Commentary

October 12, 2012

Honestly, how can we improve?

NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — I think that we can all agree that honesty is important. But are we truly honest with our fellow Airmen when we give them feedback? How many times have you been told you are doing a great job but didn’t see that reflected in quarterly awards or performance reports? Compare that with the number of times someone has sat you down and had an honest discussion with ways that you can improve your performance.

I thought about these questions recently after I finished signing an Officer Performance Report that I had just written for a member of my squadron. I realized that in my 16 years in the Air Force I had received many OPRs and training reports but I had never had the rater talk with me about what they wrote. In feedback sessions, both formal and informal, I was always assured I was doing great. But when the report came I was never number one, or even number two for that matter. Was my squadron really that competitive that I was just a superstar amongst superstars? Unlikely.

What I grew to realize is that I wasn’t really getting honest feedback from my bosses. I certainly wasn’t doing a bad job, but obviously there was something I wasn’t doing that was keeping me from that number-one spot. As human beings we want to hear good things about what we are doing. But what we need to do as professionals is to hear what we need to do to improve ourselves—and the first step to getting this feedback is supervisors willing to provide it.

I’m not advocating soul-crushing criticism handed out daily. Feedback only needs to be honest. No one is perfect and everyone has something they could be doing better. Suggestions for improvement will ensure that corrective actions are in line with what you are looking for.

For example, “It seems like you get nervous when you brief in front of crowds. I’d like you to teach squadron academics once a month to get more practice speaking in public.” In just two sentences you’ve told your fellow Airman that there is something they need to improve and how they can improve it. It is now up to them to take that step to better themselves.

Continue giving them feedback to let them know when they’ve “nailed it” and then move on to another area for improvement. Assuming they accept your feedback and take steps to improve you will get a better performer. How does that compare to the empty “you are doing great” statement? Honest feedback leads to personal improvement.

Feedback isn’t limited to just areas of improvement. It is also vital to give feedback when something is being done well. I will use my background as an example: for about a year I was the scheduler in a flying training squadron. My job was to match instructors with students while ensuring the prerequisites were met and the syllabus was followed.

Small changes caused enormous ripple effects in the schedule and a mistake could result in a very serious syllabus deviation, requiring paperwork to document the mistake in the student’s grade book. It was a very stressful job that required an entire day of attention to detail and creative solutions.

If I ever made a mistake there was swift criticism from the rest of the squadron. However, if I did a perfect job and created a schedule that flowed perfectly the entire week, no one ever noticed. It was a no-win situation. Zero praise for perfect work but big penalties for a small mistake. Never once did I get a “good job” for a herculean effort.

Don’t be that supervisor. Keep an eye on your people and when they do something good, let them know. It’s as easy as a short sentence of praise. Keep it commensurate with effort as too much praise will cheapen the effect.

I won’t pretend for a second that it is easy to tell someone they need to improve. It is much, much easier to praise someone than to provide areas for improvement. It is up to us as supervisors to do the hard things and to recognize that no one is perfect and that everyone has something they can do better.

Not everyone you supervise is number one. Do you just go on telling them “good job” or do you sit them down and give them the feedback they need to move up in the ranks?

Be honest with them and you will be surprised with what people can do.

 




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