Commentary | April 19, 2021

Techniques for Feedback up the Chain of Command

By Col. Timothy Monroe, Chief Master Sgt. “Jimmy” Williams, and Senior Master Sgt. Joshua 25th Attack Group

If you’re in the Air Force, you have likely attended a commander's call where all attendees are encouraged to leverage open-door policies, speak truth to power, and provide feedback up the chain of command to help accelerate the changes needed in today's Air Force.

While most professional education programs focus on leadership, few offer methods to prepare and up-channel effective feedback as a responsible follower. Culturally, most career fields have well-ingrained debrief methodologies concentrated on the tactical tasks, but lack structure in up-channeling information commanders need to hear. Therefore, what follows is a framework to support how best to work with leaders at all levels to better our organizations.

Before we get started, and to help calm any second-thoughts about reading further, know this: open-door policies are commonplace in the workforce because seasoned leaders know that what you have to offer is crucial to mission success. Leaders deserve to understand and account for your feedback as they guide the organization forward, so get on with it! Our goal is to demystify the process of pushing up feedback and encourage the reader to provide it across various issues to any superior confidently.  

One technique anyone can use to elevate valuable feedback to supervisors or leadership is one centered on four core feedback necessities: Conciseness, Accuracy, Relevance, Timeliness, and Suggestions, or CART-S. These four concepts can and should be applied to various situations and requires mature, objective thinking on the part of followers.

If executed properly, you will provide a powerful message that crosses the symbolic bridge between "complaining" and "improving the organization," which is actionable by leaders. Providing feedback can genuinely be that simple; package or "CART-S" your feedback into focused communication and deliver it to your intended audience.

Conciseness: Time is a precious resource. Although the responsibility to invest and manage time is not exclusive to leaders, what is unique to a leader is balancing time between people's needs and talents with an organization’s mission demands. To deliver effective feedback, followers and leaders alike must carefully choose words to focus on crucial points, and provide them in a digestible format.

A common technique in written military communication is "BLUF," or bottom line up front. The idea of a BLUF is to communicate the critical point of a message in one or two sentences at the start of communication and then provide details in the body of a communication. Depending on the time or format allotted for feedback, the concept of a BLUF can help guide your entire communication. If you only had two sentences to communicate your feedback…what would they be?

Another metaphor for this concept is the "elevator pitch," or a memorable 20-30 second speech designed to clearly, concisely, and memorably deliver an idea to another person in the time it takes to ride an elevator.

Finally, conciseness ensures that the key point of your message is not overlooked or lost in translation.

The "Bonus" C, Candor:  As suggested in the introduction, any leader worthy of their title values honesty or the quality of straightforwardness. Your leaders will appreciate your efforts and contributions to your organization. Remember:  communication is a two-way street; be open to feedback yourself!

Accuracy: Powerful feedback may impart rapid changes, and should therefore be accurate and supported by verifiable facts.

Depending on the nature of the professional relationship between you and your leader, don't be offended if they use a 'trust but verify' mantra, especially if the feedback will impact policy, strategy, or risk calculus. Acquiring accurate data may require some old-school research through publication scrubs, interviews, or documented observations. Still, it will be time well spent to address questions a leader will likely need to answer before taking action.

Before starting research, you will benefit from thinking through and listing 'traps' that will throw you off an objective route. Cognitive pitfalls such as assumptions, biases, speculation, and preconceived notions are good to keep in check throughout your research phase.

Accuracy is the difference between "our manpower doesn't support increased mission tasks" and "we are authorized 54 positions and only have 40 personnel assigned, which means that our team will have to work an average of two additional hours per day and risk 28 days of leave." Even if you think numbers are small, the key is providing precise data your leader can make an accurate risk decisions with, which ultimately they feel will balance people and mission.

Relevance: Stop, pause, and think! Now that you have gathered accurate data, reassess your direction, and verify the feedback's relevance by asking 'so what?'

You may find the feedback you initially thought was appropriate for one person is better suited for a different person, department, or leadership echelon altogether. Even more exciting, you might discover that the issue is something within your authority and span of control to action, without ever needing to elevate to another leader's level.

However, if you find that your initial audience is still appropriate, then begin to scope data-driven feedback in terms of organizational priorities or the leader's focus areas. Examples may include policy, strategy, risk, resource utilization, quality of life, retention, the risk to force/mission, behaviors, or even effectiveness in a given approach.

A word of caution, just because you are personally passionate or invested in a particular issue does not necessarily mean that your organization or leader has the same viewpoint. Be careful not to conflate something personally relevant to you for something universally applicable to the organization. As you polish final feedback points (concise, accurate, and appropriate at this point), understand and account for the importance of timing.

Timeliness: "Timing is everything," is an old adage and remains valid for effective feedback up and down the chain of command.

Realize how the height of an emergency, tragedy, or crisis might not be the right time for non-critical feedback. If your feedback is pertinent to the resolution of a crisis, the CART methodology still holds true.

Colin Powell once said, "Bad news isn't wine. It doesn't improve with age." In other words, if your feedback reflects poorly on the unit, the leader, or perhaps most intimidatingly…on yourself, the message will not magically become positive at a future time. In the military, this type of news sometimes falls under Commander's Critical Information Requirements criteria, and requires direct routing along with high priority information.

Other feedback may fall into a medium priority bin, which still requires a sense of urgency, but does not immediately impact life, limb, or mission and can be deliberately formulated and delivered. However, most feedback can be scheduled at a favorable time to allow for sufficient discussion. After all, you prepared concise, accurate, and relevant feedback…now it is time to communicate the feedback with your leader.

Suggestions: The final step to any meaningful up-channeled feedback is suggesting improvements, changes, or modifications. A common pitfall in elevating issues or feedback to senior leaders is forgetting where the knowledge to fix something resides.

Consider this, senior leaders do not get where they are because they know everything. On the contrary, most have risen through the ranks because of hard work, dedication, and leadership. Depending on the issue, they likely have some knowledge, but not nearly the same level of knowledge you or your coworkers possess. So when you present your concise, accurate, relevant, and timely information, follow it up with your suggestions.

In the military, we frequently hear, "all options are on the table." Someone had to come up with those options, and that is what we are referring to here. No one is more qualified to solve the problem you identified than you! We rely on professionals who leave no stone unturned, who dig for answers, and who seek to make us better by being problem solvers. The best way to get to the desired end state is by working objectively through the CART approach and rounding it off with your suggestions.

Finally, part of living a well-balanced life means reflecting on words and actions. Providing feedback is no exception. A few days or weeks after a feedback session with your leader, think back to how you communicated. Were you concise, candid, accurate, relevant, and timely with feedback? Did you follow up feedback with reasonable suggestions for change? What could have been done better? How would you change the message with additional time to reflect and gather new data? Did anything come from the feedback? If so, did the results match intent?

If the leader did not appear to act on your feedback, consider following up to get their perspective.

As you finish reading this, we'll end with the bonus "C" from earlier: Candor. If you forget everything else in this article, remember the Air Force’s first core value: Integrity First. Be candid, straightforward, and truthful with your feedback. As long as your motives are pure and designed to help the organization, its mission, or its people, leaders will appreciate your honesty and integrity!