My very first 360° assessment group feedback session with a leader and his team was a steep learning experience. In these group feedback sessions, our job is to help maintain psychological safety in the room in various ways. But given this was my first time, some glaring gaps in our process were very quickly exposed, most particularly around how feedback is given.
I sat in the front of the room with the leader, with his team members in a semicircle around us. The data from his assessment was clear: he needed to improve in a few key areas. However, when team members gave him feedback in this live session, it came out in vague and accusatory terms. It was great that they felt courageous enough to speak up, but the actual content of their feedback — such as ‘You need to be less controlling’, ‘You should stop micromanaging’ and ‘You need to trust us more’ — was simply not helpful.
The leader predictably responded each time by rationalising and excusing his behaviour. We expected this and knew how to help with it. But what struck me was that the feedback itself gave him a general sense of what his faults were but was devoid of specifics. And as I came to learn later, it was critically devoid of fact-based suggestions.
We have a default reflex to defend ourselves, but it becomes doubly challenging when the feedback we are receiving is vague or accusatory. This session, along with a few other insight moments in my early career, led me to ask this life-changing question: ‘If honesty is non-negotiable, if we treat it as a cornerstone of our lives and our growth, then how can we learn a better way to be honest?’
That question propelled me personally to seek out the best teachers in the world on the subject. It wasn’t too long before I found myself sitting in front of the late Marshall Rosenberg, the creator of a beautiful body of work he called Nonviolent Communication. Marshall’s work was not particularly well used or known in the corporate space, but its foundations were second to none. Over time we worked out how to repurpose his work for a corporate context. This changed everything, and very soon our feedback sessions became extraordinarily productive, precise and constructive.
Obviously, to create a psychologically safe environment and vertical growth culture, how we give feedback is every bit as important as how we receive it. Here are a few principles for giving feedback in a way that helps people, rather than harming them.
Keep it factual
The first principle of constructive feedback is to keep it factual. Our reactive-brain system makes assumptions about people’s intent and leads us to confuse facts with judgements. We give vague and judgemental feedback, like ‘You’re a bad listener’ or ‘You’re abrasive towards customers’. Neither of these examples is objectively factual; they are subjective opinions and character judgements, and more important they are not honest.
Observable facts cut through defensiveness and drama. Instead of the accusation, ‘You’re a bad listener,’ factual feedback sounds like, ‘I told you the project was due today and you confirmed that with me, yet you haven’t completed it yet.’
When we speak from blame and opinion, rather than facts, it is highly unlikely we will have productive conversations. When we work with clients, we have to dig through layers of evaluations and judgements to get to objective truth. We do this by asking a simple question. Suppose a client gives us this evaluation of a team member: ‘He is selfish.’ Our question in response is, ‘What did you observe that led you to that conclusion?’
We then typically get more evaluation: ‘All he cares about is himself.’
We press: ‘Okay, what is it that he actually does that makes you believe this?’ And we keep digging until we uncover the objective truth, the original observation. For example, ‘When I asked him to help on a project, he said he didn’t have time.’ This is factual, not interpretive. Then and only then can we speak the real truth without judgement and begin a much more constructive conversation.
Make clear requests
We’re all used to asking for things. But making clear requests is harder than we realise. Marshall Rosenberg tells the story of a woman who told her husband she wanted him to spend less time at work. The husband agreed. Three weeks later, he told his wife that he had signed up for a golf tournament. What she really wanted was for him to spend one night a week with the children.
If we ourselves are not clear on what we want, how can we expect anyone else to understand what we want? For example, suppose you want fairness. You work hard and, in your opinion, your co-worker doesn’t. Yet you both get the same raise. You bring it up with your manager and tell her you want more fairness. She values fairness as well, so she agrees. But what are the odds that you and she share the same criteria of ‘fairness’? The concept is too vague for there to be much agreement on what it means.
Clear requests in a team context meet the following criteria.
- They are specific
Clear requests avoid vague, abstract or ambiguous phrasing. They describe concrete actions that others can carry out in the present. The clearer we are on what we want from others, the more likely we are to have our needs met.
Vague: ‘I need you to be a team player.’
Specific: ‘Please make sure you complete your project by this Friday.’
- They use positive action language
Clear requests are stated in terms of clear, positive, concrete action, rather than asking someone to refrain from doing something. Simply put, positive action language describes what we want the other person to do, rather than what we don’t want him or her to do.
Negative: ‘You need to stop bullying people.’
Positive: ‘Please commit to not raising your voice to team members so we can feel more peace in the office.’
- They are present
Clear requests are actionable in this moment. Even if what we want is a future action, what is actionable right now is agreement about that future action.
- They are doable
Clear requests are doable. For example, it’s not a request to ask, ‘Show me you care about the team?’, because it’s not doable. How would the person know what that means to you? A doable request might be reworded as, ‘Please get to meetings on time.’ If a request is doable, both parties know when it has been met.
- They result in a conscious agreement
If we intend to hold a person accountable for our request, there must be a conscious agreement around the request. Without that agreement, accountability is a fool’s game. After making a request, empathising with the other person’s needs and coming to a mutually beneficial agreement, it’s critical that we then repeat the agreement explicitly and create clear timelines and outcomes for which we can hold each other accountable.
Don’t forget appreciation with your constructive feedback
Researchers Emily Heaphy and Marcial Losada examined the effectiveness of 60 strategic leadership teams at a large information processing company. ‘Effectiveness’ was measured against financial performance, customer satisfaction ratings and 360° feedback ratings of the team members.
They found that the factor that made the greatest difference between the most and least successful teams was the ratio of positive comments (‘I agree with that’ or ‘That’s a terrific idea’) to negative comments (‘I don’t agree’ or ‘We shouldn’t even consider doing that’) that the participants made to one another. (We should point out that negative comments could include sarcastic or disparaging remarks.)
The average ratio for the highest-performing teams was 5.6 (that is, nearly six positive comments for every negative one). The medium-performance teams averaged 1.9 (almost twice as many positive comments as negative ones). But the average for the low-performing teams, at 0.36 to 1, was almost three negative comments for every positive one.
The goal of holding people accountable and giving them feedback is to limit poor behaviour and maximise healthy behaviour. In this process, expressing appreciation is vital. People who don’t feel appreciated don’t want to listen to us or change their behaviour — in fact, they resist our feedback. Finding ways to appreciate and recognise others builds trust and a strong team. By illustration, a Globoforce study reveals:
- 86 per cent of employees who were recognised in the last month say they trust their boss. This fell by almost half for employees who had never been recognised, only 48 per cent of whom say they trust their boss.
- 84 per cent say their company leaders are actively creating a human workplace. Conversely, of employees who have never been recognised, only 40 per cent say their leaders care about a human workplace.
- 86 per cent of employees say they feel happier and prouder at work as a result of being recognised, while 85 per cent say recognition made them feel more satisfied with their jobs.
When these principles of conscious feedback are followed, the end result is psychological safety, which in turn boosts team and organisational performance.