What We Can Learn About Feedback From Managing Millennials (& Felons!)

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Mar 8, 2012

If you are like most managers, you don’t relish the thought of giving negative feedback.

If you are like most of us, you have also experienced the consequences of when negative behaviors or sub-par performance go unchallenged in an organization.

Not only does it foster mediocrity and allow productivity and teamwork-damaging behaviors to flourish, it also makes life miserable for the high performers.

Knowing how to make your feedback constructive not only increases your ability to bring out the best in others, it also makes your life a lot easier. Your feedback is heard and even welcomed, rather than resisted and defended against. Thus, getting better at giving feedback reduces your stress level.

When you create a culture of feedback

For clues on how to make receiving feedback a positive and welcomed experience, we will first look at a non-profit organization that has achieved a 90 percent success rate rehabilitating hardened criminals. Then we will hear from a manager working at a college library, who, along with her fellow managers, seems to have “cracked the code” about giving feedback to their Gen Y/Millennial employees. *

In the outstanding book Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, the authors tell the story of Dr. Mimi Silbert, who founded the Delancey Street Foundation. Her organization takes gang members, drug dealers, and other criminals with multiple felonies and helps them turn their lives around.

Her typical new hire arrives with 18 felony convictions, years of being homeless, and a lifetime of drug addiction. Once at Delancey, they begin work immediately, whether it’s washing dishes at a restaurant, hauling furniture for a moving company, or working for one of Dr. Silbert’s many companies.

Without the aid of professional staff, therapists, or guards, Dr. Silbert’s organization has changed the lives of over 14,000 former criminals, with 90 percent of their graduates never returning to drugs or crime. Instead, they earn degrees, enter professions, and live lives they never believed possible.

She realized that her ability to overcome years of negative expectations and programming would depend on her ability to create an environment that provided even stronger positive expectations and encouraging messages.

Continual feedback for course correction

To do that, she created an atmosphere where residents get a never-ending stream of positive and negative feedback from their peers. At the heart of this are 20-30 formal and informal leaders whose opinions matter most to residents. In the words of authors:

Powered by an incessant wave of positive and negative feedback from people who matter a great deal to them, Delancey residents find that change is the path of least resistance. That’s why 90 percent of those who graduate from Silbert’s community stick with the changes they’ve made for the rest of their lives.”

Because getting feedback is a regular part of daily life, residents not only grow to accept it, they grow because of it. Contrast that with environments where bad behavior goes unchallenged and peer pressure pulls people down to the lowest common denominator. At Delancey Foundation, positive peer pressure pulls people up to a higher level of functioning.

If their environment of honest, ongoing feedback can bring out the “higher selves” of people many consider incorrigible, what can creating such an environment in your organization accomplish? What levels of productivity, teamwork, service, and quality standards would you enjoy, if people called out the best in each other?

From felons to college students shelving books

Let’s leave the world of felons transforming their lives into the world of college students shelving books.

As I read this account about the Delancey Foundation, I found myself remembering an interview I did with Heather Burroughs of the University of New Hampshire’s library.

At a public seminar I was giving for supervisors, Heather stood out from the crowd because of the quality of her input. She shared about what she and her colleagues were doing to bring out the best in their employees, who are college students.

Since I am always interested in learning specific examples of what excellent managers do that works, I asked Heather if she would be willing to do an interview. I was especially interested because of the frequently expressed frustrations I’ve gotten over the last few years from managers about “those younger workers.” Clearly here was someone who was managing “those younger workers” in a way that brought out the best in them.

During the interview, I asked her this question:

I often hear managers express frustration that their younger employees aren’t responsive to feedback. They say their Gen Y employees either become defensive, blame others, or simply deny the accuracy of the feedback. What have you found to work with your student employees?”

“We try to give lots of clear feedback,” answered Ms. Burroughs.

Much of the feedback they give includes what great managers do:

Catch employees doing things right

Letting employees know that you notice and appreciate high-value behaviors isn’t just encouraging, which is important for someone new to the work world or an organization. It also communicates that managers pay close attention to how employees perform their jobs, and it communicates with specificity what their managers consider high-value behaviors — because “What gets noticed, gets repeated,” pointing these out increases the odds those behaviors will be repeated.

It’s just what we do here

Because receiving feedback is simply part of a student employee’s everyday work life at the library, when they do receive feedback, it’s not this momentous, “Oh no, what did I do wrong?” event. It’s simply part of the job.

“If you’ve heard a lot about the good things you do over time, and also get corrective feedback whenever you need it, when you do get negative feedback, it doesn’t feel like your world is crashing in or that your supervisor thinks you’re doing a lousy job at everything,” noted Ms. Burroughs.

Also, because feedback is provided real time, rather than six months post hoc, it feels useful and is useful. The person can do something about it, rather than feel surprised and shamed by the revelation that their boss didn’t like something they had done months before.

This happens when they “do feedback right”

Because of the ongoing feedback — both positive and corrective — their employees have:

1. An accurate picture of their abilities and work performance. Because they get ongoing feedback, they know where they stand, and are therefore likely to have an accurate self-appraisal of their abilities and performance. This is critical to one’s ability to receive corrective feedback. If our self-appraisal is far different from the feedback we get, we’re likely to either discard it or feel hurt about being misunderstood and misperceived.

Because Ms. Burroughs and the rest of the management team are so clear with their feedback, employees are unlikely to suffer from the “Legend in Their Own Mind” syndrome fostered by the absence of clear corrective feedback.

2. A productive attitude about corrective feedback. Many managers, because of their discomfort with giving corrective feedback, wait until the performance issue becomes a full blown problem, creating an unnecessary amount of trauma to themselves and their employees. At the UNH Library, managers give corrective feedback on an as-needed basis. Because receiving feedback is a natural part of work life, getting corrective feedback is not seen as the end of the world, nor is it something that requires a spirited defense or a search for someone else to blame.

When positive and negative feedback are just a regular part of work life, they are seen for what they are: information that can be used to improve one’s game. It’s like a video game. You don’t feel hurt and rejected each time your move doesn’t get you points or your player gets vaporized. It’s just part of the game, and … it’s feedback that can help you perfect your game.

How to benefit from this

  • Challenge any beliefs you might have that giving corrective feedback has to be an uncomfortable experience for you or the other person. See it for what it is: useful information that we all must receive to “improve our game.”
  • Share this blog post with your team and ask them to give examples of when they have received feedback in a constructive way and when they’ve received it in an unproductive way. Use this information to improve your feedback giving approach.
  • Ask team members individually for feedback on where you can
    • Be more clear with your feedback.
    • Give more feedback, especially positive feedback.
    • Give corrective feedback in a more effective way.
  • If you’re really serious about raising the level of performance in your organization, engage your fellow managers in a discussion about how management can foster and model frank, open feedback with one’s peers. Discuss how you can provide each other with constructive feedback—both positive and negative — so you can call for the “higher self” in each other.
  • Learn to develop constructive feedback skills that increase the odds the other person can hear and use the feedback you offer.

* Note: I recognize that everything Ms. Burroughs shared about what works with their Gen Y/Millennial employees works with all employees. I mention Gen Y employees specifically because managers tell me they find Millennials to be the most resistant to feedback. Thus, I want to stress the point to managers struggling with this issue, that it can be done, and here’s how.

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