In the recent column How're We Doing? No, Really, I mentioned an executive who asked "How do I integrate effective, casual, and simply more feedback into the daily rhythm of my organization?”
Let’s assume you want more feedback for all the right reasons – you’re looking to continuously learn, and to help you organization do the same. And let’s also assume you’re willing to lead by example. Then there are only two questions left: What do you say, and how do you say it? Here’s how to get started.
Approach Feedback as a Form of Helping
We all need help, and we all know it’s not that simple, because the person providing help assumes a more powerful status position to the person receiving help. This imbalance creates all sorts of inter-personal issues, from potentially abusing the responsibility of a higher status position, to being unwilling to ask for help because of the vulnerability associated with a position of lower status. A leader of a team, organization, or company must understand this complex relationship if he or she wants open, honest, and effective communication. (Edgar Schein, an organizational psychologist who is credited with coining the term “corporate culture,” writes movingly about this dynamic in his book, “Helping.”)
Ask for Feedback by Asking for Help
Rather than make a big deal of announcing that you want “more feedback,” try simply asking different people to provide their observations about how they perceive you in certain situations. Be specific and concrete, and lower your guard by thinking about what would really help you – what you most want to know.
Instead of asking, “How was that?” after a presentation, ask one of your direct reports, “What did I say about our strategy that you think will be our greatest challenge to implement?” Or, “I know I’m asking a lot of the team this quarter. What could I have done better to emphasize the necessity of this push?” By lowering your guard a little--without making an announcement about it--you can start to influence the informal conversations on feedback. You do this by becoming the test subject.
Offer Feedback as a Question, Not as Advice
While advice has its proper time and place, it is not useful for the leader trying to create more informal feedback to help people learn.
Instead, offer feedback as another lens into a situation – by observing a direct report or colleague with an eye towards helping them see a different view of how they behaved, or were received, in a meeting, presentation, or exchange.
For example, after a challenging client meeting in which your VP of Sales made a presentation, consider providing feedback on what you observed the client doing; how the clients subtly reacted; what you noticed about your VP when the meeting became tense.
As feedback, ask the VP, “What did you notice that most engaged the client?” or, “When things got tense, how do you think your presentation (or bearing) changed? Asking specific, concrete questions can help provide a perspective that may have gone unnoticed. You’ll get a much better conversation going this way than if you simply state, “This is what you should do differently next time.” By asking questions, you give your VP a chance to think about the experience, ask questions of you as the boss, and make some personal observations about what could have made it better.
While formal feedback is an important element of structured performance review, it’s not going to help you get more feedback into the organization. For that, you need to skip the advice, and ask plenty of questions.