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Feedback is a Two-way Street

#businesstips #engagement #highperformance #leadership Nov 14, 2023

It’s getting to be half-way through the academic year. There are a few things I like to put in place as a semester draws to an end to ensure we are all tracking towards our high-performance goals. I like to make sure we circle back to each member of my team with a quick touch-base on their yearly goals.  

Often times we wait until the end of the year to review our goals with our team.

The challenge with this approach is when we wait until the end of the year to give critical feedback about what needs improvement, we have missed the opportunities to create remedies that would have immediate impact.

Taking the time mid-cycle identifies if there are barriers or issues that can be addressed while there’s still time for meeting the goal. I am a firm believer that there should be no surprises at the end of the year performance evaluation meeting between you and any member of your team. If we have done our job well as leaders, any issues should have been brought up time and time again with folks, so they have had many opportunities to address pending issues.  

I remind all the players and people that I lead, ‘Critical feedback means I believe in you.’

Stop interpreting critical feedback as failure. The absence of feedback means I have given up.  I likely don’t think you have the skills or capabilities to change and rise to my minimum expectations. Let go of being afraid of critical feedback. Critical feedback is a sign that people believe you are a high performer and are capable of delivering more. 

When I meet with folks that I lead, I like to make sure they understand that feedback is a two-way street. I look to invite feedback for myself, as well. After all, I’m interested in getting better, also. I start the process with the following four simple questions that I answer, and I invite my employee to answer.

4 Simple Questions to Start the Mid-cycle Feedback Conversation:

  1. What’s one thing that I’m doing by accident or on purpose that you want me to keep doing because it’s helping you do your job really well?
  2. What’s one thing that I’m doing by accident or on purpose that is frustrating or making it difficult for you to do your job?
  3. What’s something you’ve seen outside of our team that you wish you could bring here that would make us so much better?
  4. Where do you see yourself five years from now? We know that team members will feel more engaged with their employers when they see opportunities for development. My job is to listen carefully and find opportunities to foster their growth.

Sometimes it’s hard for senior leaders to generate authentic feedback. There’s a clear power imbalance. Not everybody is going to risk telling you the difficult stuff that might make them see they are complaining or might endanger their employment or relationship with you.  

Let’s be clear nobody wants to tell the boss they suck.

We need to seek alternative ways to seek feedback to help us become better leaders. Here’s what I’ve done to address this problem:

When I first became a senior administrator, I noticed my department’s progress had stalled. After the initial honeymoon phase when everybody was excited, there came the grumblings and frustrations. I needed to address the issues and challenges that were keeping our organization from getting to the next level. I needed a chance to see what team members were thinking and figure out what was going on.

I went looking for feedback. I didn’t need people to tell me things they thought I wanted to hear. There had to be other things I needed to hear. I brought in an external consultant to do a 360--an anonymous feedback exercise that spoke to my strengths, challenges and gaps.

I’ll never forget opening up the results. Like any high performer, I did a cursory glance on the strengths and my attention lingered on the critical feedback.

It was a kick in the gut. Ugh.

I remember reading it and feeling kind of low, defensive and angry. I wrote an email to capture my feelings at the time and sent it only to myself. I shared the results with my senior team exposing all of my warts and foibles to them. They had my same reaction--a little bit of defensiveness and denial--because some of the critique spoke to processes or projects they were directly in control of. I shared with them my immediate reaction email as a teachable moment. It’s normal to react emotionally to criticism in this way. We are all humans.

After our emotions settled, we took the time to examine the feedback with a critical lens to making improvement. We crafted a report of the findings and our plan to address them and called it, “Little Things Make Big Things Happen.” I shared it with all our staff, with my boss and with HR. I had nothing to hide, and I wanted people to hold me accountable. I wasn’t interested in doing this exercise unless it would truly make me and my team better. Once the findings and plan to address them were shared, we began the process of eating the elephant one bite at a time. The pain was worth it. Over the next few cycles, we broke through the plateau and achieved even higher levels of success.

As leaders, we are not going to get everything right, and we have to invite the challenging and tough conversations, as well as, initiate them with the people we lead. At the end of the day, remember that engaging in the process of gathering feedback and hearing the difficult messages that come from that process are part of the journey of becoming and leading a high-performance team. 

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