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Sunday, March 04, 2012

If you can get accurate and timely feedback, it is enough to keep ahead in your career

Feedback is critical for learning and growth. A good quality feedback itself is enough to constantly improve one's skill and talent. If you want to see how, observe any sportsman.

Sportsmen constantly improve their performance with accurate and timely feedback because the quality of feedback in their work - playing tennis, cricket or football - is very good: timely, objective, context-independent.When the batsman in a cricket is told that his performance is 'poor', there is no doubt about it in the minds of batsman because the feedback is objective (he has scored consistently low in last three innings), seen immediately after the event and largely independent of context.

Having accepted that the performance is 'poor', the batsman takes the next logical step: 'find' an option out of multiple options that will 'improve' his performance by either correcting his 'technical' faults or 'mind' faults. His technical faults could be his awkward batting stance, his so-called strength of playing cut shots, or avoiding short balls. If he performs well in the next game ( even without correcting his fault) he is retained and can get an additional chance to rectify his fault. If he performs poorly, he is dropped. Although the system is very harsh on poor performance, it looks fair because it is transparent.

Why is it difficult to get accurate feedback in knowledge work

On the other hand, corporate professionals working in medicine, law, engineering, software or management find it difficult to improve their performance, because the quality of feedback in their knowledge work is very poor: it is delayed, subjective, and context-dependent. When my boss tells me that "My performance is poor in sales", feedback is confusing because it is delayed  (typically it is given after a year), subjective ( you are not aggressive enough) and context-dependent ( even objective-looking sales performance depends on various contexts: was the territory given to be tougher than others, was my budget inadequate in my area, or was the distributor  in my territory new, ...)

Because the performance is so dependent on context, I do not know that I have performed poorly in the first place. You will find many smart corporate professionals who use this feedback-characteristic of knowledge work to their benefit: they always manage to find other situations to blame their poor performance. They learn to manage perceptions.

But if I truly want to improve my work-performance, i do not know 'if I have performed poorly because of my lack of skill' or ' if I have not adjusted with the changing situation in my job' or if the 'situation required external support for me to perform'. I am stuck up because of poor feedback quality. Further, as I am prone to defend myself, i am more than likely to blame 'outside situations' and 'boss' for poor performance. If I find good reasons to blame bosses and colleagues, I stop taking feedback from them, even if they could be right. I stop believing that anyone is giving me good feedback. And that stops my learning completely. My performance cannot be improved easily now!

Because the feedback quality in knowledge work is poor and opaque, I start believing that the corporate system is unfair and stop doing anything to improve my work-performance! Instead I rely on something which I never wanted to do in the first place, manage perceptions!

Suggestions in obtaining quality feedback to improve your work-performance

If you wish to avoid blaming the corporate field, it is imperative that you learn to get feedback on your knowledge work. Here are five suggestions:

1. Get feedback on your behaviour, not on your attitude or thinking

We can see other's behaviour, not their thinking. Similarly, others can see our behaviour and not our thinking. This makes it imperative that you must get feedback to your actions, and not your thoughts.

Therefore, please take feedback on your actions, not on how you are thinking. For instance, please ask others 'what action did you think i performed wrongly'. Even if they tell you that 'you were not committed', ask them 'what actions of mine made you think i was not committed'. If they say, 'you were not prepared', ask them 'what actions of mine made you think that i was not prepared'. Learn to steer their feedback from 'interpretation of your thought' to 'action/behaviour'.

By restricting the feedback to actions, you ensure that the feedback is accurate and not subjective. Once you get the feedback on your actions, then you can 'review your thoughts' to correct yourself. For instance, if others are interpreting your 'action of early-leaving of office' as your lack of commitment, you appreciate that your thoughts are not in tune with the outside reality and 'recalibrate' your thoughts. This will give you important guidelines on how others 'interpret' your actions. This itself is an important feedback for you !

2. Always try to get feedback on the event soon after the event

In organisations, the feedback sessions are conducted once in a year. This kind of feedback is not useful to improve your performance, because one is rarely able to recollect the actions that have happened a fortnight or a month back. This becomes too 'generic' a feedback.

Instead, concentrate on getting feedback after an 'event'. Feedback becomes useful only if it is taken immediately after the event, say in a day or two. After a delay, one tends to give feedback on 'impressions' and 'memory'. This kind of feedback is not very helpful in improving your performance.

In sales situations, for instance, the feedback is ideal if taken after a closure of sales cycle. For other functions, feedbacks should be taken immediately after critical events are over: such as crash delivery done in short time, or after an important damage control event was conducted, or after an important presentation was done for a client, or when external events like audit are conducted. If no other option is available, feedback at the end of month is still helpful.

3. Get feedback on the event from the people who are involved in the event 

Always get feedback from the people involved in the event.  Bosses are ideal for getting feedback, but not all bosses are 'good' in providing objective feedback !It is therefore useful to get feedback from colleagues working in your group or working in another group with whom you interact.

I have a friend who gets feedback from his family members every 3 months in a very 'formal' manner. Every quarter, he asks his wife, for instance and asks her three questions, "What do you think i did wrong in last three months",  'what behaviour could have been better' , and 'What behaviour changes you would like to see'. He never 'justifies' or 'refutes' the wife's statements or conclusions. He only asks, if required, for clarifications such as "What actions of mine made you think that i do not care about your health". I find this is a very good method of getting good feedback as well as keeping your close relationships healthy! Although this is an example from outside the work, it is a good example of how feedbacks should be taken.

4. Talk with the best performer in the company to unravel the 'context' of your work

The right person to provide you feedback on your work is the best performer in your company, industry or someone whom you know ( even though he is not from your industry). If you are a sales officer, find the best sales officer in your company to talk to. If you are an investment analyst, find the best investment analyst to talk. If you are a production engineer, find the best production engineer to talk.

If possible, work with best performer for a time being, and observe his/her actions closely, whether it is programming or cooking. Ask specific questions to these performers such as 'I am finding difficulty in closing sales calls. What should i do', or ' I often work late to complete my work'. Asking specific questions help you diagnose the root cause quickly.

Or use these rules of excellent performers to improve !

5. Talk with a good external coach to 'sort' out the interdependency of the contexts 

In a corporate management job, there are too many contexts to 'peel out' to find how are you really doing. As we have seen earlier, a corporate job has very high variety due to three contextual mixups: function, domain and managerial contexts. This makes it very difficult to isolate them individually and determine 'what you are doing wrong' in your work. This first phase of diagnosis is itself very daunting.

A 'credible and trustworthy' coach is therefore not only useful but also necessary to help you sort out wheat from chaff if you are seriously interested in improving your work-performance. He can help you  perform an accurate diagnosis that can make a big difference to your performance in work !

What are you doing to improve your performance in knowledge work? Because, if you are not doing anything, you have to either depend heavily on perception management or adopt a victim  ( what can i do?) mentality to survive in corporate field. 

1 comment:

Sanjiv Bhamre said...

Robert F. Bruner, in his book, Deals from Hell (Wiley, 2005,New York) cites a number of acquisitions that went sour in a big way. The Sony-Columbia merger in 1989 resulted in a $2.7 billion write-off. The acquisition of National Cash Register by AT&T, cost AT&T $4.1 billion. His champion of errors of commision is the merger of AOL and Time Warner. It resulted in a $200 billion loss in stock-market value and a $54 billion write-down in the worth of the combination’s assets.

Bruner points out that in most such cases the executives responsible such losses made significant gains in their own compensation. They were able to disclaim responsibility for their mistakes. Do you need any proof ?