I used to believe a person could learn more about management from a bad boss than from a good boss: it is easier to articulate what is missing from a working relationship than to notice the efforts of a good manager. Now, I think the truth is that a person always has expectations for a working relationship. The gap between expectation and reality is where learning, through constructive feedback, takes place.
When I left the workplace to attend graduate school full-time, I had a great boss. He was a great boss because he was a master of feedback: timely, thoughtful, economical, progressive feedback. Feedback is a personal information exchange we engage in throughout the working day; because of this, I would argue that maintaining a healthy feedback routine (outlined below) with other individuals is the foundation of a good working relationship.
Good feedback is timely. Work is a series of unending interruptions. It is natural to feel pestered by an employee or team member asking for feedback, but it is also important to support the priorities of the organization. Often, if I procrastinate on giving feedback, it has to do with not managing my own time well, or – this is worse – feeling I do not know the subject matter well enough to give meaningful feedback. In the latter case, my feedback should be: “I’m not the right person for an answer;” a polite “no” can also be appropriate feedback.
Good feedback is thoughtful. If I am the right person to give feedback, then it is my responsibility to really examine the item or issue in front of me. My former boss was good about this: his feedback contained questions that demonstrated he had thought about the item. Alternatively, if he had not set aside sufficient time to look at the item, he would set a time when we could sit down together. Courtesy creates goodwill.
Good feedback is economical. I mean this in two ways. First, feedback needs to be exactly as long as it needs to be. A good feedback routine gives each party a chance to clarify points, if needed, but it is a matter of personal discipline to make sure all points are salient. The second element of economical feedback means that it should be intended to maximize future efforts: it is better to determine at 10% completion that a project adds negligible value than to let sunk costs pile up. Employees and project teams will experience more satisfaction when they know all efforts are regularly analyzed to ensure added value.
Good feedback is progressive. There should be a common thread linking all feedback sessions, particularly between a manager and his employee. If a manager is unable to both criticize shortcomings of a project and praise improvements over time, he is either criticizing too much (which can paralyze an employee’s continued improvement) or leaving out recognition of improvement. As an added benefit, progressive feedback all but guarantees that an employee will know where she stands at regularly-scheduled formal reviews.
No one executes good feedback perfectly all of the time (certainly not me). And everyone experiences an occasional Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day that will derail the best intentions. In the long term, however, simply being mindful about the feedback one gives and receives goes a long way to improve working relationships.