Often when we are working with a critical team we get asked what characteristics make certain teams the most effective and the most high performing. Whenever this question comes up, I often reflect on the hundreds of business teams we have worked with but then I also think of the best teams from the special forces, from the fire service, and from sports. While there are many key characteristics which are common such as high levels of trust, a shared commitment to excellence, a clear vision of success, a sincere caring for each other, etc., one characteristic I have noticed in the best teams is the ability to give and receive feedback. In fact, the ability to receive feedback (openness) is often seen as a critical Performance Mindset skill of high performers.
When I coached youth sports, we used to describe the best kids as “coachable”. What were we describing? We were describing those kids who accepted feedback and who wanted to learn, grow, and improve. At that time I probably underestimated that a big factor in their ability to receive feedback was probably due to the way it was given. There is definitely an art to giving and receiving feedback and over the years I have become a student to what makes feedback highly effective, moderately useful, or dangerously ineffective. At the root of it all are the intentions of the giver and the openness of the receiver. This is one reason why setting clear intentions before you give or receive feedback is critical.
Here are a couple of observations we have made:
_The most effective feedback is always started with a phrase like, “I am giving you this feedback because I know that you are committed to excellence and want to become your best.” (Exact words not necessary but immediately the receiver knows if you are coming from this perspective or not.) Similarly, it is received with a phrase like, “Thank you for caring enough about me that you would give me this feedback.”
_The most effective feedback is as objective and non-judgemental as possible and only adds more color commentary when the receiver asks for further clarification, interpretation, or advice. Giver example: “When you are hunched over and typing on your phone during a meeting, I’m not sure it is sending the message that you would like to send to the group.”
_Feedback should be behavior and outcome focused whenever possible, not personal or assumptive. Giver example: “When you raise your voice and cut me off during a meeting, it makes me feel like you don’t respect my point of view. I think you are more effective when you listen intently and calmly ask us thoughtful questions to help us think differently.” Receiver: “Thank you for sharing this perspective because my intention is definitely to develop trust, creative thinking, and solution-oriented people - I didn’t realize I was doing that.”
_Feedback which uses shame is dangerously ineffective and never demonstrates caring, never leads to sustained improved performance, or does not makes the receiver eager to accept it. Giver example: “You are lazy and worthless and I knew you would never deliver on your results.” This approach is too often used in coaching sports and is mistaken as tough love. This is not tough or loving and it destroys the receiver’s self image which is never useful. Unlike shame, guilt can occasionally (when used carefully) be useful feedback especially when it involves broken promises and unmet obligations. Giver example: “When you didn’t show up at the sales meeting, and didn’t let anyone know, you broke the team’s promise to each other that during this tough sales cycle we would support each other.”
_Anonymous feedback should be the exception rather than the rule. On the surface it appears that when feedback is anonymous it can be more forthright but often I have seen that it is given with less thought, with poor intentions, and can even be cowardly. In high performance cultures where giving and receiving feedback is encouraged and expected, feedback is never anonymous. This way the receiver can ask more questions to make the feedback more meaningful and actionable. At the same time, the giver can develop their skill in being concise, objective, and caring. Of course exceptions to this occur in complex management situations.
_As always, don’t underestimate the impact your blood sugar, hydration status, recovery (autonomic nervous system balance) status, posture, and energy level have on your ability to successfully and skillfully give and receive feedback. You want to bring your best game to a feedback session.
I remember last summer, after being on the road for 6 weeks straight, I showed up impatient, tired, and irritable on my vacation. I was driving in California traffic making snide comments about the bad drivers and complaining about every obstacle we encountered. My wife looked over at me, smiled, and said, “Honey, you may want to look in that mirror because I’m pretty sure the person you see is not who you want to be.” Knowing her intentions were to help me relax and to help me get into a much better vacation self I smiled, took a few calming breaths, and said thank you. That was a great moment and that feedback made us both much better and much happier.
Giving and receiving feedback is never easy but if you want to become a Sustainable High Performer, it’s a Mindset skill you may want to build. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
By Scott Peltin