Feedback: Music to My Ears

While passion may fuel a desire for growth, feedback that is clear, concise, connected, and delivered with confidence, works to translate potential into performance.

We drift back in time . . .

I took another sip and watched the sun sink slowly behind Puerto Rico to the distant west. A cloudless sky embraced twilight, the seamless transition to yet another evening under a blanket of stars that swayed in the warm, gentle Caribbean breezes.

Sounds poetic, even before the part about steel drums in the background.

Less than two years removed from life as a cadet at the Coast Guard Academy, I had assumed command of the Coast Guard Cutter Point Whitehorn, an 82-foot Patrol Boat with a crew of ten, docked at a small station on the picturesque waterfront in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.

My Commanding Officer was stationed at the Coast Guard Base in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, a plane flight or five-hour boat trip away. I embraced the autonomy and relished being “large and in charge”.

So, there I sat, staring into the vastness of what I had accomplished, blithely unaware a life lesson in feedback would loom just beyond that breathtaking horizon.

Music to My Ears

Potential is what had led to my selection for command. Given the autonomy of my assignment, and absence of experience as a Commanding Officer, I needed feedback to guide my performance. Without it, I began to think and operate independently. The results over my first few months had been mixed, at best.

Things would change rather quickly.

Captain William was assigned as the new Commander of our Section. He planned a visit to St. Thomas within days of his arrival and would be in the company of our new Seventh District Commander, Admiral Howard.

The Big Day came and went. I thought our crew did well. Shortly thereafter I received a call from the Captain’s assistant,

“Lieutenant, the Captain would like to meet with you tomorrow afternoon. Please arrange a flight to arrive in San Juan for a 1pm meeting. You can schedule your return the same day”.

Captain William welcomed me into his office, motioned we sit in two comfortably stuffed chairs, and asked if I wanted anything to drink. I respectfully declined. He then stated, with complete candor,

“Tim, your boat’s a sh*t storm”.

I discovered my new leader was not one to mince words or waste time getting to the point.

An incredible feeling of gratitude and relief washed over me as I listened to Captain William list discrepancies that were obvious in his eyes, not so obvious for someone just starting out. I thanked him for his candor as we agreed to a 30-day plan of action.

I then asked why no one had shared this with me prior to his arrival. Especially since some of the issues were corrected virtually overnight.

“I can’t speak for others, Tim” he said, displaying the professionalism and courtesy of a well-seasoned leader, “But I can tell you that you will always know exactly where you stand in my eyes. We’re in this together”.

Technically it was considered feedback, but for me it was music to my ears.

When the Captain returned after 30 days, it was a completely different experience. Our drills were crisp and executed with precision. An air of confidence was present, pride replaced the complacency that had crept into routines. No one to blame, sometimes it takes a second set of eyes.

We celebrated that night. Not just the crew, but wives, girlfriends, and anyone who contributed to our success was invited to the station to share in the accomplishment. I can remember singing Beatles songs as an impromptu bridge between generations.

We had become family.

Build Trust “In the Moment”

Feedback is best exchanged with complete and unabridged transparency, a confirmation of information offered and received, with the intent of influencing those behaviors most likely to improve performance and promote growth.

In other words: “Trust me, I’ve got your back”.

People love feedback. Think about it . . . feedback shows you care, that you have faith in a person’s ability to perform, you are invested in them as an individual, and appreciate their contributions to the overall success of the team. It builds trust.

While the content will vary, the delivery of feedback should remain consistent to be effective. It must originate from the heart, with complete transparency and honesty, to realize the intended influence on behavior and performance. Sometimes tender, sometimes tough, always from love.

Timing can be critical, as well. Feedback, like good pizza, is best when delivered fresh.

“In the Moment” feedback is structured around a cycle of Observation, Interpretation, Communication, and Commitment.

This requires fluidity, an ability to remain fully present and responsive to what is being shared. You will be playing the hand that you are dealt as you work from current state (Observation/Interpretation) through desired state (Communication/Commitment).  

The following are a few Tall Tim Tips designed to boost your confidence and improve delivery of “In the Moment” feedback:


Solicitation (is) Allowed

Soliciting input prior to sharing your observation provides awareness as to how similar, or how separate, your two perspectives are when reviewing performance or behavior.

For example, you have observed an employee in action. We will assume for the sake of discussion that their performance was less than acceptable. You already know your impressions. What you are interested in now is their evaluation of their performance.

If the employee admits upfront, “I felt nervous, and don’t think I did very well” . . . you have natural buy-in. No need to revisit the obvious. Use this mutual agreement to gain immediate trust in your recommendations and a solid commitment to improve.

On the other hand, if the employee states “I think I did pretty well”, you have exposed conflict.

Why should you be grateful for this? If you had shared your observation first, the employee may or may not agree with you. This could manifest as agreement on the surface, possible resentment below the surface.

Leadership is a people business. There are external and internal factors at work 24/7. My preference is to know where someone’s thoughts are so I may respond most appropriately.     

Explore the reasons for the different perspectives, whether attitude, desire, knowledge . . . or elements of all three. Work to first address the source, then resolve your differences, establish trust in your recommendations, and instill confidence in a commitment to improve.


Clear, Concise, Connected

Communicating great feedback follows the same cadence as great instruction: Clear, Concise, and Connected.

It should be clear as to what behaviors or performance-related results are being addressed. Standards, benchmarks, and mutually agreed to behaviors provide clarity and avoid conflicting perspectives. Be specific! This is not the time for “usually” or “typically” . . . you saw something, now say something.

Feedback should be concise, brief but comprehensive. This is made possible due to the trust you have established through daily interactions. In my example, Captain William was the epitome of concise . . . the, um, “salty” language is strictly optional.  You can use more words, but do not allow dialogue to become a distraction.

Lastly, connect feedback to the desired state of behavior or performance. This justifies the purpose behind the conversation. You don’t want someone asking, “And why are you telling me this?” If you stop short of connecting your feedback, you risk having your intentions viewed as a critique of the person, instead of an evaluation of the performance.

Ditto for Recognition

It is a positive and heartwarming move to say how proud you are of someone’s performance. What is even more impactful to potential growth and development is describing in detail “why” or “what” made you feel that way. Consider the following:

“Great job, you knocked it out of the park” shows you care, maintains self-esteem.

. . . because your team was determined to finish production within their scheduled shift. I know it wasn’t always easy, but you stayed committed and have the results to prove it” shows you are invested, promotes self-esteem, builds confidence, encourages proactive thought and action.

If someone possesses the proper intentions, knows you are keeping score, taking notes, and paying attention to the details, they will develop those intentions into strengths.

Skip the Sandwich, Go with Confidence

I simply cannot endorse a Feedback Sandwich . . . the process of beginning feedback with a positive, then highlighting required improvement, only to finish with another positive makes me want to skip lunch altogether.

Leaders justify preference for this technique by saying “I’m just not sure how the feedback will be received”. My concern is: How is it being delivered?

Feedback that is clear, concise, connected and delivered with confidence will be received in that same spirit.

This is your team, your people. If you have built strong, trusting relationships, they will expect feedback. It will have become a fixture within your organizational culture.

Enhance your confidence by ensuring the clarity of instruction and communication of standards or goals. Feedback then becomes a consistent, transparent exchange of perspectives. Your team will know where it stands at almost all times.

This removes the element of self-doubt, a perceived risk of damaging self-esteem, that drives leaders to “dress” feedback, which may ultimately confuse the intent.


The Stage Is Set

Everything to this point is considered potential. A structured and mutually agreeable commitment will turn it kinetic.

In my experience, Captain Williams highlighted several aspects of my unit’s performance he wanted to see improved. At the end of our exchange, we agreed to a 30-day Plan of Action. I suggested the time frame, the Captain thought it to be too ambitious.

This was the value of his feedback. I knew what we were capable of, what our true potential to perform could be. What I did not know was the relative importance of specific tasks. Once outlined, we were ready to go.

That is precisely where you want to be at the completion of a feedback opportunity. If you have set the stage with authentic, transparent observations . . . connected them to the resulting impact on performance or behavior . . . then clearly, and confidently communicated steps to improve . . . you will be in proper position to gain commitment. 

A commitment from the person receiving feedback is necessary for them to be truly engaged in the change or growth process. Should you leave the session with a one-sided commitment . . . yours . . . you are more likely to repeat the process without change.

As with all solid action planning, your mutual commitment should have measurable action steps, and feature a timeline for follow-up activities.

Let The Music Play

People want, and need, feedback. This is your opportunity to demonstrate faith in someone’s potential, their ability to perform, your investment in their contribution to the overall success of the team. Delivered with complete transparency and honesty, feedback works to build trust, whether tough or tender, always from a position of love. “In the Moment” feedback follows a sequence of Observation, Interpretation, Communication, and Commitment. Seek input prior to sharing your observation to gauge similarities or differences in perspective. Ensure your feedback is clear, concise, connected, and communicated with confidence. Lastly, a mutually agreeable commitment will take potential, and turn it kinetic, building confidence to perform!  

Thanks for spending your Tuesdays with Tall Tim Talks! 

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