The view from my office (US Air Force photo)

Feedback Sandwich

This is my office, and yes, it has quite a view. Many years ago, I sat exclusively in the front cockpit as a student pilot, and it was there that I first learned the recipe for the feedback sandwich: 1) one slice of bread on the top - something positive, 2) the meat - a huge portion of something negative, and 3) another slice of positive bread on the bottom. In reality though, it was usually a flatbread sandwich, with only lip-service paid to any real, helpful feedback. I think there is a better way of doing business.

For the past few years, the picture above has been my view, and it has given me a place to sit and ponder this problem while developing a unique perspective into the feedback process. During that time, after I have flown with a student pilot three times in a row, I ask them three questions in the debrief.

1. Is there something I am doing as your instructor pilot that you like, or that helps you learn?

2. What am I doing that you don't like, that you hate, or that hinders your learning?

3. What have you seen other instructors doing that you think I should incorporate or adopt?

Getting Feedback

Before I actually ask the pilot trainee these questions, I briefly explain why I am conducting this particular line of inquiry. I do it first and foremost because I want the feedback. My job is to teach and train pilots, and I need to know if I am doing it well or if I could do it better. If I don’t get feedback from these trainees, then I probably won't get any helpful feedback at all. There are formal course critiques and surveys, but these primarily identify macroscopic trends instead of individual ones.

I've adopted a variation of the familiar sandwich recipe, because feedback is hard. It’s hard to do and usually even harder to swallow. In this first case, it’s usually an easier task for a subordinate to identify something positive. But let’s be honest — it also helps me swallow the bitter pill in the second question. I also do it as a leadership lesson. Someday, a senior officer will need — and may even ask for — feedback, so these young lieutenants need to practice it. Additionally, they will someday — much sooner than they imagine — be in positions of leadership and need tools they can use to get feedback. They need to know how to ask for and accept it, even the ugly, hard-to-hear feedback. What they need is both the knowledge and the skill, and we cannot develop the latter without practice. A byproduct of the process is these questions force the trainee — the young officer and future pilot — to introspect. We don't often ask for their input, so that particular intellectual muscle weakens. Overall, these questions are not only the process by which I get feedback, but they also force the future leader to practice giving it.

Giving Feedback

I won't elaborate much, because this is the topic that gets the most focus in mainstream media, but I will address two kinds of feedback: solicited and unsolicited. Sometimes you want to give feedback, even though no one asked for it. Start with generosity and gratitude, but only because you really mean it. Show gratitude for the action, attitudes, or behavior that added value, and reflect on the specifics. “I really appreciate when you…, because it helped me…” This is an exercise in personally learning, and practicing, to see the positive and productive.

The second kind of feedback is the kind that you offer when others have accepted your perspective— perhaps you are in a position of authority, in the role of instructor pilot, for example, or when someone has asked you for feedback. It resembles the kind of course corrections one would make while driving and the shared expectations of what acceptable performance looks like, i.e., remaining in one’s lane and abiding by traffic laws. The challenge, however, is that leadership situations don’t usually come with double yellow lines and exit signs. Here the leader must have previously set a standard, goal, or predicted path by which to measure the performance and progress of the follower. In other words, the leader charts the course. Without an agreed upon standard, the feedback is almost useless, but with it, feedback can truly be constructive, helping the follower and the leader go the same direction.

Setting clear expectations is hard. Communicating frankly about difficult topics is hard. And, as we've already stated, feedback is hard. But the technical skills these young men and women are learning are equally difficult and complex, and our profession demands that we show nothing short of valor in preparing for both the literal and the metaphorical fight. That may mean we have to jump on a hand grenade of particularly painful feedback. But it certainly means that we need to sharpen our skills in continual practice of the art.

Practice

Studies suggest that people don't really know what practice is. This applies to receiving and giving feedback as well as personal development, as a professional instructor pilot, airman, aircrew member, officer, and leader. Geoffery Colvin describes practice in this way:

“Simply hitting a bucket of balls is not deliberate practice, which is why most golfers don't get better… Hitting an eight-iron 300 times with a goal of leaving the ball within 20 feet of the pin 80 percent of the time, continually observing results and making appropriate adjustments, and doing that for hours every day — that’s deliberate practice.”

What he says hits the nail on the head — we need to do a better job at deliberately practicing feedback. When I come back from a flight, for example, I try to evaluate my own performance, airmanship and cockpit/crew resource management (CRM), by simply substituting the phrase “CRM” into the above questions: 1) What did I do or see today about CRM that I liked or that helped my CRM? 2) What did I do or see today that I did not like or that hindered my CRM? 3) What did someone share with me that other teams do for their CRM that I should incorporate or adopt? I’ve also adapted these questions to other scenarios like personal accountability and even asked my children something similar.

I’m not sure I have figured out how to keep score quantitatively, as Colvin describes, but I am deliberately practicing, exploring how to implement these ideas in my own life. In closing, let me say that I am not suggesting that these ideas are anything more than a description of feedback, not a prescription, but I sure would appreciate your feedback on these ideas.

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