How Entrepreneurs Can Use Effective Feedback to Stay Resilient and Agile
Feedback is the fuel that drives growth and excellence. We all depend on feedback to keep us on track, to know what we are doing well and what we need to improve. In a time of anxiety and uncertainty, entrepreneurs and small business owners need to master the art of effective feedback.
In his book Flow, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identifies feedback as one of the keys to what he calls "optimal experience" — whether that be at work or play. One of the reasons games are so conducive to flow, he writes, is that they provide immediate, practical, actionable feedback. If we are playing golf and hit the ball far to the left, we know immediately we need to correct our form.
In business, unfortunately, feedback has become synonymous with things like performance reviews. And according to Gallup, only 14% of employees say performance reviews inspire them to improve. Performance reviews are about looking in the rear-view mirror. By contrast, what best motivates people is looking ahead to the future and usable "live" feedback in the present.
I work with executives and CEOs in large companies and also with small business owners and entrepreneurs. Regardless of scale, business leaders all face the challenge of inspiring people to be their best. Amidst the pandemic's economic upheaval, effective feedback has never been more important for maintaining morale and promoting essential qualities like agility and resiliency. Here are some ways to make sure you're delivering the information people need to hear.
Adopt a coaching mindset
If performance reviews don't work, what does? Experts are increasingly suggesting we move toward a coaching-oriented approach to feedback that's real-time, strength-based and forward-looking. People respond best to in-the-moment feedback that addresses simple questions like: How can I make small improvements now and larger improvements down the road? How can I build on existing strengths and discover new ones? And what shared vision of the future are we all working toward?
One of the differences between feedback and coaching is that feedback tends to focus narrowly on performance and defines an employee solely in terms of their role. Coaching is more broadly about personal and professional development. And it is inherently more empathetic, communicating that you care about and are investing in them as a whole person.
Practice the feedback sandwich model
My training in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) taught me that effective feedback often goes through a three-part sequence where we "sandwich" a concern or constructive critique in between more positive and supportive observations.
You might open up with a statement that starts, "I like how you..." or "I appreciate how you..." You can then move on to direct feedback, framing it in terms of building on past progress: "I'd like to see more of..." or, "I have some ideas for improving..." You can then conclude by affirming your appreciation for their efforts and for the value they bring to the table.
I recently worked with a client whose feedback from her employees was to provide better and more frequent feedback. I asked her to walk me through a typical feedback session and realized her idea of feedback was more about instruction — about telling people what to do. Explaining the feedback sandwich model helped introduce her to an approach to feedback that is more about coaching and mentoring.
Strength-based coaching increases agility
Agility is a popular buzzword these days, but what does it really mean? According to a McKinsey paper on agile leadership, it is the ability to "thrive in an unpredictable, rapidly changing environment." That certainly seems to describe the world under the pandemic and for the foreseeable future.
Strength-based coaching is intrinsically more agile because it is more about potential than about defined roles. By contrast, the performance review approach to feedback locks us into our current title and job description. But what if unexpected upheaval or disruption forces us to change or reinvent that role? Defining ourselves based on our role leaves us vulnerable to sudden change. Defining ourselves based on our strengths allows us to pivot and transfer those strengths to new roles and new realities.
The McKinsey paper identifies two important mindset shifts for today's business leader. One is a move from certainty to discovery. Strength-based coaching helps us create teams that are all about potential and evolution and not sticking with the status quo. The other shift is from authority to partnership. When we think of feedback only as instruction, we are reverting to an outmoded command-and-control school of leadership. But when feedback is about coaching and about developing someone's full potential, that creates an environment of partnership and collaboration in which the most innovative work happens.
Manage your own entrepreneurial well-being
As I constantly remind my clients, you cannot hope to inspire others to do their best work unless you are mindfully managing your energy and well-being. Entrepreneurs and small business owners operate by a different set of rules. Their workweek is less 9-to-5 and more 24/7. Their professional life is not just a job but a calling. Yet, no matter how passionate you are about your enterprise, burnout is still a risk.
It all comes down to the difference between harmonious and obsessive passion. When our passion for our work is harmonious, we may work long weeks. But when it comes time to switch off, we can engage and be present with other aspects of our lives. Our work and non-work pursuits complement one another rather than compete with one another. This is the sustainable approach to success. Obsessive passion is the path to burnout.
In a sense, what I am talking about here is the feedback you create for yourself. Harmonious passion is characterized by experiencing intrinsic joy in the work itself. Yes, we have goals and objectives, but first and foremost, we take pleasure in the process, in the journey. This kind of feedback loop does not flame out but has staying power over time.
Pandemic fatigue is real and something many of my clients have reported feeling. Months, if not years, of uncertainty are still before us. We have to make sure we fuel ourselves and our teams with the kind of feedback that energizes, motivates and inspires.