Leadership / Purpose / Performance Feedback

How You Can Give Feedback That Matters

Find common purpose, then adjust performance.

West Point Cadets, photo by author from yearbook

As a cadet at West Point, I was taught we were joining the profession of arms. As a member of a profession, you have the duty to police your own ranks. This means when you see someone acting unprofessionally, it’s your obligation to say something, to provide them feedback. This isn’t always well perceived by peers.

During my time at the Academy, the “developmental focus” was almost entirely on the first-year cadets called plebes. There were lots and lots of other neat nicknames for them, but plebe is the nicest and most well-known. Most upperclassmen (yearlings, cows, and firsties) took their duty to “correct” plebes seriously. Some did it with great enthusiasm.

In my last year, the Academy was starting a much-needed shift in developmental focus from only plebes to all four classes. For the previous three years, it had been all about the plebes all the time. This resulted in many upperclassmen slacking on their own standards, primarily in appearance.

As a senior aka firstie, I was appointed as a headquarters platoon leader. This platoon was unusual in that it consisted entirely of juniors (cows) and seniors (my classmates).

Shined shoes, brass belt buckles, brass insignia on hats, proper fit and wear of the uniform are all things plebes are required to learn to manage and keep right. Under the previous system, many cadets considered these as requirements for plebes. Getting through plebe year then absolved them of these standards.

As I was the headquarters platoon leader in charge of seniors and juniors, I recognized this disconnect. Then I set out to fix it.

Sundays are one of the most treasured times for a cadet because the time isn’t structured. This freedom ends with Sunday evening accountability formation which is held to ensure everyone has returned from their weekend pass and / or survived the weekend.

Typically, it was a relaxed or chilled formation. Uniforms were required of course, but mostly people didn’t pay them the usual attention they should have. I was the d&*# who changed that.

Normally, after the formation, the platoon leader about faces and announces, “Dismissed.” The cadets are then free to return to their rooms to begin study, etc. One evening, I about-faced and ordered, “Open Ranks, March.” This signaled the formation to spread out and make room for the inspecting officer to pass through and . . . inspect. Which I did.

Because it was unusual and unexpected, my order confused the platoon. They didn’t execute exactly right, but I went ahead and conducted the inspection. My platoon sergeant followed me with a clipboard and took notes. I found discrepancies on about 26 of 28 cadets. Brass not shined, shoes not shined, gig line off (this is the straight line formed by the edge of the shirt, the edge of the belt buckle, and the edge of the fly on the trousers), stains on shirts, and so on.

We posted the names and I required each person to initial by their name to acknowledge the discrepancy. No demerits or other punishment, but even so this was not very popular. Normally, cadets spent a few minutes Sunday evening shining their shoes and brass, put on a fresh shirt Monday morning, and made sure they looked smart for Monday morning breakfast formation.

I changed that. Plebes knew the standards for them didn’t change regardless of the formation time or day of the week. I helped my unit understand it was the same for all of us. But there was a price.

This article from 2018 in Harvard Business Review discusses how negative feedback can drive social interactions at work. In essence, when someone tells us we aren’t doing well, we tend to minimize our interactions with the person and increase interactions with others who are not critical. This can negatively impact teamwork, group projects, and even continued employment.

One of the findings indicates that when employees “feel valued” they are much more receptive to critical feedback. The author was careful to differentiate from the standard ‘feedback sandwich’ wherein the supervisor begins with praise, provides criticism, and then finishes with positive feedback. As so many of us realize, that approach is formulaic, like a worn-out cliché which becomes trite.

On the contrary, the author alludes to, and I want to elaborate on, the need for the supervisor to have a caring relationship with the employee, not simply quid pro quo. An old Army saying says troops won’t care what you know until they know you care. That thought will bear fruit in any environment, not simply a military one.

Leaders cannot be “buddies” with their people, although legitimate friendships do occur (and they can complicate matters). Just as parents who want to be friends with their kids often have trouble meting out discipline later, managers must develop a relationship with their employees based on mutual respect, common understanding, and trust. Stephen M. R. Covey in his excellent book, The Speed of Trust, writes about the four cores of credibility/ The first of these is intent. Intent is the motivation that lies in your heart which spurs you to action.

When leaders make their intent transparent, they enable trust. Employees don’t have to guess what the boss is thinking or rely on interpretations from the executive assistant or fellow employees. They’ll understand where the feedback is coming from and be more accepting of it.

It’s the same for peers. When everyone understands everyone else is committed to the same purpose, they’re more understanding of critical feedback. This isn’t a license to kick the emotional daylights out of someone; it should always be offered in a thoughtful manner, couched in terms of the purpose.

When providing negative feedback to someone, the receiver will sometimes perceive the source as trying to tear them down or “put them in their place.” While this may be true occasionally, more often that perception is fueled by the clumsy efforts of the person giving the feedback. Proficient performance feedback providers focus on behaviors and their impacts on the organization. This is true for both positive and negative actions. Far too often, the negative is detailed and strongly emphasized while the positive consists of, “you’re doing fine.” When employees readily understand their boss’s intent, it allows them to properly assess the feedback in the manner it’s intended.

Within the structure of a trusting relationship, people feel affirmed and valued. They’ll understand the necessity of the critical feedback (which most do anyway) but more importantly, they’ll be far more motivated to act on that feedback. When the relationship exceeds the this-for-that so commonly found (do your work, get your paycheck), the organization has the opportunity to improve operations and reap the rewards of better execution.

We simply do not give people enough training in these tough conversations. Instead we leave them to rely on their personal, imperfect experiences. Helping leaders learn feedback skills such as listening, questioning, and explaining in terms of both first- and second-order effects is critical to building a high-performance organization which continues to grow and get better.

Companies that choose to invest in training for their employees create the environment for the company to continue on an ascending level of execution..

As a headquarters platoon leader, I was a lonely guy for a while. People resented what I was doing. Eventually, they came to understand I wasn’t on a power trip. More importantly, they began to take pride in our platoon’s appearance. By the end of the term, we were recognized as the top headquarters platoon out of 36 in the Academy.

Retired Army officer with two tours in Baghdad, taught at West Point, married with four kids. Proud West Virginian and West Point grad. Amazon pubs.

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