71st CS major 'telling it like it is'

  • Published
  • By Maj Richard Folks
  • 71st Communications Squadron
"Like beauty, service, quality, honesty or integrity, leadership is in the eye of the beholder. I judge myself by my intentions. Others judge me by my actions. My intentions and the actions that others see may be miles apart. Unless I know that, I am unlikely to change my actions or try to get others to see me differently."
author and keynote speaker Jim Clemmer, "Feedback to See How Others See Me"
A few years ago, one of my former top-performing troops called me from overseas. She was upset about the feedback she had just received from her boss. During a midterm feedback, her supervisor had told her that she was "doing good," but she could sense her supervisor was not totally satisfied with her performance and asked him to provide her with specific information about what she was doing well and what she could do better. Her boss' non-specific feedback continued and her frustration increased. When she pressed him for details regarding her performance, he continued to be noncommittal. The session ended with her calling me on the phone and asking "what should I do?"
Her boss had, intentionally or unintentionally, managed to send the message he was dissatisfied with her performance, but she had no idea of how to improve it. This feedback served neither the rater nor the ratee. The end result was a demotivated, frustrated and confused troop.
Feedback provides supervisors with their most important tool for improving the performance of those they supervise. In the case above, the supervisor's opportunity to communicate and improve performance was totally missed. Unfortunately, the next opportunity for my former troop to receive written feedback was when she got her performance report; a permanent part of her record with a huge impact on her ability to be promoted.
While initial and midterm feedbacks both provide direction to personnel, they serve very different purposes. Initial feedback lays down the supervisor's expectations for the reporting period. I use this time to lay down my expectations in the areas of duty performance, leadership, self improvement, professionalism, interpersonal relations and community involvement. This is also the perfect time to ask for subordinate's expectations of thesupervisor.
On the other hand, midterm feedback provides an opportunity to specifically address the ratee's observed performance through half of the reporting cycle, which should normally be six months of supervision. In my opinion, this is the most important feedback between a supervisor and subordinate. One of the first things I tell each individual in midterm feedback is where they rank against their peers. For instance, I will tell my best SNCO, "You're my number one of eight SNCOs." Why do I do this? The Air Force promotion system is very focused on ranking personnel against their peers. By ranking individuals in performance reports, supervisors communicate to the Air Force who they believe should be promoted. Something that so directly impacts promotion needs to be discussed openly and honestly. There can only be one "number one," so I tell my number two SNCO where he or she is ranked and how he or she can improve to become number one if they choose to pursue that goal. Some would argue this kind of feedback creates too much competition. The fact is, the Air Force promotion system is extremely competitive, and only the best should and will be promoted as the next generation of chief master sergeants and senior officers.
Of course the difficulty of ranking personnel is that it means giving people a very realistic assessment of their performance. In other words, supervisors are going to be in the uncomfortable position of "telling it like it is." It's never very fun to tell someone they're not meeting expectations, but if it's done right, the midterm feedback will not be the first time supervisors have discussed areas for improvement. Daily feedback is used to encourage or nudge troops back onto the desired path. Midterm feedback provides a cumulative measurement of how troops are performing and how they have adjusted to the verbal feedbacks given to them. Downward feedback from the supervisor to the subordinate is a vital part of the overall feedback system, but another important part is often overlooked or ignored.
Recently, one of my senior NCOs approached me with an idea he had to improve the Air Force feedback system. His idea was to propose a modification to the Air Force's feedback system to ensure individuals were not only able to receive feedback, but also to provide their supervisors feedback on how they were doing from the ratee's perspective. As our conversation progressed, I agreed an integral part of the feedback process was for the ratee to inform the rater of how their supervision was either improving or detracting from morale and overall performance.
This led us to an important question. Does the Air Force feedback system allow for feedback up and down the supervisory chain? In my opinion it does, but only if it's done correctly. As a supervisor, no one wants to hear, or for that matter believe, they could be causing morale problems or detracting from team performance. It takes courage to open one's self up for criticism; the alternative is to let the problem fester until the problems are so big they cannot be reconciled, and I've never met a worthwhile supervisor that wanted that.
Essential components of the feedback system are to give the ratee specific, objective measures of their performance in comparison with their peer group and to obtain information on how people are performing as a supervisor. Integrity is crucial to this formula. As difficult as it may be to tell supervisors of a problem, or as a supervisor to tell troops that their performance is not up to par, sugar coating problems only serves to allow them to continue.
When going to receive feedback from a supervisor, take some time to write down the things he or she does well and areas of concern. Often times, supervisors are simply unaware of problems that are brewing because they're too busy dealing with a heavy workload. And the next time supervisors give someone feedback, ensure honesty (good and bad) in an appraisal and identify specific areas and methods of improvement ... don't miss out on an opportunity to "tell it like it is."