Feedback is a gift

Feedback is a gift. Sometimes it’s the sort of thing where you wonder if a person is blowing smoke up your nether parts, but often it’s a lot harder to digest because it’s not what you want to hear and, on some level, you know it’s valid. That’s when things get interesting.
Even if a gift, feedback is usually as stressful for the giver as it is for the receiver. I’d argue it’s more difficult for the giver because they need to take the initiative and deliver the goods. The receiver’s job is not only to listen, but to hear. It’s another from of the dance I explored in my previous posting on leadership.

I’ve worked at firms that touted how they embraced feedback. One company sent all executives to a remote resort, one at a time, to go through multi-day workshops. Up in front of a group of people in similar roles at other companies, we received anonymous feedback from our peers and reports, and specific feedback from our supervisors. It was intriguing, at times frightening, but also liberating: there you are, being faced with very real criticism, in a group of total strangers. And you have to deal with it. No prevaricating, no rationalizing. No hiding. Cool. Even better, the group proceeded to work together to help each attendee find tools they could use to improve themselves and the relationships they’d built in their office.

Feedback is normally accompanied by a certain level of stigma: criticism is bad, isn’t it? For something like two decades, I’ve advocated a working environment where honest feedback is so common that the fangs are pulled, and it becomes just another source of input to help one improve. Artistic people generally have the edge here: they swim in an ocean of criticism, where ideas, concepts, deliverables and even job interviews involve critique sessions where other artists freely, even aggressively, call out the good and bad. Everyone survives, and the sun rises tomorrow.  For technology groups, the stigma is especially difficult to overcome, as they rarely get close to this level of critique. Code  and project reviews generally keep to “the aspects of the project”, not “your stuff”. So skins are thinner, the impulse to retreat much closer to the surface. The learning/adaptive/acceptance curve is longer, but the desire is the same: people really do want to know how they’re doing, especially from people they respect.

Let’s face it: embracing feedback is hard. The natural tendency of management is to place the burden of feedback on their reports: “why aren’t you giving us feedback about how we’re doing?” “How can we make the company better if you don’t tell us things?” “I know I’m busy, but make an appointment with me.”  It’s distressingly common for management to fail to appreciate power differentials: people in power are intimidating. If you’re not one of “them”, “they” can make your life miserable, or even end your career. The reality is that feedback requires an open door, a safe space, an environment of trust – and it is the responsibility of leadership to create that space and open that door. I make sure that my team members can approach me with anything – even if it’s criticism about the way I’m doing my job. And they know that, if there are issues surrounding them, they’ll hear it from me first. And we’ll work it out.

Someday a leadership team will get creative, and hold a company-wide meeting where the only slide in the inescapable Powerpoint deck is one that reads:

We’re listening.

You need us to actually hear what you’re telling us, and you need to feel safe about it. And you need a reason to believe that we’re actually going to use your feedback to make ourselves, you, and by extension our company, better.

We’re on it.

Which brings us to review time. A stressful period, replete with deep concerns about trust and just plain survival. If I say what I really mean, will I expose myself to repercussion? Will I be labeled as a complainer? Are my leaders actually listening? This last concern is, for me, the most dangerous, the most insidious: If the people in a company become convinced that their leadership doesn’t listen to feedback, don’t see tangible changes from feedback, feedback ends, along with trust in and respect for the people in charge. I put a lot of effort into ensuring that nothing at review time is a surprise. If one of my reports is caught off guard by my evaluation at feedback time, I’ve failed, because I haven’t sustained the level of communication with that person that (a) keeps them from being blind-sided at review time and (b) keeps them supplied with what they need to constantly grow, improve and advance.

A surprise at review time means I haven’t been listening.

I’ve considered a radical solution to this: perhaps the feedback for a manager should be collected after they have delivered their review sessions to all of their reports. Call it the “response model”. It involves a certain amount of risk, and objective third parties should be looped in. But if a manager’s team members are getting ambushed in their reviews, that manager should be accountable for that.

Then there are times when you find yourself delivering a review that takes the form of something like “You rocked it, you grew, feedback across the board was beyond positive. Awesome job, all year.”

If I did my job, the feedback won’t be a surprise to anyone.

Leadership and followship

In the original Dune by Frank Herbert, the main character Paul recounts being questioned about leadership:

She asked me to tell her what it is to rule, and I said that one commands. And she said I had some unlearning to do.

I’ve taught sea kayaking on and off for quite a while, including something called “Leadership Workshops”, a series of one-evening seminars followed by the main event: a six-day expedition off the coast of British Columbia, each day being led by a different team of two students. From before sunrise until dinner, that team was responsible for knowing the weather, the route, the tides and currents. It was their job to get everyone up, fed, packed and launched, then guide the group to the evening’s destination, ensuring everyone was safely arrived and properly settled.

Each evening, over a group dinner, we would discuss how the day went, providing feedback and context, sharing lessons learned. This was an especially interesting exercise, as each day’s newly-minted leaders had no cred with the group, and had no time to earn it – the rest of the group was asked to reserve judgment on the leaders until the dinner debriefing session, which can be a very hard ask. While the trip was designed to surface and discuss leadership challenges (and it certainly did), followship, or lack of it, frequently made the difference between a successful day and a ten-hour rolling conflict.

Project teams can reach this point as well, where everyone can practically read each others’ minds, the concept feels equally shared, the goals clear, the progress exhilarating. A tight team can sense when a strong leader is on a roll  – but even a strong leader can be diverted by an intractable team member. We spend a lot of time defining what makes a good leader, and rewarding those who meet those challenges. We spend considerably less time identifying and rewarding those members of a team who, by demonstrating great followship, help create an environment within which the leader can be even more effective and the team more successful.

At one point I decided to learn ballroom dancing, and eventually experienced the conversation that is constant, subtle and sublime when two people are in the groove. But as everyone in a beginner class discovers quickly, you cannot both lead. Our instructors, Walter and Nancyanna, would explain the roles in this way: “The job of the lead is to be clear and consistent. The job of the follow is to respond gracefully and maintain impeccable rhythm.”