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Copious Feedback, Up, Down and Sideways

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A graphic on the mission of the 375th Communications Squadron. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Airman 1st Class Stephanie Henry)

Feedback. It’s a pillar of good leadership, vital to successful communication, and an Air Force requirement, but are we really doing it? At the end of an evaluation cycle, how many of us receive our final eval, sign it, and send it back to our supervisor without a second thought? No conversation about strengths and weaknesses. No dialogue about how to grow. No discussion about future career opportunities. Just a few clicks and the rating period disappointingly ends. Are we OK with this?

In the 375th Communications Squadron we strive for copious feedback, up down and sideways. The goal is to improve face-to-face communication at all levels of the organization so Airmen can grow and thrive. We’re not perfect, but we make a consistent and deliberate effort, and we’re teaching our Airmen to engage their leaders, subordinates, and peers. 

Personally, my leadership style is critically dependent on feedback. I make decisions and move out, and if no one tells me I’m headed in the wrong direction I may find myself in Abilene, TX. Just ask my wife. Here are some tips that have worked for us:

Set the example. Over the last 15 months I’ve conducted 39 formal feedback sessions. Some were routine, some were for unsatisfactory performance, some were downward-directed, and some were ratee-requested. While imperfect, they were deliberate, documented, and helped send a message to our squadron leaders that formal feedback is important and expected.

Repurpose. Preparing to give and receive feedback takes time, but you can increase efficiency. One of our SNCOs has codified 19 years of experience into a robust Memorandum for Record that he appends to every initial feedback session. He still uses the Airman Comprehensive Assessment to tailor each conversation, but the standardized MFR enables him to easily convey detailed expectations. Personally, I maintain a library of ACAs, organized by unit and position, enabling me to utilize past comments. If I’m executing a series of remedial feedbacks, each one builds on the previous. When conducting feedback sessions with civilians, well-written performance plans and prior-year appraisals can make the process smoother. The more feedbacks you execute, the more experience you’ll amass, and the more opportunities you’ll find to utilize past material in future sessions.

Leverage Static Close-Out Dates. Not only can SCODs help you track feedback completion, but the staggered timing can also enable accountability. For example SSgt midterm feedbacks are due 120 days prior to TSgt EPR close-out. If a rater is exceptional or delinquent in providing midterm feedback, the timing is perfect to incorporate that into his or her next EPR. Once the expectation is set AND enforced, Airmen’s behavior usually follows.

Invest in the Enlisted Force Distribution Process. EFDP is my favorite part of Enlisted Force Development, because it creates an environment ripe for feedback. In the 375th CS we invest hundreds of manhours preparing for and executing each EFDP. With up to 45 Airmen in each promotion cycle it requires considerable effort, but we’ve found it essential to fuel our feedback program. The week prior to EFDP our squadron’s top leaders independently review every promotion-eligible record. Next, we lock ourselves in a room for up to 2 days to discuss the strengths, weaknesses, and growth opportunities for our Airmen. Communication flows freely and debates often arise, providing divergent opinions on an Airman’s past performance or future potential. Flight leaders take copious notes and use that material to fuel feedback sessions and guide hiring actions throughout their portion of the organization.  Supervisors who want to learn about the process are allowed to passively observe EFDPs for subordinate ranks, although we do sanitize the room for any sensitive discussions. This is the process that works for us, and I encourage you to find a variant that works for your team.

Embrace Critical Feedback. Giving or receiving critical feedback can become a tough, emotional event but it’s central to an Airmen’s growth. I have one Airman who’s exceptionally passionate about critical feedback. In her mind, if you’re not telling her where and how she can improve, then you don’t care.  For these tougher conversations, consider starting with informal conversations in a more relaxed setting. Eliminate physical barriers. Condition yourself to listen, and be open to receiving feedback.  Problems and areas for improvement likely exist on both sides of the relationship. Finally, different members respond to different messages differently, so you must know your Airmen and remain adaptable. Conducting these type of feedback sessions is more art than science.

I’d encourage each of you to provide copious feedback, up, down and sideways. You’ll elevate those around you and enable them to reach new heights. It does take time, but I’ve found it’s time worth spending. Good luck as you “Fire It Up… BOOM!”