Dear Leader: Verbal Feedback Not Working? Try Action Feedback Instead

A recent LinkedIn article reviewed the bast advice ever received by a number of leaders, including Richard Branson founder and chairman of The Virgin Group. Most of the advice struck me as pablum variety. “Pursue your dreams.” “Have no regrets.”  Beth Comstock, GE’s Chief Marketing Officer, who worked directly for Jack Welch, had a different story. It is the only one I remember, and the only one that made me think.

One afternoon over ten years ago, I was talking on the phone to my boss, former GE Chairman and CEO Jack Welch, when the line went dead. I called his assistant Rosanne Badowski to say we had been disconnected.

“No you weren’t,” she said. “Jack hung up on you.”

“Huh?”

“He wants you to know that’s what it’s like to be in a meeting with you, ” Rosanne said. “You’re too abrupt.”

Feedback not working?

Feedback not working?

Comstock took pride in getting things done, a list maker and a list crosser outer. She sacrificed taking the time to develop relationships, for efficiency and speed. She was in effect hanging up on people when they talked about matters unrelated to her agenda. Welch’s action feedback left her wearing the same shoes she’d been putting on other people’s feet. Welch also told Comstock to “wallow in it” where “it” equals understanding what’s important to others and what motivates them.

Action Feedback

Comstock’s story made me think about what a leader, manager or peer can do when verbal feedback doesn’t change offending behaviors. A good dose of action feedback, which is what Welch used with Comstock, might do the trick.

Let’s consider a few situations where action feedback is called for.

Situation 1: The employee who doesn’t deliver on time

Sales reports are due the first day of every month. As Rob’s manager you can rely on his call the last day of the month to explain why you won’t have his report on time. You’ve told Rob countless times, that his late report means your report will be late. Rob doesn’t change.

A good dose of action feedback might go as follows. You file for Rob’s quarterly bonus after the due date. When Rob discovers no bonus in his paycheck, he comes to you upset and perplexed. He asks what happened and you pull a Jack Welch. “Well Rob, it’s the same thing that happens to you every month when sales reports are due. I didn’t get to the paperwork on time.”

Situation 2: The employee who completes the task thoughtlessly

Michael manages people who manage forest land. Foresters move through the woods, paint gun in hand, marking which trees will be cut and which will be left standing, which shall die and which shall live. Michael considers this work to be both practical and spiritual, as it involves life and death decisions. The goal is to maintain a healthy forest ecosystem while supplying wood for forest based products.

Jerry is a forester who works for Michael. They were marking trees in the woods together one day when Michael noted how fast Jerry moved through the forest, deciding which tree to mark with a spray of paint, indicating it’s soon-to-be-death by cutting. Michael ran to catch up with Jerry. Then breathlessly asked, “What are you doing?” Jerry answered, “I’m marking tress.” “Exactly,” responded Michael, “but you have no sense of the tree as a living breathing force.” With that he pressed Jerry’s face against the bark of the tree and said, “Feel that. Feel the bark of the tree against your skin. Feel the life inside the tree. Then, and only then, are you qualified to decide whether this tree will live or die.”Michael walked on through the forest without turning back, leaving Jerry with his face against the tree. Five minutes later Michael looked back to see Jerry fixed in place, both hands against the trunk, head turned upward as he stared at the canopy, feeling the tree’s life, no doubt.

ACTION FEEDBACK. TRY IT.

What do you think?

Have an action feedback story to share?

 

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