Three Ways Leaders Use Feedback to Create Developmental Experiences for Others

By: Josh

Feedback is an essential component of all leaders’ developmental journey. Yet, despite feedback being a core part of any developmental plan and a topic widely researched within organizational behavior, leaders still struggle to effectively leverage this tool to develop others and improve their performance. Too often leaders’ use of feedback is either sparse, solely focused on assessment, or diluted; it becomes diluted when leaders attempt too much by pairing assessment with developmental feedback, which usually lands poorly on and confuses the person receiving it.

Today, leaders across all organizational levels have an obligation to not only deliver regular feedback to their teammates, but to thoughtfully create impactful developmental experiences for them as well. Crafting a continuous and high-quality journey of development can improve team members’ performance, motivation, growth, engagement, and even retention. Feedback is one important component of that continuous journey. Successfully employing different types of feedback can directly support elements of developmental experiences to ultimately achieve these ends, making junior leaders and teams better.

Understanding Developmental Experiences

In their book, An Everyone Culture, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey report on what they call deliberately developmental organizations (DDOs) through a compelling visualization:

“Imagine so valuing the importance of developing people’s capabilities that you design a culture that itself immersively sweeps every member of the organization into an ongoing developmental journey in the course of working every day.”

They go on to say that through their community and practices, a DDO, “slips its hand under its people, wherever they may be in their developmental journey, and supports their forward movement when they are ready.” Critical to being a deliberately developmental organization is creating and maximizing the impact of developmental experiences for everyone on the team, not a privileged minority.

Developmental experiences have three key elements according to the Center for Creative Leadership’s Handbook of Leadership Development (3rd ed.). These elements – assessment, challenge, and support – combine to make developmental experiences more powerful. As the Handbook argues, “Whatever the leader development experience is, it has more impact if it contains these three elements.” These elements motivate people towards learning, growth, and change, while also providing basic necessary learning resources. 

Assessment, most often provided in evaluation reports, gives leaders an understanding of where they stand – their level of performance, strengths, and developmental needs.

Challenge forces leaders out of their comfort zone, reaching new levels of incompetence and discomfort, and requires them to develop new capacities or ways of thinking. Challenge can look like high expectations, shared candor and accountability, targeted crucible experiences, pursuing goals, and responding to failure.

Lastly, support sends messages of belonging and that everyone is safe within the team. It helps them handle the struggle of developing. This can include activities to build self-efficacy like organizational branding items (t-shirts or personalized jackets for example), hand-written notes, mentorship, and recognition events such as issuing awards or public praise.

Essential to this approach is the inclusion of all three elements to create truly impactful developmental experiences. Leaders need a wide range of learning experiences. Just one or two of the elements alone is insufficient.

For example, only providing assessment does not create a sense of belonging or a path toward growth for a team member. Similarly, assessment and challenge without support lead to unsustainable, non-developmental crucibles. Too much support devoid of assessment or challenge create under achievement and lost opportunities for the member’s growth. There may be certain events where challenge is more heavily weighted than support like a critical project or in responding to crisis, and vice versa. However, over time, leaders must employ and balance all three elements to maximize the quantity and quality of developmental experiences for their people.

The Three Types of Feedback

Feedback is a simple, yet effective tool to elevate the impact of developmental experiences. But, as stated earlier, leaders’ feedback tends to be sparse, focused only on assessment, or tries to simultaneously assess and develop which dilutes the feedback’s affect. A more comprehensive framework of feedback can help leaders concentrate their efforts, ensuring they employ the best type of feedback for the desired developmental effect.

Thanks for the Feedback, a book by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, argues that there are three types of feedback: evaluation, coaching, and appreciation. Evaluation is feedback on where someone stands. Coaching occurs as conversations aimed at helping junior leaders learn, grow, and change to meet new challenges or correct existing behaviors. This type of feedback tends to be in conversations like one-on-ones. Appreciation is recognition and thanks; it lets people know that their efforts are noticed and valued. Each type of feedback directly aligns to an element of developmental experiences: evaluation leads to assessment, coaching creates challenge, and appreciation nurtures support.

Like the Center for Creative Leadership’s elements of developmental experiences, leaders balance these three types of feedback as they lead, interact with, and develop others.

A lack of appreciation feedback fails to cultivate safety, confidence, and belonging. Absence of coaching feedback stymies peoples’ motivation and does not co-create a path toward growth with them. Insufficient assessment inhibits their self-awareness.

Leaders must also segregate the three types of feedback; the feedback is more effective when each type is offered separately. If packaged together, such as in a single one-on-one session or evaluation report discussion, one type of feedback will drown out another and even confuse the receiving team member. For example, if a leader tries to have a developmental coaching discussion after giving a direct report their evaluation report rating, the person is likely to be caught up in processing the assessment, thus being less able to properly receive and appreciate the coaching. Similarly, pairing evaluation or coaching with appreciation can easily confuse the person with mixed signals of a “feedback sandwich.” Thus, leaders should distinguish the type of feedback they offer to others, employing the best type for the developmental needs of the moment and the particular person. Over time, leaders provide all three types to engage in all the elements of developmental experiences to maximize their peoples’ performance, motivation, growth, and engagement.

Conclusion

There are three takeaways leaders should consider when looking to put these models into practice. First, all three elements of developmental experiences, and thus all three types of feedback, should be balanced for junior leaders’ sustained growth. Leaders should be conscious of the types of feedback they offer their people, ensure it is done in appropriate settings and intervals, and that the feedback types are given in separate interactions. This provides clarity and focus on the feedback given, increasing its enduring effectiveness.

Second, leaders should view coaching feedback as helping people meet the mark, not merely informing them they are not meeting the mark. Coaching is being an ally and a guide. It means joining the person on their developmental journey as they achieve improved self-awareness, self-efficacy, and performance.

Finally, while all three types of feedback must be balanced, leaders should consider what the appropriate ratio of the feedback types will be for each person. Some may respond better with more appreciation, while others thrive under more challenge. Some may need more routine intervals of evaluation than others. Leaders should discern what the best ratio mix is to achieve optimal developmental conditions for everyone on their team. While recognizing the unique developmental needs of individuals, there is myriad research that reports a ratio of approximately 1:5 critical feedback conversations (evaluation and coaching) to appreciation is ideal for sustainable, effective relationships. Even casual comments of thanks in conversations, a simple email or text message of recognition, or a hand-written note to a teammate can do much to contribute to this ratio.

Over a journey of leading people through unique developmental experiences, leaders must engage all three elements of developmental experiences: assessment, challenge, and support. One of the most simple and effective ways to do that is through employing the three types of feedback: evaluation, coaching, and appreciation. Using all three types to engage the elements of developmental experiences prevents current challenges of sparse feedback, only evaluation-based feedback, and diluting feedback’s impact by combining different types into a single event. These are simple ways to better align leaders’ behaviors to your organization’s developmental goals, ultimately becoming more like deliberately developmental organizations.

This article is adapted from the original one that I wrote for ARMY magazine, April 2022. Original copyright by the Association of the U.S. Army. It is adapted and re-published with permission of AUSA and ARMY magazine.

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