I have been working with most members of my leadership team for more than five years -- since before I started my current company, Peak Support. But we recently did an exercise that helped us get to know each other better than ever -- and helped us all become more effective leaders.

We call it a Feedback Circle. We didn't invent it (one member of our leadership team learned about it in business school). But I'd never heard of it before, which was surprising, given how simple -- and powerful -- it was for our team.   

Here's how it worked. We set aside two two-hour sessions for the activity. Each person prepared feedback -- both positive and constructive -- for every other member of the group. During the session, we took turns receiving feedback. Each participant received all of their feedback, from everyone in the group, at the same time. The feedback receiver was asked not to respond, argue, or explain anything, but just to listen and absorb.

The feedback was incredibly valuable. I learned that I have a tendency to interrupt members of team, which I never knew. But more importantly, the activity broke down barriers and enabled us to continue providing feedback to each other on a regular basis, in real time. Now, when I interrupt inappropriately, my team feels free to point it out.

It has also driven us to improve our feedback culture throughout the organization. We have always been good at providing coaching around performance issues. We have high expectations, and we quickly identify and coach team members who aren't meeting their targets. But we hadn't established an expectation that team leads would provide regular feedback to all of their direct reports, even high performers. We are now laying out guidelines for how all of our managers should think about coaching and providing feedback to their teams in an ongoing way.

I recommend the Feedback Circle for any team that works closely together, whether they are managers or not. If you're interested in conducting a Feedback Circle, here are four things to keep in mind:

Find a facilitator.

The facilitator does not insert her own opinion or provide any coaching. Her role is simply to choose whose turn it is to talk next, and to make sure all participants follow the ground rules. Ideally, you want a facilitator who is external to the team, or even external to the company. However, we chose one member of our senior team to facilitate, even though she participated in the exercise as well. Because the facilitator's role is so limited, this didn't create any conflicts of interest.

Lay out ground rules.

Each feedback giver must provide both positive and constructive feedback. But this is not an opportunity to rehash old grudges or ding a teammate's reputation. Rather, it's an opportunity for the whole team to work together to improve its collective performance. Think of each piece of feedback as a gift -- not a chance to take down a teammate. Feedback should include concrete examples of specific behaviors and how those behaviors impacted the company or the team. Use "I" statements whenever possible.

Feedback receivers have only one role -- to listen. It's easy to get defensive and start trying to explain yourself. Participants should resist this and the facilitator should gently remind them if necessary.

Set aside time and space.

Assume that each person will take at least five minutes to provide their feedback. Thus, for a six-person team, allot at least three hours (30 minutes per person). During that time, no one should check their phones or their email. Ideally, you should do this in person, but our team is split between the U.S. and the Philippines so we used a video call.

Follow up.

It's so easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day challenges of running a company, and to neglect critical investments like feedback. Truthfully, we haven't followed up on our feedback as much as I would like. But with our new coaching guidelines, all managers will be expected to have coaching sessions with each direct report, at least once a month. These sessions are designed so feedback can flow both ways.

I'm a work in progress. I still interrupt. (I know this because my leadership team reminds me when it happens!) But because of this exercise, I'm much more conscious of my own behavior, and, perhaps even more importantly, I'm more deeply connected to the other leaders on my senior team.

Published on: Mar 27, 2018