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Civil Service

Feedback: How am I doing – really?

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Civil Service Leaders, Good management

s216_mdonnellyI thought I was OK on getting feedback. Then, a few years ago, a new colleague, originally from Scandinavia, and with a consultancy background, joined my team. Let’s call her Tera.

The first year Tera gave me feedback, she told me I had too many meetings and they went on too long. I was rather proud of my meeting management skills, so this was unwelcome news. “It’s the first time I’ve been told that,” I said. “Well,” said Tera, “I’m just telling you what people regularly say to each other on the way into your meetings…”

I realised that my standard feedback just wasn’t picking up messages people really wanted to give me, as opposed to the sanitised version. But Tera told it straight. So, I shortened my meetings and got Tera to give me personal feedback every month or so on how I was doing. It was a bit like circuit training – uncomfortable at the time, but worth sticking at for the wider benefits.

Challenge and respect

When Tera moved on I asked one of my team to collect comments from my colleagues and everybody else and deliver them to me, together. This stops anyone feeling exposed by what they want to say and shows where there are shared concerns.

I do the same for my senior team, collecting all their comments on each other. And we choose one person to give us quick feedback at the end of each weekly executive board meeting. Not just on the decisions we reached but also on our behaviour – did we challenge each other properly? Do we respect different viewpoints? Were we all engaged in the decisions? Did the quiet people talk enough and did the extroverts manage not to be the first to speak every time?

Frank advice

To be a Permanent Secretary you have to stay in touch with what people across the organisation are most concerned about. I have worked with two upward, or reverse, mentors, offering me frank advice on how colleagues feel about the working culture of BIS. They help me understand the impact I and senior colleagues have through our behaviours. Are we visible? Are we really listening to the challenges people face at the sharp end of delivery? Are our messages the right ones and are they being heard?

Our diversity groups also offer challenge and feedback about the impact of change on people. They help us celebrate the range of people we have and make sure we support each other properly. Colleagues sharing their personal stories on internal blogs have a big impact. New arrivals tell me their first impressions, and time spent running into colleagues in the excellent BIS canteen is never time wasted. I have learned that good feedback will only come from colleagues who feel valued and respected for not just what they do but for who they are.

Then they take the risk of telling me what I need to know, not what I want to hear. And then I can do something about it – including holding shorter, better-focused meetings…

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  1. Comment by Anthony posted on

    "Well, you surely don't need Tera to tell you that the simple answer to the above is pay. Especially those at the bottom of the pay grades." & those at the top of the pay grades as well.

  2. Comment by Ade Jones CMG posted on

    I think that most of the people are getting the wrong point of this :

    You really don't know you are getting things wrong unless you are told. If Martin wasn't getting the correct feedback that wasn't down to him but those providing it. As far as I am concerned, once he was aware of the problem he took the steps needed to correct it and well done to him.

    There have been times where I have had similar feedback (even from my line manager) which has later been shown to be more favourable than it should have been as it is easier and less confrontational to say it's all ok rather than point out a possible issue.

  3. Comment by Alan M posted on

    i thought this was a really helpful article. But having also read the comments, it seems to me that one of the best ways of faciliating feedback you may not otherwise receive directly, is to write a blog and invite comment.

  4. Comment by Josephine Thomas posted on

    Yes why did it take Tera to see this , I suppose when you are focus in a certain direction you dont see until someone points it out. There are certain SCS in this organisation they dont listen nor do they care at the end of the day we are all here to work and get paid at the end of the month, good for those who are on top, Admin staff are treated with no respect at all, I suggested that the lower grades should be made up to a level higher, as the organisation are doing away with certain lower grades, but as the powers be, rather than give staff a chance they rather let you take redundancy or make your working life miserable for you to leave , we all have bills, some of us mortagues to pay and some of us cant afford to retire early or take redunancy because it is not worth it financialy . The powers be dont ask the simple question thats matters,

  5. Comment by Alan Colquhoun posted on

    Hi Martin, I appreciate your honesty - It is very refreshing to hear that you are able to listen to those other than your peers. I can appreciate that you have been brave enough to say what very few would dare. Very Admirable.

  6. Comment by Lee posted on

    Well done. We need more leadership like this. Well done Tera too.

  7. Comment by Edna posted on


    Why did it take Tera to tell you this?
    Surely 360° feedback is standard within the SCS?
    What did you do to identify what went wrong?
    And then - why was it that people felt they couldn't tell you what they really thought?
    Was it they felt you wouldn't listen?
    Did they feel scared?
    Had they given up on expecting anyone to take any action?
    How had they responded in the last 'Have your say' survey?
    And are you sure that others weren't trying to tell you, but you didn't listen until a Scandinavian from a consultancy background came along?

    Perhaps you could share your findings with your colleagues within the SCS, because I, for one, am fed up of trying to tell people about problems, and they all smile nicely, and say the right words and NOTHING HAPPENS! Maybe I should try writing with a Scandinavian accent...

  8. Comment by Peter L posted on

    Feedback is a problem under the CSEP PMR system. Managers are afraid of giving positive feedback during the reporting year in case the staff member ends up with a Box 3 because of guided distribution.

  9. Comment by Chris Felton posted on

    Interesting that this blog about listening to people and being aware of the impact of change was posted on the same day that BIS announced that they were closing their Sheffield office and moving 300 jobs to their more expensive London base. No doubt Martin got some feedback over the next few days...

  10. Comment by Hungry posted on

    "To be a Permanent Secretary you have to stay in touch with what people across the organisation are most concerned about"
    Well, you surely don't need Tera to tell you that the simple answer to the above is pay. Especially those at the bottom of the pay grades. Funny how it is that those are always the ones "at the sharp end of delivery".
    Hundreds of folk in my Department alone earn barely around or less than the Living Wage and rely on Working Tax Credit. Yet nowadays there's not even a minimum set in the annual pay award. Thus .8% pay rise of nothing is more of an insult than a help.
    Just picture yourself Martin, working at the "sharp end" day in and day out on £16k. Can you guess the kind of "challenges" we face?

  11. Comment by syl posted on

    "To be a Permanent Secretary you have to stay in touch with what people across the organisation are most concerned about."

    Where does the "Innovation" element of BIS fit when you close regional based offices moving the posts to London. Rightly or wrongly, one of the reasons being suggested is that the technology/telephones in Sheffield don't work.

    Is BIS really an organisation that is fit for purpose if its own internal systems cannot manage to link up over a few hundred miles.

  12. Comment by Tom Yates posted on

    "Let's call her Tera". That made me laugh.

  13. Comment by Peter B posted on

    What a great photo composition. It really showed a fantastic degree of gender and racial diversity.

    In a group of approximately 50+ people there was only one male...luckily the plucky little chap had managed to get himself right to the front of the picture. Well done that man!