Great Teams Are Feedback Rich

In many of our posts we have characterized efforts to strengthen the effectiveness of leadership teams as extremely hard work. While structural tasks such as establishing goals, clearly defining roles, and creating an efficient management rhythm are critically important, we find that the most challenging work of building great leadership teams involves the development of each team member’s capacity to ask for and provide constructive feedback. For a leadership team to improve it must first determine what’s getting in the way and then identify the commitments the team and its members must make to address the gaps. Once these commitments have been pronounced, team members have made themselves accountable to each other and feedback is required to reinforce the accountability.

This all sounds logical and most leadership teams start out with great intentions and with confidence and commitment to hold each other accountable. To illustrate, in a recent engagement one executive pronounced that ‘we can’t let our initial momentum falter and we must live up to the important commitments we have each made and promise to provide each other with feedback both good and bad.’ Unfortunately, as is the case with virtually all of the teams we work with, this executive and most of his colleagues struggled to hold each other accountable.

In our experience there are a number of reasons why establishing a feedback and accountability rich environment is so difficult. To begin with, in many organizations there is an unwritten rule where people believe that ‘it is the bosses’ job to give feedback and ‘not my place to criticize my teammates.’ Feedback is also often associated with confrontation or conflict and people become uncomfortable with the notion of commenting on the performance of their colleagues or boss. Perhaps the most pervasive reason that the act of providing feedback is so difficult is that many people are not very good at receiving feedback and can become defensive, defeated, or angry which causes those who give feedback to be cautious and ask ‘why bother.’ A somewhat cynical but often real reason for not asking for or being receptive to feedback is the simple notion that some people don’t want to change and are not fully attached to the commitments they make.

So what can be done to establish an environment where feedback and accountability can thrive?

  • First and foremost, the leader must be fully committed to creating a leadership team that holds each other accountable and must actively model giving and receiving feedback and encourage all team members to do the same. This doesn’t mean that the leader or anyone receiving feedback has to agree with what is being offered; it simply means that the leader has to listen and be truly open to feedback and respond non-defensively and without rationalization. Phrases like ‘tell me more’ or ‘I haven’t thought about it like that’ or ‘I can see now why you might think that’ are phrases that demonstrate receptivity.
  • Taking time for team members to get to know each other at a level beyond the behaviors they see from each other everyday is another important contributor to helping feedback become more natural. Team members come from different life and work experiences and these shape how they see the world and ultimately how they behave. When team members can gain insights into what motivates their colleagues they can nuance how they provide feedback or better understand how feedback is being provided to them.
  • Creating a more intentional or formal process for making commitments; especially for teams who are struggling to hold each other accountable; can also provide a foundation for leadership teams to practice and improve how they give and receive feedback. Specifically, an important part of our approach is focused on team members talking to each other about what they expect from each other and what they would like their teammates to do differently to strengthen the team’s effectiveness. From this emerges the formal pronouncement of individual commitments and a common request to provide feedback. The language goes something like this ‘I commit to slowing down and obtaining broader input before taking action and when I struggle to live up to this commitment I want my teammates to provide me with feedback.’

As with anything that is worthwhile, even the best leadership teams will struggle with accountability at times but the rewards can be dramatic — reducing churn on the same issues, improving the efficiency of decision making, strengthening team member relationships, and modeling feedback and accountability for the rest of the organization. Below are a few simple questions that we ask leaders to reinforce with their teams as they are establishing a feedback rich environment:

  • Are you each doing your very best to live up to the commitments you made to the team? If not, why?
  • Are you asking your teammates for feedback on whether you are living up to your commitments? If not, why?
  • Are you providing feedback to your teammates when you see them progressing or struggling with their commitments? If not, why?
  • Are you holding me accountable to the commitments I made to the team? If not, why?