, if a leader tries to lead a developmental coaching discussion after giving the subordinate their annual evaluation report rating, the subordinate is likely to be caught up in processing the assessment, thus less able to properly receive and process the coaching. Similarly, pairing evaluation or coaching with appreciation can easily confuse the subordinate with mixed signals of a “feedback sandwich.”

Leaders should distinguish the type of feedback they offer to subordinates, employing the best type for the developmental needs of the moment and the particular subordinate. Over time, leaders provide all three types to engage in all the elements of developmental experiences to maximize subordinates’ performance, motivation, growth and engagement.

3 Takeaways

There are three takeaways leaders should consider when looking to put these approaches into practice.

First, all three elements of developmental experiences, and thus, all three types of feedback, should be balanced for subordinates’ sustained growth. Leaders should be conscious of the types of feedback they offer subordinates, ensure they are done in appropriate settings and intervals, and that the feedback types are given in separate interactions. This provides clarity and focus on the feedback given, increasing its enduring effectiveness.

Second, leaders should view coaching feedback as helping subordinates meet the mark, not merely telling them that they are not meeting it. Coaching is being an ally, a guide. It means joining the subordinate on their developmental journey as they achieve improved self-awareness, self-efficacy and performance.

Third, while all three types of feedback must be balanced, leaders should consider what the appropriate ratio of the feedback types will be for each subordinate. Some subordinates may respond better with more appreciation, while others thrive under more challenge. Some may need more routine intervals of evaluation than others. Leaders should discern what the best ratio mix is to achieve optimal developmental conditions.

While recognizing the unique developmental needs of subordinates, myriad research reports that approximately a 1-to-5 ratio of critical feedback conversations (evaluation and coaching) to appreciation is ideal for sustainable, effective relationships. Even casual comments of thanks in conversations, a simple email or text message of recognition, or a handwritten note can do much to contribute to this ratio.

Over a journey of leading subordinates through developmental experiences, leaders must employ all three elements of developmental experiences: assessment, challenge and support. One of the simplest and most effective ways to do this is through employing the three types of feedback: evaluation, coaching and appreciation.

Using all three types to engage the elements of developmental experiences prevents current challenges of sparse feedback, only evaluation-based feedback and diluting feedback’s impact by combining different types into a single event. These are simple ways to better align leaders’ behaviors to the Army’s developmental goals, ultimately becoming more like deliberately developmental organizations.

Maj. Joshua Bowen is a student in the Command and General Staff Officers’ Course, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, then will be assigned to the 4th Infantry Division, Fort Carson, Colorado. Previously, he served as a tactical officer and instructor of military leadership at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York. He reflects on leadership on his blog, 3x5 Leadership.

This article was originally published in Army Magazine.