Federal Politics


The art of giving feedback, and copping it

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I wrote a month ago about one of the referees in my midweek soccer league. Most players agree he's the best ref in the competition; he's friendly and engages with players, but doesn't let any fouls go unpunished. As a result, his games never get out of hand, no matter how wild and testosterone-ridden the other blokes on the field are.

I suggested his approach to refereeing would probably make him a good manager in a workplace. We spoke recently and he steered me towards an American bestseller written three decades ago, The One Minute Manager. It's a very short book but I can sum it up even more briefly: workers who feel good about themselves produce good results. Or, as it reminds us in its preface, ''take a minute out of our day to look into the faces of the people we manage. And … realise that they are our most important resources.''

This may sound like the kind of trite aphorism you'd read on a motivational poster. But it's odd how often this simple principle is overlooked. It's not that managers must always be ''nice''; respectful reprimands are just as crucial for productivity, as shortcomings need to be noted and acted on quickly.

Yet it's very rare to hear staff heap praise on their bosses. Whingeing about executives is a reflexive habit in most workplaces, as though, somehow, all organisational woes would end if the junior and mid-level staff were the ones running the joint. It takes a little humility and insight to admit that managing other people is pretty much the toughest job one can have, and one for which most staff are unsuited. Knowing how ridiculously grumpy I get at colleagues who misplace a comma in my work, I can safely rule out any aspirations I might have to being a manager of the year.

Which is why, when I read the latest State of the Service Report this week, I was a little shocked to see how happy most public servants felt about their boss. It's not the kind of finding that dominates news coverage. Nonetheless, it's fascinating that a majority of staff said they were satisfied with their supervisor in every one of the 10 attributes canvassed (such as the ability to communicate, motivate, achieve results and so on). What's more, almost three-quarters of Australian Public Service staff say their supervisor ''exemplifies personal drive and integrity''.

Many businesses would pay through the teeth for a workforce that was that engaged with, and respectful of, its managers.


Yet there's a glaring exception: few public service managers seem to be able to give feedback effectively, nor are their staff great at receiving it. The report notes only half of APS employees said their latest performance review helped them improve their work. Also, while about 80 per cent of managers believed they had the skills to manage performance effectively, an equal proportion of staff felt their agency did a rather poor job of it.

Public Service Commissioner Stephen Sedgwick said this week there was an art to giving and receiving feedback, and the APS clearly needed to improve. ''I'm just not sure we have the skill levels high enough on both sides to be able to deal with difficult conversations when they need to be had.''

It didn't help, he said, that ''we overweight this annual discussion'' - that is, the formal performance review. ''It'd be good to get to the point where the informal feedback was done well and became institutionalised.''

The One Minute Manager makes much the same observation, describing most managers as ''gunny-sack discipliners''. ''That is, they store up observations of poor behaviour and then, some day when performance review comes or they are angry in general because the 'sack is so full', they charge in and 'dump everything on the table'. They tell people all the things they have done wrong for the last few weeks or months or more.''

So what's the ''one minute'' thing all about? Some people just aren't very good at giving praise, nor can they highlight poor performance in others without causing offence. The trick, so says the book, is to keep praise and reprimands short (yes, to 60 seconds) - and then move on. And to offer feedback, whether good or bad, immediately when it's warranted.

The manager who waits too long to share his or her views with staff - especially as long as the next annual performance review - is not managing at all.

Whingeing about executives is a reflexive habit in most workplaces, as though, somehow, all organisational woes would end if the junior and mid-level staff were the ones running the joint.

Markus Mannheim edits The Public Sector Informant. Send your tips to aps6@canberratimes.com.au.