***This is part of a series of blogs coauthored with Helen Sanderson***
Approaches to feedback that generate engagement, responsibility and trust
This is the last in a four blog series about Confirmation Practices; an approach to managing performance that dissolves common problems and creates responsible, flexible and innovate practice. Today’s blog explores the role of feedback in making the most of Confirmation Practices and in unlocking people’s whole self at work.
Uncertainty, anxiety and dysfunction
Human nature is a tricky thing. Put in some situations we can each be full of confidence, ready to engage and unencumbered by a concern with what others think of our opinions and approach. We can arrive in full and be resilient enough to roll with the punches. But for the same individuals, a shift in context can evaporate all those things, leaving them timid, reticent to share and careful to choose their words.
Key to which sort of behaviours we get are issues of agency and trust. When we feel like we have limited influence or control (low agency) we are more likely to need a good deal of trust in those around us, in particular, trust that they will respect our needs and support us in our uncertainty and the anxiety that may create for us. Similarly, when trust is high, it’s common that people are more ready to share agency, relinquishing direct or autocratic control, even if they have it. In effect, high trust makes people more likely to be team players and to give others greater freedom to operate.
So we might regard trust as being a function of how confident we are that others will support us through our uncertainty; that they will be respectful of our needs and strengths. This has some important consequences for how people in positions of formal power behave, including those in formal leadership and coaching roles.
Tactics for Supporting People Through Uncertainty
One of the most useful frameworks we’ve found for people in these roles lies in the distinction between formative and summative feedback; a distinction that plays out perfectly in tandem with Confirmation Practices.
Summative feedback happens after observation; it summarises what has been observed. When summative feedback focuses on what was wrong or what needed improving it tends to knock people into a mode of heightened anxiety, often being perceived as attack or criticism. It amplifies awareness of uncertainty and causes dysfunction. By contrast, restricting summative feedback to only what went well provides positive reinforcement, amplifying the likelihood that those good things will be repeated.
Formative feedback happens before something is to be done. Since it is feedback, it is also after a prior action but the emphasis here is on describing what to focus on next. By focussing formative feedback on next actions it can talk about what may not have been so good previously without framing it as a criticism. Following on from positive summative feedback, it can offer a coaching input along the lines of “this time, here’s what would make it even better”.
Coaches who become skilled in providing formative and summative feedback, learn how to maintain a positive frame that others experience as supportive, motivating and respectful of their uncertainties; it builds trust.
Coupling These Feedback Approaches to Confirmation Practices
Applying these feedback approaches to Confirmation Practices is a golden ticket to helping individuals and teams into constructive habits of positive responsibility. By acting as an observer to a team’s Confirmation routines, coaches can leave responsibility for those routines with teams themselves. This helps enormously in setting the right sort of power dynamics, where coaches aren’t seen as authority figures who, when all is said and done, really run the show. Instead, teams know they are running their own Confirmation Practices because they are. In the observer role, the coach simply watches for what’s happening then provides summative feedback. Next time around, they may introduce a Confirmation session with some formative feedback, “it would be great if in today’s session you were mindful of….”
An Example From Helen's Wellbeing Teams
"A coach is critical to how we are approaching self-managed teams. There are so many approaches to coaching, and we explored how Buurtzorg coaches are trained, what coaching is like on the AltMBA (a radical programme for change where Wellbeing Team's Emily and I are both coaches) as well as executive coaching approaches.
When Andy introduced us to formative and summative coaching I was struck by how simple, yet powerful it is. We are now using it in the way that we coach different roles, as well as how Emily coaches Confirmation Practices.
Michelle has been coaching Patsy, a Wellbeing Worker who is taking the role of Meeting Facilitator in one of our Wigan Teams. This means that she has 15 minutes with Patsy after the meeting to give her specific feedback on what she did well, and she meets with her for 10 minutes before the next meeting to agree what to focus on and develop in this meeting.
In her role as Team Coach, Michelle also supports the team to self-manage. At the end of team meetings she offers a reflection about what she is noticing about how they are using tensions in the meeting to address issues (a good example of self-managing) and at the beginning of the following meeting she may suggest an area to focus on before the meeting starts, as a whole team approach to formative and summative coaching."
Systematically attending to feedback in this way gives coaches a hugely valuable role in helping teams to become responsible, independent and high performing. If for years our organisations have conditioned us to behave like battery hens, now scared as hell to leave the safety of our cage, this combination of Confirmation Practices and systematic coaching provides a means to restore our humanity, to bring us out into the open and to help us thrive as we stretch out into our new found freedom.