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How're We Doing? No, Really

Entrepreneurship can be a lonely business, so it's important to get lots of feedback from customers and employees. But what kind of feedback do you really want, and how do you get it?

I was recently asked to help get effective, casual, and simply more feedback into the daily rhythm of a fast-growing technology company. This is a timely question: With the start of a new year, organizations are conducting annual reviews, which are generally the big kahuna of feedback. Too often, these reviews are the only substantive feedback most employees receive.

But no one gets it right the first time, all the time, which is why the process of giving and receiving feedback needs to be embedded in the practice of leadership—and to be more than a once-a-year event.  Unfortunately, giving and receiving feedback can be tough for many leaders. Some of the reasons for this include:

  • Reluctance to criticize another person, or to be seen as doing so
  • The emotional vulnerability that accompanies an openness to feedback
  • The power dynamic of a boss evaluating a subordinate, or even of peers evaluating each other
  • The politics of saying that one perspective is ‘right’ and another ‘wrong.’

In order to influence the process, and to make feedback a healthy part of a functioning organization, a leader must first ask a series of questions. 

  • What do I want to accomplish with feedback? At its highest level, feedback is a tool for learning; at its lowest, feedback is punitive and unproductive.  Where do you want your organization to be in this range?  A “learning organization” – one that actively engages in the process of learning how to continually improve itself – will be familiar and comfortable with many forms of feedback, and will probably be eager to try new variations.  However, an organization that highlights and punishes mistakes (which are, after all, a vital element of learning) will use feedback as a sort of weapon.
  • If I want my people to learn, what exactly do I want them to learn? Are you expecting people to learn in giant steps and be transformed, or do you approach learning as a process of incremental progress?  Are you looking for people to develop deep subject matter expertise, or a breadth of skills?  How realistic are your expectations given the supporting organization? An organization that demands constant change and “reinvention” of its people must ask how it proposes to support this continual learning.  And if there is no learning, there will be no meaningful change.
  • Before I ask this of others, how do I learn?  And how do I show this? What do you do to improve your leadership skills, and who in the organization knows about these efforts?  If you want to promote learning in your company, and don’t model the process, you miss a tremendous opportunity to lead by example.  Some leaders talk about “others” learning—as it applies to their employees--and exclude themselves from the practice. Obviously, that’s not the best standard to set.
  • Who do you I ask for feedback and how?  And how do I react to feedback? Do you genuinely ask, with the intent of reflecting on the conversation, or do you ask in a cursory manner?  Often, a leader can ask for feedback about a topic or situation, listen carefully, thank the person for providing their perspective, and decide later what to do with the specifics.  This approach is effective for leaders seeking feedback, and for organizations looking to increase informal feedback as a means of continual and incremental learning.

By first looking inward, leaders can determine how they want to engage in feedback and learning for healthier leadership and healthier organizations. In the second part of this series on feedback, I’ll focus specifically on what to say and how to say it.

Last updated: Jan 24, 2012

BRIAN EVJE | Columnist | Management Consultant, Slalom Consulting

Brian Evje helps people and organizations lead change and growth. This involves a process consultation approach to leadership (coaching and development), change (organization and culture), and organizational health (strategy, design, effectiveness, and fitness.) Brian is a Principal of Equipoise Alliance, an organizational consultancy, a Member of The Change Leaders, and an Executive-in-Residence at Astia, a global not-for-profit propelling women's full participation as entrepreneurs and leaders in high-growth businesses. He is a graduate of Santa Clara University, and the Master's program Consulting and Coaching for Change at HEC School of Management, Paris/Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.

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