Asking for Feedback Can Improve Personal Effectiveness

Want to know how to improve performance? Just ask!

The most simple and effective thing that leaders can do to understand how to improve their personal effectiveness is to ask for feedback. Asking for feedback from staff, peers and even customers can require courage. If done properly, it can also provide some of the most useful data you will ever review for improving business performance.

The way that feedback is generally gathered is with a “360 degree” survey, so called because feedback is gathered from all points of view. Unfortunately, many of the instruments used to gather the data are lackluster, failing to provide clear and actionable data. But when done with an effective instrument and interpreted in a way that the information has teeth, a 360 can be truly life-changing.

If you are considering a 360 feedback program, insist on a tool that provides information in a format that you can use. Interpretation of the results by a professional who understands the tool is always useful. But if you cannot understand the meaning of the output at all without a third party, perhaps the tool you are looking at is overly arcane. Many are. Remember also that 360s measure the perceptions of others and are by definition a snapshot in time.

A perfect example of the power of feedback is in the case of Darrell, a plant manager in the Midwest. Darrell runs a manufacturing facility that produces goods on the supply chain for a half-dozen different consumer and industrial products. The plant was running very efficiently before Darrell began coaching. What is different today is the way that Darrell gets his results.

This executive got very high scores for achievement and systematic thinking, for which he can be rightfully proud. However, he also was perceived as arrogant and exceptionally controlling. Although the performance of his plant was in the top 10 percent of those in his company, the way he got those results was having an impact that had serious repercussions. A deeper dive into the feedback made it clear that Darrell was getting his results in ways that tied him permanently to the plant job.

A conversation with the chief operating officer confirmed that Darrell had some changes to make. Financial performance at the plant was fine, but as long has he was needed there to maintain those numbers, he was not going anywhere. But Darrell’s goal was a promotion to regional director, so he understood that despite great numbers, he was going to have to modify his style.

As a Six Sigma black belt, Darrell understood the importance of data. He systematically went about acting on the feedback. Darrell dived headlong into identifying the specific behaviors that drove perceptions of him as controlling and arrogant. Together, we developed strategies for different behavior and an early warning system to help Darrell anticipate situations that were likely to whipsaw him backwards. To support the process, Darrell used a Web-based tool to continually track progress and collect feedback. Like Ed Koch, he was always asking “How’m I doin’?”

In the 10 months that followed, this plant added $1.5 million per month to the bottom line. The increase in productivity and pro-fits is not because the boss is a smarter manufacturer but because he is better in

the way that he engenders those results. His plant has been identified as a model for his company, and his replacement is ready to step up, which will likely have the impact of a promotion when the next regional director slot opens up.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, October 31, 2005.