What do you learn from the most? Success? Failure? Actually neither. We learn most from what we are paying attention to—difficult in a busy professional life. Yet micromanaging your work with too much attention would drive you mad.
This explains the enduring popularity of executive coaches; someone who pays attention to you and helps you learn more from the experiences and challenges you face. Effective feedback is an essential part of good coaching and is intrinsic to human behaviour: we learn from doing and reviewing.
Effective feedback loops are at work in many capacities. Food apps log what you eat and then provide feedback that warns you that you’re about to exceed your recommended salt intake or that you haven’t eaten enough or too much (as if you didn’t know!). Your automobile reports your fuel consumption; ease off the accelerator a bit and watch consumption fall.
Good leaders are good coaches who use feedback loops well. While there are many coaching models around such as GROW, FUEL, and 3Ps. This article discusses how to inject the best quality into coaching.
Relevance, Timing, Precision
Relevance is about the usefulness of the information to the individual. Busy people are unlikely to be able to take much extra on board. This challenges the coach to think about what they’ve seen and heard and then figure out what is the ONE thing that’s most usable for their colleague in that moment.
Here’s an example. I’ve just seen an email from Seth to a systems administrator in the Delhi office. “Hi Vikram! Would you be so kind as to send me the logs for ticket IM675855.”
In my experience, I’ve seen that a lack of precision in a request leads to folks being sent the wrong data. I’m going to interrupt Seth quickly, “Seth, knowing Vikram, I’m concerned that there’s the possibility that he might not send you the logs you need, and that might cause you some delays. What can we do to make the request more precise?”
Moments later we have agreed on a new email: “Hi Vikram, regarding IM675855, can you be sure to send .log files for server DLC36442 for the time period 8 February 2020, between 0400 IST and 0623 IST. Many thanks.”
Timing looks for a good moment to provide feedback; one which maximises the chance of attention and focus. Here’s an example of what not to do: “Hi Helena, I noticed that several of your meetings last week overran. Is there a problem with the team, or are you perhaps trying to achieve too much in one meeting?”
This is an example of poor timing. Helena has moved on. She may or may not still have an issue with this. Even if she does, it may be difficult to remember exactly why these meetings overran. We all know that feedback needs to be timely to have a chance of being actioned. It’s so much easier to use feedback if it comes very close to the activity.
Timing also relates to frequency. Would it be enough for Roger Federer to be reminded of the position of his best backhand grip once a year? Of course not, which is why he will review every game, and sometimes every stroke, during a practice session.
The best feedback loops are instant: as you ease up on the gas, your car’s computer shows you how much better the fuel consumption is getting.
Precision is about ensuring that there’s enough detail about the behaviour we like or would like amended.
“Good job Joe, I’m so grateful” may be nice to hear, but it doesn’t qualify as feedback because there’s no usable information here. What do we like about Joe’s performance that we’d like him to repeat? He has no idea!
A more useful example would be: “Helen, I’m really happy that your case notes always contain the “last good time,” the moment when the customer can be certain that the function was still normal. That really helps narrow down the possible causes.”
At work, feedback loops abound, often based around numbers. For example, the customer service centre dashboard shows the call abandon rate to remind agents that they need to be quick in answering the phone. The tech support desk has the number of new cases and closed cases for the day. But there are difficulties with these feedback loops: neither one is personal or helps the individual get the job done.
Good coaching loops are built around immediacy and usefulness to the individual. They provide indications of personal progress over time. To build them, we have to be conscious of the factors that lead to success (leading indicators). For example, in a technical support environment, the quality of initial triage has a huge influence on outcomes such as first time fix, customer satisfaction, cost of fix and time to resolve. We also know characteristics of effective triage behaviours. Here are two:
- Describing the item, process or function with the fault (object) and the exact symptom
- Listening to the customer about the effect on their workflow and the likely impact as time passes
Once we identify behavioural priorities, it is possible to make a daily routine to review the case queue and see what’s happening:
This looks like a considerable task. But if managers and team leaders are not coaching for success, organisations miss the greatest opportunity there is for continuous improvement.
Constructive criticism needs a second look. Let’s use this definition of criticism: “the analysis and judgement of the merits and faults of a piece of work.”
The dismal practice of management by exception descended on us during the Sixties, and it is still in evidence today. This means we accept performance until it’s wrong and then we criticise. This ignores a powerful motivator: the feeling of getting better. This means that feedback should always be unbalanced: favouring the merits over the faults. Think about it: how do you feel under a constant weight of negative comment? Constructive criticism is much more helpful when it favours the merits: what was good, why it was good and when it helps to sustain that behaviour.
As a leader, your most valuable time is in guidance and coaching. The quality of your feedback loops is crucial. Here are some things to try to improve the relevance, timing and precision of your coaching:
- Set aside an hour daily to review work.
- Make overwhelmingly positive and specific commentary, such as a positive/negative 5:1 ratio.
- Seek feedback about the value of your coaching. You can only get better if you do.
Kepner-Tregoe has been the industry leader in problem-solving and service-excellence processes for more than 60 years. The experts at KT have helped companies raise their level of incident- and problem-management performance through tools, training and consulting – leading to highly effective service-management teams ready to respond to your company’s most critical issues.