Feedback is a gift….right?

When you start to play a sport, you are encouraged

Someone who knows how to play golf, or tennis, or netball (or whatever you are trying master), takes the time to show you the basics. They painstakingly teach you how to hold the equipment and how to strike, kick, catch or shoot. Then they let you practice a few times, gently encouraging you to make a few changes to improve your ability.

And your confidence grows. As you get a little more proficient, your “coach” will start to explain the rules of the sport. Understanding this, allows you to play with others, and to further hone your skills.

Eventually you can start to benchmark yourself. Are you good enough to play socially, in a league, perhaps even to go professional? With sport (especially team based sports), your benchmarking is real time and honest. Sometimes the feedback is verbalised. Sometimes it is demonstrable: you don’t make the qualification time or you are simply not in the squad to play the next game. You can choose what to do with that feedback. Ignore it, or capitalise on it. Let it encourage you, defeat you, or fuel your determination to improve. But you know where you stand! You know if this is your “thing” or not.

For most of us, we are fairly pragmatic about this sporting feedback. We don’t have to be brilliant to have a social knock about (it’s hardly going to pay the mortgage after all). But it does influence how and when you take part. It takes a massive amount of confidence to play a game of tennis with a superstar like Federer, especially if successfully returning a ball over the net is a bit of a lottery!

But Roger’s profession is tennis. He takes his feedback and benchmarking really seriously. And much of it is so public (world rankings, progress through championships etc).

I was recently part of a charity recruitment selection process for a handful of roles. As is typical of this post-recession process, we received hundreds of applications for each role. Most were dire. Poorly presented, thrown together and a million miles from being a satisfactory sales document. Most were rapidly dumped in the “reject” pile. As we had so many applications, we debated how we would handle communications with those not selected for interviews. The recruitment agency advised inaction. “They will not be expecting anything. They will assume they have not been successful if they have not heard from you in 2 or so weeks.”

Reflecting on this, and contrasting it with the real time, public feedback of the sporting world, made me to wonder if the business based workplace had something to learn from the sports field?

Sadly, my experience tells me, feedback in business (unlike in sport) is often bottled or fudged. Management know what ‘good’ looks like. Management know what their staff need to learn to be more effective. But most people get little to no feedback. They may have one performance appraisal a year and more often than not, the manager is ill equipped to provide constructive feedback – honest factual observations based on what they have seen, heard and had delivered, all benchmarked against what good looks like. Let’s be fair – the manager themselves may not have been trained correctly, but it is also human nature to want to be liked.

“Developmental” feedback is often perceived as being critical and negative and so, in the quest to be liked, it is often not even raised in the discussion or supporting paperwork. Staff leave the performance appraisal thinking all is going to plan…and then receive a disappointing bonus letter or salary increase. Or they do not get the promotion they thought was certain. As a result they feel disappointed, undervalued, angry. The trust between employee and management starts to break down. And the employee eventually leaves the organisation, only to be caught in the same trap at the new place.

If staff members are never told that they need to make some adjustments, or how to make those adjustments, most struggle improve from one level to another.

In business, improvement is usually delivered via some training. But recently, and as a result of the global crisis and recession, funding for learning and development has been cut faster than marketing, travel and entertainment budgets. And often, staff only have 1 or 2 training days allocated to them each year.

How can you be expected to improve when your training is sporadic, often classroom based, with limited practical implementation? It has been proven that unless you immediately try to put something into practice, you are significantly less likely to remember how to do it at a later stage. The book, “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell, evidences that you need to repeat an action 10,000 times before it becomes a habit. So it is hardly surprising that staff who attend a day’s non practical training, leave the ‘classroom’ and immediately forget all that have been told. ‘Do. Learn. Do’ needs to become as much the mantra in the office as it is on the sports field.

The quest to improve needs to be a 2 way street though. You need to want to learn to play tennis, to take on board the advice. You need to be able to take guidance and adapt what you are doing, if you want to be as good as (or better than) your coach. You need to be receptive…and sometimes you need to actively seek out the “developmental” feedback. That can be uncomfortable and requires courage. But it is when you learn most.

It seems perverse that we willingly put ourselves at the mercy of other’s feedback in our leisure time as we learn a new sport. Indeed some of us pay to be shouted at in boot camps across the parks and commons in the UK! But we are so reluctant to reach out, accept and act on developmental feedback in the space where it really counts: our careers and our livelihoods. Is it not time that we opened ourselves up and become receptive to feedback: good and developmental? Should we not strive to improve just as much in the office as we do in our sports?

And as managers, are we not required to provide constructive feedback? Not criticising our teams, but coaching and encouraging them to become the best that they can be. Perhaps we need to look at some of the sports managers and coaches that work solely to ensure that their teams perform better than they ever could or did. They actively encourage their sportsman or woman to be better and they are not fearful that their protégée may, one day, be better than they ever were!

As managers we need to take time to explain the rules, and how to play the game. This knowledge should not be a competitive advantage – after all the manager and the team are on the same side, and success for one, means success for the other.

And let’s not forget the more philanthropic angle (which prompted my initial reflections).  At the charity, we did not follow the advise that we were given. The management team and trustees wrote back to each applicant, explaining that they had been unsuccessful and offering a free service to provide feedback on why. Many were brave enough to accept the offer. The charity has tracked the subsequent progress of these ‘rejected candidates’ and has had fantastic feedback from those who now understand the rules of the game and have been able to adapt their applications and secure positions elsewhere.

Feedback is a gift. A gift that we should give kindly and constructively. A gift which we can chose to reject or accept. Ignore or take on board. We are all keen to hear how to be better at our chosen sport. How keen are we to hear how to better at our chosen career?

By Carla Stent, a Top of Her Game Gamechanger

About the Author: Carla Stent is deputy chair of the Young Women’s Trust, a small, dynamic UK based charity that aims to improve lifelong opportunities for young women aged 16-30 by addressing the poverty, inequality and discrimination that many of them face. Martin le Comte, is a trustee of the Young Women’s Trust. Martin runs Ten Development, working in partnership with clients to maintain and increase their business profitability, customer satisfaction and employee engagement through the practical and sustainable development of leadership capability.

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