As a full-time professional executive coach one of the recurring themes for my coachees is the need for them to have uncomfortable conversations with team members about their performance. I often wonder if leaders spent more time creating an effective feedback culture, processes and dialogue their need to have uncomfortable conversations would significantly reduce. In this blog I outline the benefits of feedback and explain actions you can take create a feedback-rich culture within your team.
Communication plays a critical role in building successful teams. Leadership consultants Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston, in “Simple Habits for Complex Times” are clear that giving and receiving performance feedback is a specific communication skill that for many “is one of the most stressful parts of the job”. Yet delivering performance feedback is crucial to developing a high performing team.
Are you a high performing team?
The most obvious benefit of feedback is that it enables the person to adjust or correct their performance. Think of it as a feedback loop: perform an action and receive information on the impact of that action.
A sporting example is an endurance athlete such as a runner or cyclist: by using a heart rate monitor and wrist watch they can receive feedback relating to their current performance such as heart rate, cadence and pace. This information allows them to adjust their effort so they can perform at their peak. In business typical feedback loops include metrics including financial targets, productivity, quality, market share, customer satisfaction, process and behaviours.
Effective feedback builds trust, engagement and motivation
“creating a feedback-rich, safe-to-learn organisation is the first thing for a team to get right.”
Jennifer Garvey Berger & Keith Johnston in “Simple Habits for Complex Times”
Constantly giving and receiving high quality feedback is a great way to build trust. Sandy Pentland, director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, studied group dynamics that characterise high-performing teams—“those blessed with the energy, creativity, and shared commitment to far surpass other teams”. Over seven years his teams measured the communication patterns of about 2,500 people in 21 organisations for up to six weeks at a time. In his article “The New Science of Building Great Teams” (HBR, 2012) he stated the more members of a team involved in giving feedback led to greater engagement. He also concluded that having the whole team involved in giving and receiving performance feedback increases motivation.
Reading Sandy’s article reminded me of my time working in Brazil with an international consulting firm. When I was reviewing a team members file one day I was so impressed with the quality of work I wrote him a brief note. I found out a few days later that he had resigned and when I next saw him he thanked me profusely for my note, saying “If I’d known what I did was appreciated I wouldn’t have started looking for another job”. I learnt from this that taking the time to give honest feedback shows you care; and that lack of feedback can lead to losing valuable, talented people.
Quality feedback fosters creativity and innovation
Seeing opportunities to be creative and innovative where others see problems to be fixed is one of the hallmarks of a high-performing team. Pentland’s study also showed that “the best-performing and most creative teams sought fresh perspectives constantly from all other groups in (and some outside) the organisation.” Getting other perspectives is another form of receiving feedback.
Summary of benefits of high-quality feedback loops in your team
- Improve team performance
- Build trust, engagement and motivation amongst your team
- Foster creativity and innovation
Actions you can take to provide high-quality feedback for your team
The following are suggestions and questions you might like to consider when you think about how to provide feedback within your team.
Adopt a feedback mindset to help get the most learning from your team
Choose your mindset
What type of attitude do you have around feedback? Do you see team members who aren’t performing as problems; do you think you have all the answers and know exactly what they need to do to improve their performance? It’s very hard to change someone else’s behaviour and you may not always have the full story. Would you be able to go into feedback conversations with the mindset of “what do I have to learn here to become a better leader”? At the end of the day, the most important outcome from a performance feedback conversation is that the parties involved learn and apply that learning to improve their performance.
If you reflect on your own mindset around feedback how would you answer these questions:
- Do you you need to change how you deliver feedback?
- Do you do most of the talking at meetings?
- Do you dominate, cut-off or ignore feedback from your team?
Have a team mindset discussion
Having a mindset discussion with your team can help develop the trust to strive to constantly give and receive high-quality feedback. How would your team respond to these questions:
- Can our team agree that the intention of feedback is to focus on opportunities rather than problems; on strengths rather than weaknesses?
- Would we be willing to have a team agreement that anyone can give feedback, because its seen as an opportunity to improve processes and results?
- Is our team comfortable holding each other accountable for their commitments?
- In order to foster creativity and innovation our team needs to be open to a multitude of perspectives – how open are we to pro-actively seeking feedback from outside our team?
Provide relevant, timely performance information that team members can easily access
Fast & accurate feedback
The ideal would be to give your team the equivalent of a runner’s heart rate monitor so they know in real-time how they’re performing. What’s the equivalent of this for your team so they can self-correct and adjust their performance? Are there management reports that you can share with your team? Can you have key team performance metrics freely accessible on the intranet? If you can work out how to do this it can save you valuable time and demonstrates your trust in the team. The traditional practice of annual, six-monthly or quarterly performance reviews runs the risk of providing feedback too late for it to be useful – in some cases it can be demotivating and feel like criticism if the task has finished.
Be prepared to adapt your feedback style for individual team members
Close the feedback loop!
Team members ability to take on perspectives other than their own can impact how they respond to feedback. It’s helpful to remember to use ‘different strokes for different folks’, and experiment with different types of feedback for different individuals. Post-feedback learning will only occur if they ‘hear’ your feedback.
You will feel more comfortable giving and receiving high-quality feedback if you practice
Giving and receiving performance feedback doesn’t come naturally, it’s a skill and, like any skill, mastery comes with dedicated practice.
Creating opportunities to give and receive regular feedback is the best way to get this practice. Seek advice and support as you experiment with developing your team’s feedback processes. If you’re a reader I recommend Jennifer Garvey Berger & Keith Johnston’s 2015 book “Simple Habits for Complex Times” for ideas on developing your feedback skills and other leadership habits.
High-quality feedback given and received during or immediately after performance enables you and your team to learn. Focussing on developing this aspect of your leadership is an effective and productive use of your time. Developing this skill doesn’t come naturally and will draw on your reserves of persistence and patience. To help you get started I’ve summarised actions you can take to improve your team feedback in the adjacent table.
The benefits of improving your team’s performance; building trust, engagement and motivation; and fostering creativity and innovation amongst your team will be immensely satisfying for you, both professionally and personally.
“We are relational beings that thrive on honest feedback”
Frederic Laloux in “Reinventing Organizations”