I’ve had an incredible time recently chatting with Brian Decker, director of player development for an NFL team and a former member of the U.S. Army’s Special Forces. But he also is able to parlay this unique background into remarkable insights for the business world. From book recommendations to anecdotes about management, we talked for hours -- and there were a couple of things I particularly wanted to learn about.
One of the things I always prioritize talking about with my clients is feedback. Giving it. Receiving it. And handling the process well. Sure, it doesn’t seem like the sexiest thing to focus on -- in the workplace, feedback can seem like a mundane component of corporate culture rather than something that can make or break teams. I disagree. We don’t talk enough about feedback, and it’s to our own detriment.
Given Brian’s knowledge base and level of insight, I absolutely wanted to hear what he had to say about the feedback process as he works with NFL players, plus what he learned from his years as a Green Beret.
Here’s what he had to say:
Feedback should be as immediate as possible.
“In the Army, we’d come back from a 30-hour mission and we hadn’t slept in a day and a half. But we’d go to the whiteboard and do our traditional AAR (after action review) before we’d go to bed. This was done religiously.
Now, in the NFL, we do the same thing. On the scouting side or the talent acquisition side, whenever we have a milestone event, from the Senior Bowl to the East West Shrine game to Pro Days to draft meetings. I send out survey questions immediately afterward. Don’t hesitate -- it’s more important for insights to be fresh than for people to have some time to take them into consideration. Often the most raw and unrefined feedback is the most helpful.”
Less is more.
“On the team, week to week, we have our own internal review process. I've learned that in this environment less is more -- you want to ask plain, uncomplicated questions to get the feedback that’s actually helpful. So I limit my reviews to two questions: What did you like? What do you want to see improve, and how? I also only give players two days to finish the surveys, so that they don’t overthink things."
Don’t weaponize feedback.
“Feedback can be weaponized both by the person giving it and the person receiving it. And it’s easy to do this even when you don’t mean to. Think about it: When you’re giving feedback, you can easily make it a personal slight or denigration, even if by accident, and if you’re receiving feedback you can take it too personally. We’ve made candor and mutual understanding a part of our culture, especially on our scouting side, in order to ensure feedback doesn’t get weaponized. We acknowledge that all feedback should be good feedback whether you’re the one talking or the one listening.”
Feedback doesn’t work unless you set next steps -- and acknowledge obstacles.
“In the midst of the feedback process, we try to get players to set goals associated with effort, process, skill development, and more. Then we ask players, “What do you think are the obstacles that stand in the way of your achieving that role and those goals?” One of the things I think a lot of organizations are guilty of doing is developing clear-cut plans, where we choose a goal and assume there’s an extremely direct path to that goal. We visualize success at every point along the way, without really considering where the obstacles are. It’s crucial for you to talk through where your planning is going to be challenged, and thinking through how you’re going to handle that.
This is necessary for action, and that’s ultimately what feedback should produce: calls to action.”