Feedback provides real talk


Lt. Col. Wade McGrew, 21st Space Operations Squadron commander.


As of late, and with good reason, the topic of feedback has gained considerable attention throughout the Air Force. Senior Air Force leaders recognize effective feedback as an essential tool and understand the significant value and benefit feedback sessions offer to entire organizations as well as individual recipients.  

Although feedback is accepted as an effective way to support and enable future leaders, the idea of real, honest feedback is still a sensitive subject.

Feedback will undoubtedly continue to grow as a popular subject in discussions concerning leadership and professional development, but its proper application and significance will not be fully understood unless honest feedback becomes the standard.  In an attempt to conduct effective feedback sessions, I find it best to rely on the essential 3 B's:  Be honest, Be open and Be specific (Not to be confused with my 5 B's of running a staff meeting:  Be Brief Brother Be Brief.)

Be Honest.  Unfortunately, much of the current emphasis placed on feedback stems from the fact that its completion is a motivation takes away from the considerable importance of honest feedback in shaping and guiding future leaders. It should be noted honest feedback is not necessarily synonymous with brutally honest feedback.  It shouldn't be a one-way supervisor-to-subordinate criticism session but it shouldn't be a “You’re sooo the One” scene of Morpheus praising Neo in the Matrix during their initial feedback session either.  (Spoiler alert:  I know, Neo was awesome and would go on to single-handedly save the human race, but have some respect for yourself, Morpheus.)  In any case, leaders need to identify who needs feedback the most and then engage.  More engagements provide more in-depth looks at the environment and present opportunities to positively affect it.  Once involvement occurs, the environment will change, for better or worse, and more feedback is needed.   


Be Open.  One of the problems with feedback is it is thought of as top down, but it should also be bottom up. This two-way relationship is necessary to ensure main efforts, intent and purposes are fully understood.  Most often, leaders provide an initial vision but they never get past the transmitting portion of effective communication.  This is where feedback is most valuable. Feedback minimizes the mix match between what leaders think they expressed and what subordinates think they heard.  No matter how much leaders prepare or how hard they try, these mix matches are inevitable. Having an appreciation for the uniqueness of how individuals think and receive information is a step towards effective communication and feedback.  In this way, feedback provides an opportunity to overcome barriers, encourage open communication, foster change and ultimately reach better decisions.


Be Specific.  Feedback overcomes confusion and inflated ideas.  During honest feedback sessions, leaders should present straightforward assessments and provide realistic expectations.   It is an opportunity to clearly and directly lay out leadership’s vision, reemphasize the organization’s mission, discuss areas of strength or areas that can be improved upon and explain (or re-explain) intent.  Just remember, not everyone can ascend to the Iron Throne and unite the seven kingdoms.  In truth, some of us with the best intentions won’t even survive season one.


Go out and practice honest feedback.  Start outside of work.  Tell your online gamer friend while you appreciate his attempt to help during Call of Duty, every time he picks up a controller, the whole team suffers.  Tell your spouse their new haircut could easily win the grand prize on America’s Funniest Home Videos and by all means look Frank and Claire right in the eyes and tell the Underwoods they don’t deserve to be in the White House.  But don’t forget positive feedback is also perfectly acceptable.  So flag down the driver in front of you and let her know her superb signaling and turning is your new reference of perfection.  Once you have mastered honest feedback at home, bring it into work.  Sit down across the desk from someone and begin, “To be honest, your overall effort this past quarter has been … ”