JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. —
I once heard General Everhart say, “Feedback isn’t personal, it’s professional,” and it struck me how much truth that statement contained. As humans and, unfortunately as Airmen, we often avoid giving honest feedback because we want to be liked. As a result, we avoid the confrontation that comes with honest feedback, which makes us feel better but hurts the individual and organization as a whole.
My challenge to you as leaders is to give honest (often hard) feedback during the midterm feedback session. This gives the individual an opportunity to get a clear picture of their performance and improve before their performance report is due. Too often, we paint a rosy and inaccurate picture during feedback sessions. Then the individual is surprised or doesn’t understand when they receive a report with markdowns or no stratification.
Honest feedback sets expectations for progression and future assignments. This is one of the duties of being a supervisor, leader and commander. This, of course, assumes that during the initial feedback session, expectations were clearly defined and understood. How we give feedback is just as important as how we receive feedback.
How we receive hard, honest feedback is critical. When I give hard feedback, I tell my folks I’m giving them a gift. It’s a gift because it’s so rare in this “everybody gets a trophy” age for someone to sit down with you and tell you hard things about how to improve. I also tell them I’m far from perfect myself and am not giving feedback just to be mean. In fact, it’s because I care about them maturing as an Airman that I make the time for feedback. The individual has the choice to take the gift of feedback and use it to become a better Airman or they can get prideful and blame their faults on someone else, their past or a myriad of other reasons.
Good feedback goes both ways. A critical point in any feedback session is the supervisor asking the ratee for feedback. It’s incumbent on the ratee to give honest feedback as well. The easy answer for a subordinate is to tell their boss that life is good and move on. We owe it to our bosses to give them hard feedback. If we don’t, we have no excuse for things not improving and I’d argue we’ve given up our right to complain.
It is important to me to be a servant leader, so my most critical feedback comes from the members of my Squadron. I’m acutely aware that nobody wants to give the boss hard feedback, so I have to fight for it. My most effective time of getting feedback is on a mission toward the end of a 24-hour duty day. The crew is exhausted and also very honest because they’re too tired to have their defenses up. You may not have this time with those you lead, but look for opportunities when they are most open to sharing feedback.
Human nature is to avoid confrontation, which makes it essential that we all fight for honest feedback. Couple our nature with busy schedules and it’s very easy to sideline feedback sessions. Fortunately for those in the Air Force, feedback is required. The mechanism is defined by the Airman Comprehensive Assessment outlined in AFI36-2406. Our job is to value this tool and make the most of it instead of just checking the box.
We all have faults and areas where we can improve. Part of being a good follower and a good leader is accepting feedback and then acting upon it. Acting upon the feedback we’re given helps us meet the Secretary of Defense Mattis’ challenge to become more disciplined and lethal. Feedback followed by action is critical to us remaining the most powerful military force in the world.