Workplace wisdom: Focus your feedback
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Workplace wisdom: Focus your feedback

Letting employees know where they stand is an art and quality coaching sessions are replacing annual reviews among high-achieving teams. Tyler Bloom explains how to make the process effective for all parties.

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November 17, 2020

The art of giving feedback requires a sweet spot of providing enough guidance and direction without overwhelming employees or yourself.

As annual reviews or seasonal exit interviews are being administered, management teams have been curious about best strategies to provide proper feedback. Shifting away from annual reviews to more periodic coaching sessions is becoming normal practice to maintain highly engaged teams.

Creating an environment where constructive feedback becomes a normal habit in your operations requires repetition, clear trust, self-awareness and open mindedness. Leaders should incorporate feedback from the hiring process into onboarding and throughout the employee life cycle.

Institutionalizing feedback sessions can be intimidating and a bit inauthentic. However, keeping calendar benchmarks to have formalized sit-down meetings with team members can be healthy reminders to stay connected.

In the spirit of mentorship, superintendents should share the responsibility with their management team. Establish some base guidelines to solicit feedback with staff members, appropriate language and boundaries. Any misalignment, gaps or breakdown in the delivery of feedback can compromise the intent and exchange.

Creating shared values will tie nicely with your leadership team’s approach to constructive feedback and generating a high-performance team. Connecting and generating trust from the top down will become much easier, and you will inspire those from the bottom up with clear guidelines. After all, when employees confide in others, rather than combat them, they’re more inclined to speak candidly.

The standards should constantly evolve to the personalities and strategic goals of the business. What was acceptable a year ago will not propel business forward. Build trust and confidence by acting on feedback and making necessary changes.

One of the biggest miscues in soliciting feedback to employees is not giving it at all. Waiting for the ideal moment to praise or bottling up frustration over mistakes and pushing them to the side until review time is counterproductive.

The adage “pick your battles” is certainly relevant when we’re bogged down with the stresses of summer heat, short labor pools and personal responsibilities to the job. However, don’t let seasonal demands be a scapegoat to provide corrective actions and often inspirational messages.

Many managers are uncomfortable giving feedback for a variety of reasons, but mostly due to our own insecurity to sound corny or stupid. That’s why establishing rapport early and often reduces the awkward tension.

No great leader wakes up in the morning and thinks, “Oh, I plan to be a jerk today and point out mistakes in my direct reports.” But missing important coaching and teaching moments reduces your growth opportunity to communicate and build relationships. Reframe feedback with guidance and commit to the tenet that you care about your employees and the team’s growth. You can provide feedback with growth intentions, not skepticism and negativity.

Often in morning meetings as a golf course superintendent, I would take the opportunity to start the day with a positive acknowledgement regarding course conditions, an employee accomplishment or company update. Reinforcing positive feedback, I would offer an opportunity for the staff to contribute. I put myself out there for criticism and accountability. Most importantly, it allowed me to put my communications on the right path vs. being an adversary and skeptic.

As the day unfolded, I intentionally made a point to engage with staff to ask how things were going, gain their perspective on the golf course and ask for any tips. This broke down barriers and allowed employees the opportunity to see me as a human being who genuinely cared about their involvement in our team and work processes.

Understanding differences between generations requires education, skill and an adaptable approach. We can often alienate one person with the same delivery that motivates another person.

In my early experience, I followed traditional annual review practices and old school methodologies that I had developed. I had one approach, and it took all of one or two reviews to be disappointed in my management.

I remember one specific interaction with an extremely experienced, respected and valued employee. There had been tension boiling for some time on both ends. My lack of self-awareness and consistent feedback built an ongoing disconnect and growing frustration. During an annual review, the employee unleashed months of buildup and a checklist of my shortcomings. While the delivery was not acceptable, I recognized quickly I played a major hand in his frustration and looked back at many missed opportunities to build a connection.

The individual didn’t want constant public engagement, but private recognition, direct communication with me and desired autonomy to make in-field decisions without my consent. My behaviors of constant follow-up, shared responsibilities and developing internal growth with younger staff members made him feel uncomfortable in his position. Because of the individual's extensive experience in standard, top-down management systems, the employee did not feel safe or comfortable opening up in fear of retaliation.

While my efforts to create an open-door policy were genuine, a combination of factors contributed to his self-doubt. One of the most valuable lessons I learned early in my career came from current Crooked Stick (Indiana) Golf Club superintendent Jake Gargasz: “To earn respect, you have to give respect.” In this instance, I needed to give respect, show humility and establish mutually agreed upon follow-up protocols. I let silence become the norm, and the individual felt threatened. Moving forward, if I could tell there was tension between myself or any team member, I developed the confidence to put my ego aside and be vulnerable. I used the hard lesson as a benchmark to establish more customized communication channels, respective of personality differences. I also established collaborative programs to ensure my goal of a fluid nature of the organization structure resonated.

I asked for the individual’s help in the relationship, which served us both to establish a better understanding of our personality differences, communication styles and overall work styles. In addition, providing career path and growth opportunities demonstrated our commitment. When dealing with youth, acknowledgement is often the simplest motivator and precursor to feedback. Often in my travels I have listened to managers discuss disengagement from young staff members, only to observe them drive right past them moments earlier without making eye contact.

Here are some suggestions that may serve you well in feedback sessions:

  • Look at people straight in the eye, smile and state their first name
  • Strike the perfect tonality of being empathetic, direct and trusted advisor
  • Give impromptu praise first, establish rapport, provide constructive criticism if necessary, and encourage feedback
  • Take ownership in your miscues, take action on your promised deliverables and set a timetable for a follow-up meeting
  • Don’t overload them with feedback and unrealistic goals
  • Offer enough positive support and encouragement

Creating the proper feedback sessions can be instrumental in advancing your operations. As I became more comfortable in my own skin, I adopted feedback into our standards of operation. This allowed the staff – young or old – to clearly define the standards they had for themselves, hold each other accountable and provide an employee-directed work environment.

Asking for feedback from direct reports on an individualized basis provided them opportunity to contribute to the organization. After trial and error, I often found that employees were able to bring unique perspectives to solving problems on the golf course, creating a diverse and collective representation.

Build an action plan to address bad behavior. As critical issues continue to build, they will result in emotions of anger and resentment. Once it reaches a peak, it explodes and the feedback is harsher than it needs to be. Create follow-up meetings to assess how the individual or circumstance is improving.

Impromptu on the spot recognition is a powerful strategy. Developing methods to reward individuals for achieving goals will be extremely valuable to the long-term relationship.

Don’t waste an opportunity to be a positive force in someone’s day or life. Feedback can be both genuinely positive and constructive for your own personal, team and organizational growth.

Tyler Bloom is a workforce and leadership consultant and principal owner of TBloom, LLC. He previously served 15 years in the golf industry, most recently as golf course superintendent at Sparrows Point Country Club in Baltimore, Maryland. Follow him on Twitter @tbloom_llc.