FIRST CLASS COACH - I enjoy quite a good relationship with my staff, but I worry whether I am dealing with personalities and issues as effectively as I could.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I enjoy quite a good relationship with my staff, but I worry whether I am dealing with personalities and issues as effectively as I could.

I employ about 20 people, all with different areas of expertise and interest.

Is there a best way to elicit feedback from my staff that would help me identify what I do well and where I might be getting it wrong? Would it all just be negative? And should I encourage continual feedback from my staff, or keep it to pre-arranged intervals?

Eliciting feedback from staff will provide plenty of information regarding your management skills. You should also analyse your company's financial performance and seek feedback from your customers about your services and products to gain a true understanding of your all-round performance.

Effective feedback is information delivered in a way that is easily grasped by the recipient and keeps the relationship intact, open and healthy.

This sounds easier than it is. When you are driving, for example, you have several devices providing feedback about the car: its speed, engine temperature and fuel level. It's up to you what to do with that information.

You are unlikely to cover up the fuel gauge because it's giving you unpleasant information. Similarly, you are unlikely to tamper with the speedometer so that you can unwittingly break the speed limit.

But in human relationships it's quite common to block out negative feedback or to discount what others say so that you can carry on behaving as you always have. So before you commit yourself to asking for feedback, remember two things. First, it takes skill to elicit it properly. Second, as the receiver of the feedback, you need to be sure you want to hear it.

There are simple ground rules for effective feedback. It should be requested, not given gratuitously. It should be direct, describing the behaviour that led to the feedback and following as soon as appropriate after the behaviour has been observed.

Feedback should refer only to behaviours that can be changed. If somebody's tone of voice drives you mad, you have to live with it. On the other hand, if someone is persistently belligerent in meetings, receiving feedback on the impact this has on others can be an effective way to change that behaviour. Feedback needs to be both constructive and balanced, so it is important to acknowledge the positives as well as the negatives.

You may want to introduce 'full-circle' feedback, which is becoming increasingly popular. It encourages response from a variety of sources (boss, colleague, subordinate) on a regular basis. It has the advantage of linking the feedback to an annual review of performance and development. Its disadvantage is that it is usually documented rather than face-to-face, and it can be time-consuming for a small business. It is also separate from the actual event, which breaks one of the ground rules of effective feedback. However, full-circle feedback can be helpful when properly structured. It enables people to give feedback confidentially, which may encourage junior staff to be more honest. It is better carried out with the help of a third party, who will not be seen as having an axe to grind. An outsider can be especially helpful if some of the feedback is difficult to swallow.

You ask whether it is preferable to have continual feedback or to do it on a pre-arranged basis. My answer is: do both. It will be helpful to you to receive feedback from time to time, but you may also want to elicit it in a more structured way - say, on an annual basis from the wider group. Clearly you are seeking feedback here in relation to your role in the business. It's not an opportunity for comment on your personality or social skills, for example. So structure the exercise around specific aspects of your role - eg, teamwork, leadership, communication and the involvement of staff in decision-making.

It is rare to receive totally negative feedback, but don't kid yourself that this exercise is painless. Negative feedback almost always carries a sting, no matter how skilfully presented. Are you prepared for this?

There is no doubt that relationships that are marked by a high degree of open, competent feedback are likely to be richer, but they can also be more prickly and intense.

In summary, feedback will provide useful information about how to improve your management style, but it will only work if you follow certain ground rules. It is a skilful thing to get right, but if you can improve the capability of the team to give and receive feedback, your performance as a business will improve. You will break down the barriers between people, cut down on the wasted time and effort that poor communication can bring, and reduce interpersonal friction - give it a try.

Margaret Exley leads Towers Perrin's European practice on change and communication. A founder of Kinsley Lord, she is a non-executive director of the Treasury's management board.

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