Feedback Is The Key To Mastery

Business writer Dan Pink came to Richmond on April Fool's Day, but his message to the crowd of more than 400 business professionals, creatives and students was no joke: If you want to increase engagement and performance (for yourself, your team or your organization) you need to do more than lookover people's shoulders and stroke a regular paycheck.

In fact, Pink strongly suggested that looking over people's shoulders – known as micromanaging in most circles – was a great way to put a drag on engagement, and that linking performance to pay was the motivational equivalent of a pair of concrete boots.

"Management is a technology from the 1850's. There aren't many technologies from the 1850's still in use today," Pink told the audience at the University of Richmond's Modlin Center. (The University of Richmond and the Visual Arts Center of Richmond organized the event; BankAmerica and Floricane were the primary business sponsors.) If you want to motivate people, pay them well and give them room to achieve autonomy, mastery and purpose, Pink told the group.

Mastery is the sense of growth and achievement, of regularly increased competency. Pink said th e biggest motivator at work is the feeling of progress – those days when you've made steps toward a goal tend to be the days we feel the most engaged and successful. The irony is that employees often don't see those daily accomplishments – no one calls their attention to the minor milestones and small steps that accumulate to deliver big results over time.

Which makes the work of managers today something different than simply being bearers of a 170-year-old legacy of directing and controlling the work of others.

The best role for a manager in today's business environment is helping people see their progress – not once a year during a performance review ("Performance reviews are a version of Kabuki theatre where we all read through a script and hope it ends quickly," Pink said.) but on a daily and weekly basis. Helping people see their progress, and celebrating that progress with them, is the most critical task a manager or leader can play day-to-day within an organization.

It's called providing feedback, and it's a way to help people achieve mastery.

It doesn't have to stop at work, either.

One of the most compelling stories about feedback I've ever heard came from a previous employer. He owned the company, and it wasn't unusual for him to spent 14 hour days at the office, especially during the company's peak growth years. He was married, and had three young children.

He shared this story during a leadership workshop we were conducting within the organization as a way of sharing what he wanted leaders in the organization to understand about feedback – and about the values of our company.

I picked my daughter up from school recently, and she was riding in the back seat. I asked her, "What can I do to be a better dad?"

She started laughing. When she stopped, I asked her again. She was quiet for a moment, and then she said, "Do you really want to know?"

What she really meant was, "Is it safe for me to tell you the truth?"

I told her I did want to know.

She said, "You know, when we go behind the house to the creek and we pick up little sticks and throw them into the water, then run alongside them to see which one goes fastest? You could do that with me more."

At this moment in the story, he paused and put a hand over his heart to indicate just how deeply his daughter's simple request had struck.

I asked her what else I could do to be a better dad.

"You could have breakfast with us sometimes," she said.

In the past, I would have immediately started to explain to her how busy I was running a company and how so many people depended on me, that I had to spend time at work and with her mom, sister and brother. I would have told her that one day she'd understand how important my work was.

But a little voice in my head told me to ask for more.

"Is there anything else I could do?" I asked.

"You know how we all played in the yard together last weekend? That was a lot of fun," she said.

There were more than a few damp eyes in the room at this point in his story. What everyone in the room know, and he briefly explained, is that his daughter could have asked for anything – a new bike, a vacation, a shopping trip. But she asked for the one thing she truly wanted, which was more time with her dad.

Someone in the room raised a hand and asked, "So, where did you have breakfast today?" Laughter rippled around the room.

"Well," he said, "I had breakfast here with this group today, but I've had many more breakfasts with my kids since that conversation. And I'd like to think that I'm doing a better job of giving my daughter what she wants from me."

It's a powerful story, especially if you're a parent.

But it's a simple lesson in feedback. Feedback involves simple questions – What can I do better? How can I provide you with the support you need? What else can I do to help you succeed?

Far too often, we avoid receiving feedback. We don't invite it, and we don't realize the power that comes from asking others to provide it to us. No, we tend to corrupt it by offering it to others uninvited, and we justify that action by telling ourselves that we're trying to help that person improve.

Feedback involves simple questions, and it starts by inviting others to provide it to us. (That's called modeling the behavior you want to see in your organization, by the way.) And it gains momentum by creating an environment where you do that often and with many people.

So why not start today? Go ask a coworker a simple question, like "How can I be a better coworker?" Or go home and ask your spouse or partner for feedback. Or your child.

And then shut up. Listen. Ask for more.

Then start changing your behavior. You're on the road to mastery in at least one small corner of your life.