Feedback builds future leaders

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Richard Operhall
  • 76th Space Control Squadron commander
Over my more than 16 years in the Air Force, I've occasionally been stopped by the intrepid young Airman who has informed me of an AFI 36-2903 uniform violation. I've always welcomed the feedback and like any good Airman, would correct the discrepancy, thank them and go about my business.

Uniform standards are easy to enforce because they are typically visible. But there are many other standards that are not as easy to enforce because they are not as apparent. One of those standards is providing performance feedback to our troops.

AFI 36-2406 defines performance feedback as "a private, formal communication a rater uses to tell a ratee what is expected regarding duty performance and how well the ratee is meeting those expectations." The AFI mandates initial, mid-term and end-of-reporting period feedback based on grade. Raters have specific responsibilities listed in the AFI including conducting feedback sessions "regardless of whether the rater received a feedback notice" and "providing realistic feedback to help the ratee improve performance." And by the way, "conflicts such as being geographically separated, TDY, leave, etc., are not excuses not to perform feedback sessions." When it comes to performance feedback, the ratee also has responsibilities to know when they are due for feedback, to request feedback and to "notify the rater and, if necessary, the rater's rater when required or requested feedback does not take place."

Despite the fact that the AFI mandates performance feedback and defines clear cut responsibilities, I dare say that a good number of us never receive a formal performance feedback session. For some reason, when it doesn't get done, we often look the other way. Over my career, I can count on one hand the number of times that I've had formal feedback. I've never received end-of-reporting period performance feedback. While my raters were at fault for not providing the feedback, I was just as responsible for not asking for the feedback. If an individual was committing a gross uniform violation I'm certain that someone would stop and correct them. But when it comes to not providing performance feedback, I don't know if anyone would be as zealous in correcting that behavior.

So if performance feedback is mandatory, why don't we do it? The reasons are many. It requires an investment of time that we often don't have. It requires us to potentially provide bad news which makes us feel uncomfortable. It requires us to potentially provide bad news that would make someone upset or angry. It requires an in-depth understanding of the people we supervise, their capabilities, and both strengths and weaknesses.

Initial performance feedback is the mechanism by which we set the standards and expectations by which we evaluate our troops. It's where we tell people we expect adherence to standards such as the ones that govern the wear of the uniform. As a rater, if you don't provide initial performance feedback, you've missed a golden opportunity to set the standards and expectations of your troops, allowing them to know where the bar is set and hopefully try to exceed it. As a ratee, it's difficult to know what your boss expects unless they tell you.

Providing feedback for good performance is easy to do. Looking at someone in the eye and telling them that their performance is sub-standard is one of the toughest things to do. But it's necessary. Over my Air Force career, I've found that honest feedback of negative performance has served as significant motivator for individuals to improve. In many cases, I've found that an individual was unaware that certain aspects of their performance were substandard. Nobody had ever told them. How else do we expect our people to get better when nobody tells them the areas that need improvement?

Our job as supervisors is not only to ensure the completion of the mission, but also to build the Air Force's future leaders. That is our lasting legacy to the Air Force and our nation. Constructive, honest and actionable performance feedback is one of the ways we build those future leaders. So the next time you see a uniform violation, why don't you also ask the individual, "have you provided your troops formal performance feedback?"