As indicated by professors DeNisi and Kluger in an Academy of Management Executive article, one of the most widely accepted principles in psychology is the positive effect that feedback has on performance. Despite this convincing principle, our experience suggests that one of the most challenging aspects of building a great leadership team is the inability of team members to give and receive feedback.
For a leadership team to improve it must first determine what’s getting in its way and then identify commitments to address any gaps. By default, once these commitments have been pronounced, team members have made themselves accountable to each other; and feedback is required to reinforce the accountability. This all sounds logical and most leadership teams start out with great intentions but they often struggle to hold each other accountable.
There are a number of reasons why establishing a feedback and accountability rich environment is so difficult. To begin with, in many organizations there is an unwritten rule that it is the bosses job to give feedback and “not my place to criticize my teammates.” In her HBR Guide to Leading Teams Mary Shapiro suggests just the opposite – “leaders can’t hold everyone accountable because they can’t possibly observe everything.” She also suggests that “if leaders are the only one praising or critiquing, team dynamics will suffer.”
“Leaders must actively model giving and receiving feedback and encourage team members to do the same.”
Another reason leadership teams struggle with feedback relates to its association with conflict and the potential discomfort of commenting on the performance of colleagues or a boss. Helping leadership teams recognize the positive side of conflict and discomfort can help teams break through this apprehension. As Jim Collins wrote in Good to Great, “phrases like ‘loud debate’, ‘heated discussions’ and ‘healthy conflict’ peppered the articles and transcripts from all GTG companies.”
Perhaps the most pervasive reason why giving feedback can be so difficult is that many leaders are not very good at receiving feedback and can become defensive, defeated, or angry. There is no doubt that building trust and clarifying expectations will help, but leaders also need to develop the fortitude and skill for being good feedback receivers.
So what can leadership teams do to establish an environment where feedback and accountability can thrive?
Model: Leaders must actively model giving and receiving feedback and encourage team members to do the same. In a recent HBR article Ron Carucci suggests that if leaders want to understand how others genuinely perceive them they should practice the following – (i) ask teammates to push back; (ii) read non-verbal cues; (iii) don’t rationalize; and (iv) know your triggers and encourage others to call you out on them.
Build Deeper Relationships: Taking time for team members to get to know each other at a level beyond the behaviors they see from each other everyday is another important contributor to helping feedback become more natural. Team members come from different life and work experiences and these shape how they see the world and ultimately how they behave. When team members gain insights into what motivates their colleagues they can nuance how they provide feedback or better understand how feedback is being provided.
Commitments: Creating an intentional approach for establishing team and individual commitments can provide a foundation for leadership teams to practice and improve how they give and receive feedback. There are two important parts to the commitment making process – the pronouncement of a pledge followed by a request for teammates to provide feedback when “I struggle to live up to the commitment.”
Principles: Openly discussing and then practicing proven principles can strengthen a leadership team’s capacity to give and receive feedback.
§ Anticipate reaction of receiver
§ Set a constructive tone
§ Be forward looking
§ Be respectful and direct
§ Be curious and actively listen
§ Deliver in a timely manner
§ Be open to others’ perspectives
§ Be curious and listen actively
§ Focus on what you are hearing; not what you are saying
§ Be respectful and direct
§ Demonstrate appreciation
All leadership teams will struggle at times but truly great teams are resilient and recognize that the rewards of a rich feedback and accountability environment can be dramatic — reducing churn on the same issues, improving the efficiency of decision making, strengthening team member relationships, and modeling feedback and accountability for the rest of the organization.