CPA INSIDER

How to use feedback as fuel

Propel your team to new heights through constructive criticism.
By Amy Vetter, CPA/CITP, CGMA

Since our school days, formalized feedback has let us know how we're doing in key areas. Report cards were basically quarterly feedback forms that said with just a few letters that "you're doing awesome in these four or five subjects but not so hot in English." They motivated us to improve where we were weak. And for the most part, they worked (and still do).

In today's corporate world, leaders need to know how to set up review systems that deliver the kind of timely, substantive feedback that fuels improvement by all members of the team. In addition, it's imperative that leaders understand not only how to provide effective feedback but how to receive it as well.

Feedback in every direction

Feedback, in other words, isn't a one-way street. The more we open up lanes of communication for feedback, the more we learn about one another's strengths and weaknesses. Leaders shouldn't consider themselves immune to feedback. Your team has a unique perspective on the way you operate. They can provide insights that nobody else can. It's much better, for example, to learn about an unsavory habit from a team member rather than a client.

I recently spoke to Jeremy Jones, CPA, partner and head of audit at Frazier & Deeter, for an episode of my Breaking Beliefs podcast. He noted the importance of what he calls "upward feedback," his term for the feedback team members give to their leaders. "It's amazing when you give people the appropriate format to give upward feedback," Jones said. "We ask our people to give upward feedback twice a year, even up to partners, and it is anonymous. When people get in that mindset and get in the routine of giving upward feedback, the amount of jewels you can pull out of that upward feedback is amazing."

Building better feedback with iteration

Being open to feedback is essential, but just as important is creating systems and structures that allow feedback to be constructive and productive. A feedback free-for-all will only lead to drama, confusion, and hurt feelings. Like medicine, feedback should be prescribed and taken only in appropriate circumstances.

Reviews are the most common feedback method used in a corporate environment. Problem is, most organizations fail to review team members in a valuable way. They go over a few base performance numbers and maybe offer a token salary increase, but their main objective is to make sure the employee checks off the boxes confirming a review has been completed.

Another issue is typically the review focuses on recent months, even if it covers six months to a year, because our memory doesn't remember what someone did that far back. Reviews should be honest and solution-focused, rather than opaque and punitive. Whether or not somebody is a star performer or in need of serious improvement, they should leave their review with a path forward. If you find employees entering reviews in a cold sweat and leaving with their tail between their legs, reviews are being handled wrong.

One way to structure a positive feedback system is to use the example of tech iteration, which often relies on "feedback loops" to allow developers to create improved iterations on their products and services. A feedback loop takes review data, synthesizes it in a relevant context, analyzes its consequences, and creates a plan of action. If you can provide feedback that achieves all four of these goals, it's unlikely to fall on deaf ears, and your team knows that you care enough to help them achieve their professional and personal aspirations.

Reaction and response

Giving feedback, of course, is only half the equation. If people are unwilling to accept feedback, it can become a callus that doesn't heal. It's hard to act on feedback that you resent. Take mindful steps to encourage your team members to accept your feedback. Building trust internally and taking the time to get to know your team will make your feedback feel like concern rather than judgment.

Everybody has worked with a boss who only shows up on occasion to point out the negative. Engaged leaders, on the other hand, can provide the kind of feedback that results from deep connection with their team. The best feedback also is in real time, so people can course-correct. You don't want to make it seem as if you've been waiting to trip them up or surprise them on a review.

Fostering an environment where feedback is well received internally is one thing, but handling client-facing feedback is another. If you are hit with a bad review online, for example, it's important to not be the "keyboard warrior" eager to win a war of words with an aggrieved client. Instead, listening to your clients' feedback, whether merited or not, to find ways to fix what they perceive as a problem can go a long way. Oftentimes, solving a client issue is an opportunity to really wow someone. If you've ever read a review where a customer revised their opinion of a business for the positive, you realize just how powerful these experiences can be.

The same holds true for upward criticism. Focus on the substance of the feedback, make adjustments to address problems, and then use the process to establish deeper levels of communication and trust with your team.

In all aspects of our lives, feedback allows us to see ourselves from the outside and learn what others feel about us. It's not always easy to give and receive feedback, but if you want to grow as a person and leader, it is paramount.

Amy Vetter, CPA/CITP, CGMA, is CEO of The B3 Method Institute, a keynote speaker and adviser, host of the Breaking Beliefs podcast, and Technology Innovations Taskforce leader for the AICPA's Information Management Technology Assurance (IMTA) Executive Committee. Learn more at amyvetter.com. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, a JofA senior editor, at Jeff.Drew@aicpa-cima.com.

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