Man smiling at a woman in an office; they are deep in conversation. One is giving constructive feedback to another

Dr. Janet Pilcher, author of Hardwiring Excellence in Education, wraps up her deep dive into mastering the art of constructive feedback. Joining her on this episode is Jon Malone, the Director and CEO of the Northwestern Illinois Association, to discuss the use of the three to one ratio in providing positive reinforcement while also challenging employees to distribute their high performance. Jon also shares insights into the deliberate and intentional work that must be done before conducting performance conversations. Lastly, Jon explains the creation and implementation of a decision-impact conversation template that employees can initiate with their leaders that allows leaders the opportunity to model the willingness to receive critical feedback around their decisions. Listen now to gain valuable insights and practical strategies on planning for and delivering constructive feedback to achieve positive outcomes.

This episode addresses questions such as:

  • How can feedback conversations be utilized to continue building an emotional bank account?
  • What are specific actions leaders can take to prepare for giving effective constructive feedback?
  • How does the decision-impact conversation template empower employees to initiate feedback conversations with their leaders?

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Episode Transcript

Jon Malone: Giving the chance to have a voice is very engaging to people. And I think it strengthens their emotional commitment that they can have to their work.


[Intro music plays in the background.]

Janet Pilcher: Hello everyone, welcome to today’s Accelerate Your Performance podcast. I’m your host, Janet Pilcher. Thank you for tuning into this week as we focus on leaders and focus on the important outcomes that leaders help organizations achieve. We’ll engage in this work because we want high performing employees to stay with us, be engaged, and be connected.

In last week’s episode, Dr. KK Owen and I discussed the transformative power of positive feedback specifically focusing on Stephen Covey’s idea of building an emotional bank account. We went over the three to one ratio and talked about the importance of being specific, timely, and genuine with our feedback. KK and I also did a role play where we demonstrated the exchange of constructive feedback. If you missed that episode you can find the link in our show notes.

Today I’m excited to welcome back Jon Malone, the director and CEO of the Northwestern Illinois Association, also known as the NIA. The NIA is a regional education cooperative that helps school districts in Illinois provide special education services to their students.

Jon believes the key to providing amazing student service is built on effective leadership and a significant focus on improving customer and employee experience. As a result of his relentless focus for eight years in a row the NIA has earned employee experience results in the 90th to the 100th percentile range when benchmarked alongside other school districts and education service organizations.

We’re glad to have Jon back on the show today and since this is his third time with us, we’ll link to his previous episodes in the show notes as well. Let’s jump into the conversation where Jon and I will talk about the experiences and preparing for and giving constructive feedback to employees as well as how he takes those conversations to the next level.

By listening and hearing how Jon approaches this work you’ll gain a better idea of how to begin to be intentional about incorporating this crucial practice in your own leadership work so that your employees can be successful and your organizations can thrive. We’re excited to have Jon back here on our show today.


Janet Pilcher: It’s with great pleasure that I welcome Jon Malone to our show today, and I can say back to our show. Jon, it’s great to see you and welcome to the show.

Jon Malone: Hey, it’s good to be here. Nice to see you too. Thanks for having me.

Janet Pilcher: Absolutely. Looking forward to- to this topic today that’s a continued carryover from a podcast that episode that Dr. KK Owen and I did last week. And I know you and KK work together as she is your coach. And so you are someone who really applies the tactic that we’re talking about really, really well. So looking forward to our conversation.

So let’s start with really thinking about the three to one ratio and giving constructive feedback.

So, Jon, can you tell me about a time when you utilized the three to one ratio to give constructive feedback? And then how it led to a successful outcome?

Jon Malone: So, yeah, let me give a couple of examples of how I like to use the three to one ratio that are just slightly nuanced. So the first might be when I’m working with someone who is able to demonstrate a skill successfully most of the time or some of the time, but then there’s a little bit of inconsistency. And so I use that three kind of positive reinforcement as a way to get them to connect to when they’re doing the skill right.

And then I use that one to help like point out kind of an instance when they’re not using the skill. So for this example, let’s talk about establishing productive relationships because we know that’s something that is a struggle for all leaders of an organization to make sure that that’s going on well. So maybe I’m working with a colleague who’s able to demonstrate gratitude, support and encouragement with almost all of the team, but they’re really having a struggle with maybe some certain team members.

So I know they have this skill, but I have to somehow get them to transfer that skill. And so I might say to this person, “hey, I really like the way that you solve problems with Person A. And also, let’s talk about how you’re also really successful about solving problems that work with Person B and C. Do you see that? These are great examples of how you’re able to really establish good working relationships. But I want to talk to you about why it’s not going well with Person D. Because in the end, NIA and Person D deserve, you know, your very best consistently. And so, let’s talk about this and try to figure out what you’re doing with this Person A, B and C and what we can bring into the situation with Person D to make that more successful.”

So, you know, in this example, we don’t know why person D is a struggle, and I think that’s just the nature of human beings.

Janet Pilcher: Mmmhmm.

Jon Malone: There will be difficult situations and conflict. But if you can help people understand how they’re successful in one situation, they may be able to apply it in a situation that’s more difficult. So does that make sense?

Janet Pilcher: It does. And you know, sometimes, Jon, as you’re talking, I’m thinking about, I mean, unless you bring it to that person’s attention, they may not even realize the difference. Like, they know that they’re getting along with somebody and probably not someone else. But until you’re- until they have to verbalize, like, “what am I doing when I’m interacting in a positive way with these individuals?” And then, “oh, my gosh, yeah, when I interact with this other individual, I’m not,” right?

And so, I mean, and even though they kind of know that they’re doing something different, they’re not necessarily that aware of their behavior and, you know, what it’s causing as an outcome that’s not positive on the other end. So my guess is the person would be like, “oh, my gosh, yes. You know, I could, I do want to change that.” Or I think, you know, if- if not, then you would learn what’s going on with why they can’t change their behavior with the Person D, right?

Jon Malone: Right. Yeah, it could be, is it there, is it a willfulness? You know, like we say, will, is it will or skill?

Janet Pilcher: Mmmhmm.

Jon Malone: And one of the two, either way in the conversation, something can come out.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah.

Jon Malone: Hopefully that helps. So that’s my first example. And then my second example is when I want to ask a person to improve maybe in kind of a newer area that we haven’t discussed before. It might be one of weakness for them.

And I want to use that three, those three, like positive reinforcements to build kind of that emotional bank account so that when I make the ask for them to do the really tough work of looking at an area that isn’t as strong, that that’s coming from a place where our relationship is has been strengthened because they know I’m willing to find and point out what’s good in them or what they’re skillful at and then offer the critical feedback.

So maybe I’m working with someone and I’m going to say something kind of maybe global, give them some global positive reinforcement. Like “your, your work on projects is really timely and effective and, you know, our agency is better off for it. And I think your commitment to our innovation and accountability standards is at the very highest level. You are a constant learner bringing in new research. And like I said before, you’re just accountable for timelines and you really, you’re good at practicing what you say you will do. But I would like to challenge you to raise the standard of your collaboration by making more of an effort to express your viewpoints in team meetings. And I know that this is kind of a difficult area for you, but we really, really need your input.” So that might be a conversation where—

Janet Pilcher: Yeah.

Jon Malone: —it’s multiple skills that I’m bringing up because I want them to move into a new area of growth that will help our team. So that would be a second example, kind of the emotional bank account.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, and great example, because you’re really putting- you want to put that challenge out there, but if you just put that challenge out there without the positive reinforcement, they, you know, may just say, “oh my gosh, you know, one more thing to do” or “he doesn’t appreciate what I do.” And, you know, I mean, all those, all those things that we hear, but, but it’s, it’s your positioning. It is, it’s, it’s almost saying, Jon, what I hear is, you know, “I’m not asking you to do this because I think you’re doing bad work. I’m asking you to do this because you do good work and I want you to be challenged to even get better.” Right? And that’s the message.

Jon Malone: Yeah, that’s really taking that critical feedback and turning it into almost a compliment if you will, I mean, it’s kind of both.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah.

Jon Malone: And if you’ve got a good, strong, trusting relationship, that’s how it can feel.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, such great examples. So just such a powerful, this, this is truly one of those kind of quote “simple tactics” that we can all practice that have powerful impact and great examples.

So let’s expand a little bit. KK talks about that you’re really skilled in engaging in performance conversations and that you do good pre-work as you engage in those conversations. So, Jon, talk a little bit about the pre-work that you engage in before having those conversations with a leader who’s a high performer and does great work, but you’re asking that person to basically take what they do in high performance and share it with others instead of saying, “I’m just satisfied that I’m a high performer,” but you really want them to expand and reach out with the good work that they do and impact others. Talk a little bit about that.

Jon Malone: Yeah, okay. Well, for all of the people that I evaluate and have performance conversations with, I like to keep a running list of what’s going well. And these are things that the leader either just does really well or parts of projects or work that they’ve been assigned that have gone exceptionally well. And I think those are those bank account builders. And people want to know that you understand what they’re doing well. Usually they know these things. Most people will know these things.

And then I also keep a running list of things that can be improved. And they might be a weak area like I was, you know, used in my example before, or it might be just like a new project or a new area of work that we need to press into.

And I think occasionally those lists include, like you said, asking the leader to distribute their expertise to an area that could benefit from their high performance. So it’s a, you know, a great idea. I mean, even as we teach students, you know, practice one, learn one, do one, teach one kind of, you know, there’s this progression of getting better and better. And of course, you want to take high performers and help them spread that to other people who are who could really benefit from that.

And so maybe for an example, we’ll riff off my last example. Let’s say that you’re really good at contributing your viewpoint in decision making meetings, even when your views are maybe in conflict with others. But we know that that’s helpful in producing the best decisions and best conversations.

So I just might say to them, during their performance conversation, “can you help me make sure that our middle leaders learn to have the right kind of conflict in decision making meetings so that we could generate better ideas and decisions?”

And I usually when I make an ask of a leader to disperse their high performance, I always offer to partner with them in case they might not know where to start. And I just really want to make sure that they have the tools and resources that they need to do the job because sometimes high performers, it comes so- something might come so naturally to them that they really haven’t thought about the skill behind it. And so we might need to talk about how they might go about that. And we might need to reach out to our Studer coach to try to figure out like what is the skill involved.

And I think, you know, just to tie a nice bow around that making sure that they understand when they’re transferring their skills that they’re also using three to one ratio, right?

Janet Pilcher: Yeah.

Jon Malone: [laughs]

Janet Pilcher: That’s right.

Jon Malone: So that when the people they’re working with are, you know, become more skillful, they’re getting that feedback, so.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, that’s good. That’s a great example. And, you know, sometimes, you know, high performers, they want to just continue to do their high performance too, right? You know, they’re like, “Okay, look, I’m doing my I’m doing my work. I’m doing great work. You know, let me just kind of do what I need to do.” And their ability to share what they do with others is really powerful in an organization.

I’ve learned that over the years. Because I’ve tended to leave them alone. And then I’m like, “Yeah, I can’t you, I can’t leave you alone. You’ve got too much good to share and people can learn from you.”And I like what you talked about as part of that learning process is teaching, teaching others, Jon. So really good examples there.

So let’s go into some of the- the tactical things that we teach and that you do well is the “stub your toe” conversation. In other words, when somebody’s not living up to a standard or exhibiting behavior that’s not aligned to what the expectations are. And so it’s you do well with the stub your toe conversation and impact conversations. And KK also talked about you have a third layer that you’ve created, called decision-impact conversation. So talk a little bit about these conversations and- and what you expect from your employees as you’ve developed these.

Jon Malone: They’re all about feedback, right? And they’re, they’re all about modeling the willingness to give and receive feedback, which is just part of that developing, you know, great working relationships inside any system. And so many of the audience will know “stub your toe” and “impact”. Again, so I’ll tell you a little bit about our decision impact script. I think it ties in really nicely because ultimately, it’s a way for leaders to model the willingness to receive critical feedback around their decisions.

And so in a nutshell, it’s pretty obvious the decision impact script is used when anyone wants to communicate the impact of a particular decision on them, like on the teammate. And just like three to one, sometimes the feedback is really, really good. And they just love that decision that you’ve made. But sometimes you’ve had to make or a team has had to make a decision that had a perceived negative impact or- or genuine negative impact on the teammate. And it just happened to be part of the strategy.

And so I think effective leaders always model an openness to people who appropriately share their feedback about the organization and its work. And so when we started to talk about that at NIA, one of the things I had to come to terms with is that not everyone grew up in systems where that was permittable or even safe. And so sometimes people needed support to kind of contribute critical feedback, especially when you’re delivering it to a leader who’s just made a decision. So the decision impact conversation goes like this.

It starts with a positive opening, kind of giving some of that positive reinforcement.

I’ll do one with you, Janet, if that’s okay.

I might say, “Janet, I really appreciate working with you. And I’ve learned so much from you over the years. And I just really love my work with you. But I want to talk to you about one of the decisions that you recently made with a process. And I know that you were trying to improve the process. And I think you probably did for many people, but it took my work on the process from about 10 minutes to about 25 minutes. And again, I understand why you made the decision, but I’m just wondering if the next time that you go through the decision making process, or you improve that process, if you could think about my work in particular, because maybe there’s a way that we could make it better for me. And then I appreciate you for taking the time to listen to me.”

So basically, it’s a positive opening, you describe, you know, the behavior when you made this decision. The result is, this is how it affected me. And then I’m thanking you. So it’s just a nice, appropriate way to share critical feedback around a decision.

And then of course, the data from those conversations really get plugged in as like plus delta in terms of process improvement across your organization. So we know, well, we didn’t win that one—

Janet Pilcher: Yeah.

Jon Malone: —you know, this time, but we could think about it for next time. So, does that makes sense?

Janet Pilcher: Yeah.

Jon Malone: That’s decision-impact.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, I love it- it does. And one of the things that that you did, Jon, is you, you know, what the tendency is when decisions are made, and it has a negative impact on us, we just go to- we just start complaining, right?

Jon Malone: Yeah.

Janet Pilcher: And so this what you’re, you know, what you what you’re doing as the person who could complain is basically saying, you know, here’s how it- the specifics, here’s how it impacted me. And I’d like to work with you so that we could figure out a solution together so that we could figure out a way that- that- that either I could do something or you know, that’s what you’re kind of implying. I could do something, you could do something, or could figure out a different way where everybody could have a winning solution here.

And that I love that part of it, because it’s- it’s not just shifting like “here, you did that, you own it, make it better for me.” But no, we’re gonna, we’re gonna do this, we’re having a conversation because we’re gonna do this together and get to a positive- a more positive impact. Is that- that’s kind of what I heard through that process as well.

Jon Malone: Yeah, and I think with process improvement and decision making, you can’t always go back on your decision, right? But what you can say is “we do all of our work in cycles, you know, we will have another conference, we will make this decision again. And what I can commit to is making sure that your viewpoint is considered at the table next time.”

It might have already been considered. But just giving- giving the chance to have a voice is very engaging to people. And I think it strengthens their emotional commitment that they can have to their work, even when they don’t get their way.

Janet Pilcher: Yes. And you know, in that particular situation, I could test it, too. I could round with other people on-in- very purposefully round on what I could say, “what affected Jon that way, I wonder if it really affected others and they’re just not telling me,” right? And then you—

Jon Malone: Absolutely.

Janet Pilcher: —bring that into the to the fold of the plus delta and saying, is it Jon? Is it isolated to Jon and why? Or is it0 is it a common problem that we didn’t expect to occur? Maybe we had some benefits from it, but we’ve got some under occurrence that we didn’t expect from it.

Jon Malone: Right, right.

Janet Pilcher: So good. And if we you know, if w-  here’s the point, you know, if we don’t- if we don’t proactively like you do, if we don’t proactively engage in these discussions with others, the information is still going on underneath, whether it comes to the surface or not, those feel- in the feelings about things that are occurring are still going on. And then we never really know why- why that’s occurring or why people get to a place where they just get so frustrated.

And so, you know, you being able to really build that culture in that environment where you can have those open and transparent conversations with a very strategic defined way, because I’m sure people know, “here’s what a decision impact conversation is, here’s the way we’ve defined that,” you know, they know it’s not a negative conversation. It’s a positive conversation trying to get to a particular place.

Jon Malone: Yeah, yeah, you’re right. It will- you will have to deal with the impact of your decisions anyway.

Janet Pilcher: Yes.

Jon Malone: So you may as well deal with them in a healthy, open and transparent way and provide people with tools. You know, not everyone needs a script to have these kind of conversations. But if you provide everyone with that, you’re telegraphing that you’re open to this kind of communication.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, that’s good. And back to your consistency of practice and leadership practices and building that consistent approach. So good, Jon. So good, good examples. And you can just see how you’re, you know, you become really a natural at being able to engage- you engage in the conversations, you’re building a team who they can engage in the conversations. And that’s what’s changed your culture.

Because when you, you know, as we know, when you look at your survey results across support, you are topping out at some of our highest survey results. And it doesn’t just happen because you wish it to happen. It happens because you’ve been intentional about some of the things- some of the actions that we’ve talked about today. So so appreciative of what you do. And I know the people who work with you each and every day and those you serve are as well. So thanks for being with us.

Jon Malone: Hey, thank you for having me. And I appreciate all of the support that I have received from you and Studer Education, so.

Janet Pilcher: Thank you.



[Outro music plays in the background.]

Janet Pilcher: I hope you enjoyed this episode with Jon and our deep dive into the importance and necessity of constructive feedback. If you did, please share this episode with a friend or colleague or let us know by leaving a review on Apple podcasts.

And as always, I thank you for tuning into this episode of Accelerate Your Performance. I look forward to connecting with you next time as we continue to focus on the nine principles framework so that we can be our best at work. Have a great week, everyone.

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If you enjoy the podcast, explore Janet’s latest book, Hardwiring Excellence in Education. Each chapter focuses on the Nine Principles® Framework offering tools and tactics to enhance leadership skills and elevate organizational performance.

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