Giving good feedback: Essential leadership for growing Airmen

  • Published
  • By Capt. James E. Hougas III, M.D.
  • 341st Medical Operations Squadron
Throughout our lives, we have received guidance, teaching, mentorship, grades, punishments and awards. When these things were done as a reaction to things we did (or didn't do) we were receiving feedback on our performance. This collection of experiences has molded us into the people and Airmen that we are today. As supervisors, we are charged with the care and cultivation of those who work under us. Through a process of setting expectations, providing feedback, and monitoring for a response, supervisors create the Airmen and leaders of tomorrow.

The first thing that must be done for Airmen in the process of providing feedback is to set expectations for their performance and behavior. This should be done verbally and by leading through example. It would be unreasonable to expect your Airmen to be in the shop at 6:30 a.m. if you didn't tell them or show up yourself. If it is a complicated matter, consider writing the expectations down for yourself and your people. Inconsistency in enforcement of these expectations makes things cloudy for your Airmen and can allow your shop to break down. Let them know what your vision is for the mission so that they can take ownership and pride in it as well.

After you have established these expectations, it is time to provide your Airmen with feedback on how they did. It is important to remember that positive feedback can often be more effective than negative feedback. When possible, you should provide feedback as soon as you can after the event occurs that has prompted you to do so. In doing this, the most constructive growth can occur on the part of your Airmen. Time erodes the details that are required to give a good, constructive appraisal of their performance.

Once you have identified someone in need of feedback, you will have to decide how to deliver it. Here are some general rules:
1. Feedback is for them, not you - Your Airmen want to do their jobs well. You are there, as their supervisor, to lead them to successful completion of your mission. You need your people performing at the highest possible level to increase your chances of success. Help your Airmen grow by reinforcing the things that they do well and correcting the mistakes they make.
2. Praise in public, reprimand in private - Remember the previous point of whom the feedback is for. Praising your Airmen in front of others helps give them the pride that they deserve for a job well done. Also, try to save your more negative critiques for behind closed doors. In general, your goal should be to improve and not to embarrass. If you degrade someone's morale by shaming him or her, future performance will likely go down.
3. Safety always, egos never - Sometimes, our jobs put ourselves and others at risk of bodily harm. If something unsafe is about to happen, you need to stop it immediately. This can sometimes go against the above concept of reprimanding in private, but we need to keep our people safe.
4. As a leader, it is your job to give feedback - It is very tough to grow when we don't know what our performance is like. Think back to some of the supervisors you have had before. Likely, the ones that helped you grow the most were the ones that took the time to teach and mentor you. We need to be those good leaders and teach and mentor in turn.
5. Be as specific as possible - Most of us have received lackluster feedback. What makes that feedback so... bad? Lack of details. I know that some of the times in my life where I was most frustrated with my personal feedback were when I was told that I "did a good job," without any follow-up. What did I do well? Is your only expectation of me that I showed up to work clean and on time? "Good job." Great. I succeeded at being punctual and not stinky. Now tell me what specifically I did well so that I can keep doing it. At times, I also knew (deep down) that there were plenty of instances where my performance was not perfect. What can I fix to be better? This doesn't mean that you should never tell your people that they did a good job when they did. However, that kind of statement is more helpful for morale than it is for personal growth.

After negative feedback has been given, your Airmen should be monitored for the expected response. This is a great place to provide positive feedback when they have advanced in their skill and behavior, which helps solidify the changes. If the first feedback session didn't correct the problem, you should be quick to address it again and likely you will need harsher consequences (and be sure to document it).

Occasionally, we have Airmen that don't respond positively to our leadership and feedback style. If you can, change your approach. If not, seek out other leaders and mentors around you. Our mission is a team sport and there are plenty of people who are ready, willing and capable of helping you. These people don't need to be in your shop and they can be above or below you in rank. Don't be afraid to recognize when you don't have the answer. If your goal is to help your Airmen, then you should be willing to swallow your pride and admit that you don't know everything. This is a great time for you to grow in your leadership abilities.

Try not to forget why feedback exists: to cultivate the career and personal growth of the people below you. Leaders were not born and successful missileers, medics or mechanics didn't come to be without the help of mentors and leaders around them refining their skills. As leaders, we are charged to do the same for our Airmen. Through setting expectations, providing feedback and monitoring for a response, we improve our people and optimize our mission.