“My Bucket Has A Hole In It”

Holes-in-Bucket-of-Water-PhEach of us has a bucket located in our heart and whenever we receive any type of feedback it goes in our bucket.  I’ve taught the metaphor of the feedback bucket to thousands of people around the country.  Perhaps because it’s so simple, or because of the catchy name, but for whatever reason, it helps people grasp the importance of the feedback with give and receive in our interactions with others.  Picture your feedback bucket and imagine all types of feedback you receive each day going into your bucket. The problem is that we have holes in our buckets, which cause the feedback to leak out over time.  If there are a lot of holes, or if some are large, the feedback leaks out quickly.  If a person’s bucket doesn’t have many holes, or if they are just pinpricks, the feedback leaks out slowly.  Remember, we all have a bucket and every bucket has some holes in it.

Who put the holes in your bucket?  The answer is complex, but stated simply they came from both internal and external sources.  You probably drilled a few yourself through careless actions and others came from parents, family, friends, associates, and your present and former bosses. Because our lives constantly change, the holes in our feedback buckets are in a state of flux. Holes come, and holes go, but some are always there.

How does an employee behave when his or her feedback bucket is empty?  How would that same employee behave if his or her bucket had a few deposits of feedback?  The response I get to these questions from retail managers is surprisingly consistent.  And I’ll bet you probably know some of the answers. But before we get to that, first keep in mind that people suffer great pain when their bucket is empty.  Feedback deprivation is one of the most psychologically painful experiences a person can have.  In fact, mentally healthy people will go to extraordinary measures to ensure that their bucket doesn’t run dry.

Consider that people don’t consciously know when their bucket is empty.  It’s something we can’t recognize because most of us don’t understand it.  It is a feeling or an emotion; and being able to pinpoint emotions is difficult for most people.

Even if a person knew that his or her “bucket gauge” was on empty, it’s highly unlikely that the person would ask for feedback from others–especially men, because it would show weakness.  If women are the better communicators, like some people say, and if they are more intuitive, again like some experts say, then maybe women would be better suited to know when their bucket was empty, and maybe they might be more able to ask for help.

So how can you know if one of your employee’s feedback bucket is running low?  Typically, a problem with inadequate feedback will show up in one or more of six ways.

1. A person’s work performance (quantity and quality of work) is quite often directly related to the amount of feedback in his or her bucket.  It doesn’t mean that a person will stop working when their bucket’s empty, but sustained performance over time requires at least some feedback in the bucket.  So if you see an employee’s performance beginning to erode try stepping up your feedback to that person.

2. The ability to get along peaceably with co¬workers and even work effectively as a team is also directly related to how much feedback those people recently received.  Workers are less likely to demonstrate patience, cooperation, understanding or tolerance when their feedback buckets are empty, or even near empty.  So when you want a group of employees to become a team of employees, be sure that your feedback to them is frequent and positive.

3. Employees with empty buckets are prone to be followers, rather than take the initiative to be leaders.  Followers wait for things to happen, while leaders take the initiative and make things happen.  That’s because followers don’t feel as though it’s their job.  Decision–making is an integral part of demonstrating initiative.  Why make the effort to take a risk and make a decision if it’s not your job in the first place?  So if you see employees lacking in initiative, step up your feedback.

4. People suffering from feedback deprivation commonly engage in destructive communication and people whose buckets are fairly full frequently engage in constructive communication.  The simple cause of complaining, griping and back-biting, especially in the break room, may be nothing more than a number of employees who have been ignored too long and their buckets are running on empty.  So when you become aware of destructive communication, step up your feedback.

5. Each day most of us make a decision to either get up and go to work, or roll over and go back to sleep.  Part of that decision is centered on how much feedback we have received recently.  A fair portion of time and attendance issues, such as being late or absent, could he prevented if managers invested more time in giving appropriate feedback to employees.

6. A few years ago a group of Outback restaurants implemented a program to reduce turnover among part¬-time employees.  Each member of management was required to do three things each day to every part-time employee.  They were to look the employee in the eye, use his or her first name, and ask a question about how their day was going.  So to a part-time employee who was a student and worked the evening shift the comment might be, “Ann, how was your day at school?”  Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But within six months Outback had slashed part-time employee turnover in those restaurants by a whopping 50 percent! How important is feedback? Ask those employees.

So what can you do as a manager to make deposits in employees’ buckets and to even plug up a few holes? There are four easy, but important strategies you might consider.

1. The quantity of feedback you give someone is important, but the quality is even more important.  An idle comment may be welcome, but a question about how your midterm exam went yesterday could be a huge deposit.  How much do you really know about your employees?  Do you know how they spend their spare time?  Do you know their hobbies? Are you concerned about them as an important part of your team?  Take a few minutes and find out.  And then fill a bucket!

2. Employees who receive appropriate and timely praise and recognition for their contributions to the company feel better about themselves.  Feelings of being valuable and a contributor to the company can plug a few holes.  Many books have been written about how to recognize employees, but the regrettable truth is that few managers consistently use the principle of praise and recognition appropriately.  Look for both individual and group achievement and then make a fuss, and do it where a number of people can hear.

3. The third tactic to plug holes and make feedback deposits is to celebrate achievements.  Too often managers believe that results are to be expected.  It’s why we give you a paycheck, so we don’t need to celebrate individual successes.  However, if you don’t pay attention to individual and group achievements, you’ll never know who crosses the finish line.  Work at knowing who is achieving and then celebrate those achievements with your employees.

4. The extent to which any employee embraces changes to operating procedures or organizational structure is directly related to how much feedback that employee has been given regarding why the changes are necessary.  Remember, feedback is a two way street.  It doesn’t just flow from the manager to the employee.  It needs to flow from the employee to the manager too.  When employees are asked for their feedback regarding potential changes, they are much more likely to embrace the change after it is implemented.  Ensure that feedback flows in both directions.

In this article we’ve looked at the feedback bucket.  I like the metaphor because its uniqueness is so memorable to my students.  Take a serious look at your employees this month and determine which buckets are running too low.  Then, make some major deposits in those buckets.  Use the techniques in this article.  You’ll like the results.

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About the Author

Richard Williams, Ph.D.

Dr. Richard L. Williams has been a business consultant for over 40 years and has conducted more than 5,000 workshops to more than 350,000 managers and executives. Rick’s interests include maximizing human performance, team building, leadership development, executive coaching, process improvement, and instrumentation research and design. Rick has experience in working with a wide range of industries globally.