Turning Employee Feedback into Concrete Decisions

In this guide, we turn to the topic of focus on how you can help your team turn feedback into real changes. In short, what happens after employee feedback is received.

I recently searched Amazon for a book on giving feedback and received over 500 results. That’s 500 individual books all written on the art of providing feedback.

I bet you can find tangible techniques for improving what happens during the feedback session, what to do if you’re giving feedback to a group, if you’re giving feedback remotely and countless other situations.

After years of beating the drum of feedback, it is fair to say that the message has landed. That doesn’t mean all companies are doing it properly but they are at least trying. Have you seen how often companies are requesting feedback from customers?

My focus on this article isn’t on how to give better feedback. What could I say there that hasn’t been covered in one of those 500 books?

Instead, I wanted to focus on how you can help your team turn feedback into real changes. In short, what happens after feedback is given?

At most companies, feedback is given freely. You can do whatever you want with it and hopefully you actually use it positively. However, we can’t take such a laid back attitude to feedback. We have to take it all the way to the finish line and that means better behaviours.

It’s nice for Tom to know that he cuts people but what we really want is for Tom to stop doing it. Feedback has to be converted into changes everyone can see and feel.

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We all want our team members to be better but this can only happen if they decide to make a different decision in a future situation. Instead of cutting people off, they could decide to wait before speaking. Instead of getting angry when mistakes happen, they can decide to pause and breathe.

Decisions are the point in time where feedback takes effect. As leaders, you need to help your team make better decisions.

To do that, let’s start by understanding how people learn and how we can use different styles to make our feedback actionable.

The magic of learning styles

Martin M. Broadwell, a management trainer, presented his four levels of teaching all the way back in the 60s. His model is one of the best explanations for why some feedback sticks while some can’t seem to get through.

The four levels of teaching or competence are as follows:

Unconscious incompetence

In this level, the individual does not know they lack a specific skill. For example, they are unaware that they come across as arrogant when explaining concepts to team mates.

Conscious incompetence

In this level, the individual recognises their lack of a specific skill but they may still perform poorly. Using the same example as above, the individual knows they come across as arrogant but they have been unable to consistently improve.

Conscious competence

In this level, the individual has worked on a specific skill and has mastered a sufficient level of competence. The individual is able to control their communication and facial gestures to avoid coming across as arrogant. However, the individual has to seriously concentrate to make this happen.

Unconscious competence

In this level, the individual has fully internalised a skill. They can modulate their communication to avoid coming across as arrogant and more importantly, they no longer think about doing it. It has become “second nature”.

We all go through these four stages at varying speeds. Skills that feel “natural” to us are likely in the fourth stage (unconscious competence).

When it comes to feedback, we need to recognise where an individual is. They may enter at stage one, being completely unaware that they lack a specific skill. We then need to help them move through the stages rapidly.

I once worked with an executive who was notorious for micro-managing others. He was unaware that he was doing this. From his perspective, he was simply being a team player and helping others achieve results faster. He didn’t see how damaging his behaviour was.

After presenting evidence to him, he quickly moved into stage two (awareness) and then into stage three. You could tell he had to seriously focus in meetings to avoid falling back into his micromanaging habits. He would start speaking and then cut himself off when he started going down the old path.

Over time, he became comfortable letting others figure things out even if they took longer or if they arrived at a different solution than what we would have done.

Language learning offers another great example of how these stages feel. We are all in stage one for any language we don’t know. We move into stage two when we start to learn a language like I did with Italian a couple years ago. I was highly aware of my lack of skill when trying to form Italian sentences.

Over time, I moved into stage three but I always had to focus deeply to maintain a conversation. Today, most conversations fall into stage four for me. I can unconsciously form sentences but if we go into more complex topics—say philosophy—I go back into stage three.

The best way to help others move through these stages is by deploying just-in-time coaching.

Just-in-time coaching

Feedback sessions are great for helping individuals move from stage one two two but they are usually taking place away from reality. In other words, you’re likely not providing feedback to someone in the middle of a meeting or presentation. In my example above, I presented my feedback privately to the CEO and not in front of his team.

The just-in-time model comes from auto manufacturing and was meant to help car makers avoid expensive build ups in parts. They could instead order exactly what they needed and quickly convert it into the final product. Toyota popularised the model which became standard in the industry.

We can take similar ideas for coaching to convert feedback into tangible decisions. When you give feedback, spend some time thinking of how this person can quickly implement what they just heard. Is there an opportunity happening later today, tomorrow or this week perhaps? The sooner the better.

If you’re giving feedback on how to interact with colleagues, help them identify one or two opportunities where they could try a new approach. You could mention an upcoming meeting they have with Sally or Bill as potential opportunities.

You could then rehearse the language or situation so they feel comfortable implementing the feedback rapidly. Finally, you can check in a few minutes before the situation with last minute reminders and motivation.

There’s all kinds of options when it comes to coaching someone but it starts with a different mindset. It’s not enough to tell someone how they can improve. You have to also help them implement the advice.

You’ll start to notice that the best people tend to implement feedback rapidly. They don’t think in weeks or months but in hours or days. They move rapidly through the four teaching styles with the goal of getting to stage three or four.

When I worked to help companies become more data-driven, I always thought of the next small step any person could take. For some people, it meant simply looking at a dashboard and thinking of one question to ask the rest of the team. For others, it means building complete reports from the ground up.

It didn’t matter how eloquent I was when coaching them. It only matters how much of my coaching actually results in new behaviours.

Doubling down on success

As you start to focus on the decisions needed to implement feedback, you’ll start to notice all kinds of opportunities to double down on success.

The advanced nuance of turning feedback into concrete decisions is that some skills are harder for some individuals than others. Someone could focus intensely during a meeting to avoid cutting off others but it may never become an unconscious skill.

Richard Branson is known to be dyslexic though that hasn’t prevented him from trying to hot air balloon around the world or engage in other crazy stunts. It has, however, made it harder for him to do certain common tasks like looking over financials.

He likely has a conscious competence when it comes to business metrics. He has to focus to understand what he is reading and it will likely never be something he is 100% comfortable with. That doesn’t matter as long as he doubles down on what he is great at.

Leaders have the same responsibility to help their team members find those skills that will come naturally to them. They may need to coach them on basic skills everyone needs—communication, working with others and so forth—but you need to help them recognise the feedback that quickly goes into stage four.

Just like we hear about finding the best style of feedback, for example, Gen Z tends to prefer written, we need to find the best match for learning style.

You could teach all kinds of decision-making frameworks but if you’re trying to make decisions that are personally difficult, you will struggle.

Focus on helping your team find distinctions between feedback they easily adopted versus feedback they have struggled to internalise. As with everything, you want to understand the root cause. It could be a personality mismatch, a legitimate learning disorder like dyslexia or something else.

Companies shouldn’t be trying to fit everyone into the same mould. There’s all kinds of ways to run a company and to take advantage of the diversity of thought within your employees.

Many companies who want to be data-driven assume that all of their employees would love to work with data directly. The reality is that some people are not comfortable with numbers. I can’t coach them through something they do not want to do. This means that many companies are better off hiring data analysts who can crunch numbers for those individuals who just want the insights. They can struggle for years when the solution is quite simple.

As a leader, you need to recognise when your team needs better feedback and help implementing said feedback and when you need to find a different solution altogether. Upskilling employees over the long term usually means making these kinds of decisions.

In Summary

We have successfully convinced leaders of the value of feedback. Companies are now drowning it. Everyone is getting feedback from colleagues, direct reports, bosses, customers and anyone who wants to give it. However, we can’t stop here.

We need to help our team and ourselves turn feedback into concrete decisions. Good feedback means that we will do something differently at some point in time. Instead of defaulting to some unconscious default, we will consciously make a different decision.

It starts by understanding the four stages of competence and how people move through it. You need to recognise where someone is at any moment and what could help them move to the next stage.

Just-in-time coaching is a fantastic way of making sure feedback sticks. The best people aren’t just open to feedback, they are internalising it rapidly.

Finally, we also need to recognise the strengths of our team and which feedback is easily adopted versus the feedback that seems to go through one ear and out the other.

We don’t need a 501th book on feedback. We need more work on helping others learn. Looking for those pivotal decisions is a fantastic starting point for making feedback real.

About the Author

Ruben Ugarte is the go-to expert in decisions and the author of Bulletproof Decisions and the Data Mirage. He helps executives at the most innovative medium, and large enterprises make better decisions to dramatically boost performance, increase profitability, and make their teams world-class. Learn more at rubenugarte.com

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