Feedback: More than the Airman Comprehensive Assessment

Lt. Col. Timothy Purcell, 50th Operations Support Squadron commander (U.S. Air Force photo)

Lt. Col. Timothy Purcell, 50th Operations Support Squadron commander (U.S. Air Force photo)

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo -- Often, when we hear the term "feedback," we think of the formal feedback process, also known as the Airman Comprehensive Assessment. You know, the meeting you have once or twice a year with your supervisor to discuss your performance, goals and expectations and depending on rank, is documented on an AF Form 724, AF Form 931 or AF Form 932. 

According to Air Force Instruction 36-2406, "Airman Comprehensive Assessment is formal communication between a rater and ratee to communicate responsibility, accountability, Air Force culture, an Airman's critical role in support of the mission, individual readiness, and performance feedback on expectations regarding duty performance and how well the ratee is meeting those expectations to include information to assist the ratee in achieving success. It is intended to increase Airmen interaction and support at all levels. If done correctly, mentorship will create and sustain a culture of belonging. The ACA is also intended to provide Airmen an opportunity to discuss their personal and professional goals. Providing this information helps an individual contribute to positive communication, improve performance, and grow professionally." 

While the formal ACA process is certainly necessary and essential to fostering mentorship and improving communications between rater and ratee, it is merely one component of the feedback process.  Effective, quality feedback is a 24/7 process that should exist at all levels of an organization and include both formal and informal feedback. In many ways, informal feedback can be more effective because it provides assessments from multiple perspectives and allows infinite opportunities for mid-course corrections. It should come from above, across and below your chain of command. Again, I'm not referring to the ACA, but rather daily, informal feedback that comes from peers, coworkers, subordinates as well as your supervisor and leadership. It's your coworker offering suggestions to improve your briefing. 

It's your subordinate notifying you when the team needs guidance. It's your peer suggesting how to better meet your performance goals. It's praising your team for producing a quality product or alternatively, letting them know how it fell short of your expectations. It's asking your supervisor for comments to the report you submitted last week. These are all examples of important and necessary informal feedback that allow you to continuously sharpen your skills and make you and your team more effective. The challenge, however, is actively seeking out this feedback and being genuinely receptive to it. If you make excuses or dismiss others' suggestions, you can bet they won't offer suggestions next time. A subordinate, peer or coworker may be quick to tell you "good job," but reluctant to offer constructive criticism or negative feedback. A supervisor may be focused on other responsibilities and simply not provide informal feedback. You must ask for it and if you make it a habit, it will be infectious. If informal feedback is conducted in an honest, healthy and respectful manner, it will catch on and become part of your work-center, team or squadron's culture to everyone's benefit. You've probably heard the expression, "You should never be surprised on your performance report." Likewise, if you make it a habit to seek out continuous informal feedback, you should also never be surprised during your Airman Comprehensive Assessment.  

This concept of feedback from above, across and below is commonly referred to as 360 degree feedback. The U.S. Army took steps to formalize 360 degree feedback a few years ago by implementing Multi-Source Assessment and Feedback. MSAF seeks input from peers, superiors and subordinates to help leaders increase their self-awareness and become more adaptable.

Gen. Ray Odierno, former U.S. Army Chief of Staff, stated, "I believe that multi-dimensional feedback is an important component to holistic leader development. By encouraging input from peers, subordinates and superiors alike, leaders can better 'see themselves.'" While I admire the Army's attempt to solicit annual 360 degree feedback and think this program has potential to produce better leaders, it still does not substitute the need for continuous informal feedback at all levels.

Additionally, 360 degree feedback can be more than after-action feedback. It can also be a valuable planning tool. As a personal example, I recently became interested in implementing a Commander's Shadow Program so Airmen in my squadron have an opportunity to see "a day in the life of the commander." In considering how to implement an effective volunteer shadow program, I solicited feedback and ideas from other squadron commanders and members of my squadron, all who were supportive and very receptive. It was during one of these discussions with a senior airman, that she identified several factors I should consider to make it appealing and spark interest. I appreciated her suggestions and realized her concerns and recommendations will be invaluable to the success of our shadow program.

As Airmen, we must seek out continuous feedback to improve our awareness of strengths and weaknesses. As leaders, we must provide continuous feedback so our Airmen can develop and more effectively execute the mission and we must foster a culture where others are encouraged to do the same in a healthy and respectful manner. If we do that, we can all ride to the level of excellence. The next time someone asks, "When was the last time you received feedback?", I hope you stop to consider informal feedback. And if we do it correctly, your response should be, "today."