A Stanford MBA I know who's managing at a large tech company wants to encourage her team to give and receive feedback more effectively, and she asked for my advice.
Leaders need to bear in mind four principles when it comes to promoting feedback (and better communication in general):
We all need to feel a sense of safety, trust and intimacy before we're ready to give and receive truly candid feedback. As leaders we need to foster the development of these qualities at every step of the way in the process of promoting fuller communication. Note that this does not mean avoiding confrontation or only offering support and comfort. It does mean being highly attuned to people's readiness for a challenge and their emotional state in a given interaction. Only keen attention and deep empathy will allow us to know when sufficient safety exists, and then we can take some risks to support learning and growth.
We often think that "better feedback" really means "honest criticism," but that's just half the story. The other half is providing truly meaningful positive feedback, which is all too often absent in most organizations. You can't have one without the other, but so many obstacles prevent us from offering and accepting positive feedback. We worry it will sound insincere. We worry it is insincere. We worry it will will make us look like suckups. We worry it will make us seem weak. And since we don't do it very often, we're not very good at it. But as psychologist John Gottman has noted in his study of long-term relationships, in the most successful ones the ratio of positive to negative interactions is 5:1. So we need to start practicing.
Trainings and workshops can create space for people to be open to new ideas and experiment with new ways of communicating, but the next day everyone goes back to the real world. You have to integrate the behaviors you want into your team's daily routines in order to normalize those behaviors within the organization's culture. If "feedback" is something out-of-the-ordinary that only happens at unusual times (such as a performance review, or when something's gone wrong), it'll never really be an organic part of the organizational culture. It has to show up in everyday life--on a walk down the hallway, at the end of a meeting, over a cup of coffee.
4. Personal Accountability
As leaders who want to promote a feedback-rich culture, we have to walk the talk every day. Our teams will take their cues from us as to what's acceptable, and if we don't take some risks in this area, they never will. Why should they? This doesn't mean we're going to get it right all the time--if we're taking some meaningful risks, then by definition we'll make some mistakes. The key is to fail forward and view those mistakes as essential learning opportunities. Let those around us know that we trying to get better at this, too, and ask for their input on how we're doing.
More resources on feedback and communication:
- Give It To Me Straight (Effective Feedback)
- High-Performance Communication (1)
- High-Performance Communication (2)
- Risk Management (The Importance of Speaking Up)
- Setting the Table (Difficult Conversations)
Photo by Ana Karenina. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.