Giving and receiving feedback is tough and uncomfortable. That’s why most leaders and their teams don’t do it very well.
When my peers from The Table Group and I work with teams, we do an assessment, cleverly named “The Team Assessment.” It is based on Patrick Lencioni’s most well-known, best-selling book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.
Almost without exception, the lowest score for a team the first time we work with them concerns that fourth dysfunction: Avoidance of Accountability. And giving and receiving feedback fits squarely in that category.
That practice is so important, in fact, that at the end of our first offsite with executive teams, we often lead an exercise called Team Effectiveness. In this exercise, everyone on a team shares, in front of the group, one specific behavioral item each person does well that they should keep doing, followed by one specific behavior they could improve upon. The exercise is raw and a bit uncomfortable because most of us are not used to giving honest, direct feedback to one another, especially in front of a group.
Why is giving and receiving feedback so difficult for us as leaders? We know we need to do it, that our people deserve it, and that regular, direct feedback will make the team better. In fact, if we think about the best teams we have ever been a part of, in most instances, the team was marked by honest and direct feedback, both when things went well and when they didn’t.
If giving feedback is a challenge for you as a leader, you are not alone. In my work and conversations with leaders, I often hear that mistakes concerning feedback—both positive and negative—are common.
One of my clients, the CEO of a technology company, was challenged with giving recognition. Knowing the importance of positive feedback, he and his team decided to take action during an offsite. They immediately called a key employee on the speaker phone and shared their appreciation. The call took about three minutes, had a real impact on the employee, and made them realize how simple yet meaningful a small act of recognition can be.
Afterward, the CEO said: “My leaders throughout the company—and it starts with me—need to take ownership and personal responsibility to make sure this is a company that recognizes great work, gives feedback when things go well, and celebrates our successes.” Feedback is also critical when things don’t go well.
Another client, a retired technology executive who has done lots of work with his team on organizational health, knows the importance of offering critical feedback when performance or behavior is not acceptable. Early in his career, as the VP of worldwide operations at a multi-national company, he was sitting in a meeting with several other senior executives and the company plant managers. He explains:
“I saw that the managers were sheltering the executives from the truth of how the business was running. This was helping no one, and this behavior was inhibiting the company from achieving its goals.
“As one particular plant manager told his fable regarding his area, I challenged him immediately. This had not been a common practice at the company before my arrival, and the feedback–especially the public nature of the feedback–was embarrassing to him.
“He called me afterwards, quite angry, and asked that I not do that again. I explained that if we were to become a high-performing organization, our culture would have to embrace direct, honest feedback up and down the organization.” No one said feedback was easy, but great leaders understand that it is imperative to a healthy organization.
As important as giving feedback is to the success of an organization, asking for feedback is just as important and is another characteristic of a great leader. Failing to do this is another common mistake that leaders make. Not only is a certain comfort with feedback a great demonstration of humility, but it also demonstrates the need for continuous improvement and sets a tone for leaders and employees across the organization that everyone can improve/get better.
Here are some questions leaders can ask themselves to assess their success as well as areas for improvement in giving and solicit feedback:
• Would my team would say I am good at providing recognition for a job well done?
• Would my team say I am good at giving honest and direct feedback when things could improve?
• Would my team say I am good giving immediate feedback?
• Would my team say I am good at being open to unsolicited feedback from the team?
• Would my team say I am good at soliciting feedback from the team and acting upon it?
As leaders, it is critical that we provide honest and direct feedback, sometimes publicly and at other times privately, when things go right and when they go wrong. As leaders, we must also insist our people give one another clear, candid feedback and perhaps most importantly, be willing to solicit feedback ourselves. Lots of leaders talk about feedback; few do it well, yet your organization’s health depends on it.
Adapted from Rookie Mistakes: Advice from Top Executives on 5 Critical Leadership Errors by Mike McHargue.