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Published:March 10th, 2007 08:22 EST
Proactive Feedback is the Greatest Gift

Proactive Feedback is the Greatest Gift

By Simon Bailey (Mentor/Columnist)

It’s been said by many that feedback is a gift.

While I think that’s true, I believe it’s only half the story. I believe that proactive feedback is the greatest gift.

Let me share with you two short stories to make my point.

Recently, I had a large client engagement and asked a colleague to facilitate some sessions that were part of the project. She graciously agreed and adjusted her own business schedule to accommodate my client’s perceived needs. However, as things progressed, I began to anticipate that the client was going to change the scope of the project, dramatically altering my colleague’s involvement (through no fault of hers, I’ll add).

Instead of keeping her informed, I failed to communicate with her expeditiously regarding the potential changes. (There were a number of reasons why I didn't, none of which were particularly good ones I now realize.) When the client finally made the decision I’d anticipated, I called her and dropped the bomb. She was polite and professional and said, “Okay” and we hung up.

A few minutes later, she called back and said, “I need to give you some feedback” and pointed out that I had withheld information that was crucial to her business. Needless to say, she was right, and I was clearly wrong. With no place to hide, after a long pause I said uncle and took full responsibility for not sharing the information earlier.

My colleague’s feedback to me was a gift. The next time I bring in a colleague on a project, you can be sure I’ll be attentive to timely communication and clarification of expectations. My proactive feedback to my colleague about the potential changes in the scope of the project would have been an even greater gift…if I’d actually given it. Despite the fact that my actions negatively impacted her business, my colleague has graciously allowed me to stretch and grow yet again, and I thank her.

Feedback is a gift. Proactive feedback is the greatest gift.

I have an acquaintance who is a female attorney. Several years ago, she was waiting in the wings to become a partner in a law firm. One weekend, she was invited by a few of the senior partners to a social gathering for the firm. She blew it off and didn’t go. On Monday morning when several people inquired about her absence at the gathering, she told them she didn’t think she needed to be there.

By now, you likely have a sense of what happened next. When the time came, her promotion to partner was denied because she was not perceived as a team player who had a rapport with colleagues outside of the office. Eventually, one of the senior partners gave her some feedback and told her there was an implied understanding in the firm that if you’re invited to a gathering, you go.

The feedback from the senior partner was indeed a gift. She did start attending the firm’s social functions, but what should have taken her three to five years to achieve will now likely take her seven to ten years. Perhaps you’re thinking someone should have given her some insight prior to the event. Or, knowing that she was up for partner, maybe she should have taken it upon herself to ask for feedback.

Feedback is a gift. Proactive feedback is the greatest gift.

How often do you receive proactive feedback from your leader, co-workers, significant other, family members or friends? How often do you invite it?

We know that feedback is powerful. It’s a measuring tool for us to see where we are, where we need to go and what may be sabotaging our efforts to close the gap. It’s an invitation to grow, to look in the mirror and discover areas of strength and areas of opportunity.

But much of the power of feedback is in the timeliness. Feedback given once or twice a year in a formal performance review, while important, is virtually powerless to change behavior because it is focused on past performance.

Regular, consistent feedback is, almost by definition, proactive feedback because it addresses current or future behaviors and performance. The reality is that as human beings we need ongoing feedback, both positive and constructive. We need to know how we’re doing at any given time, in any given situation. We need to better understand our strengths so that we can leverage them more, and we need to identify our opportunities for development.

When we don’t receive continuous feedback, we can only assume that everything is peachy keen. Then, when things suddenly blow up, there’s typically an intense conversation that starts off with something like, “I didn’t know you felt that way” or “How did we ever get this far down the road without discussing these issues sooner?” What you don’t know can and will hurt you because you will assume you’re doing what is expected when in fact you’re operating below the mark.

Employees should receive feedback informally throughout the year, and not just when their performance isn’t up to par. Husbands and wives should give each other regular feedback, not just when something goes awry. The same is true with parents and children.

Leaders who give employees ongoing authentic feedback create a point of differentiation. Too many organizations and leaders say that people are their most important asset but then don’t walk their talk. If a large, expensive piece of equipment were an organization’s most important asset and critical to its operations (as an aircraft is for an airline, for example), would that organization only check that asset once a year? Absolutely not! They’d care for that equipment on an ongoing basis, scheduling frequent maintenance and repairs.

So why should the care and maintenance of our people assets be any different?

It shouldn’t be.

Ongoing proactive feedback is more powerful than simple feedback because it:

  • Continuously connects individuals to the overall mission of the organization;

  • Allows people to embrace change more quickly when it happens (which is all the time these days) because they clearly understand their role in the show;

  • Builds people’s confidence that they’re doing something right and that their core competencies are recognized and valued in the organization.

Today, I invite you to give the greatest gift: proactive feedback.

Give it to someone else – a direct report, a co-worker, a spouse, a child, a friend. Give it because you care and because you want to help others realize their full potential and release their brilliance.

Give it to yourself. If no one in your life is regularly giving you feedback, be proactive. Seek it out. Find people who care about you and ask them these questions:

  1. Are there areas of opportunity in my life that you see that I need to work on?

  2. Are there areas of strength that I can leverage?

  3. What can I do to exceed your expectations?

Simon Believes…Ongoing proactive feedback is the greatest gift. Give it. Get it.