In our work at Triad, we are called into hundreds of organizations to help folks at all levels communicate and work more effectively together. The one conversation we see people universally struggling with? The feedback conversation.
Today, it’s conventional wisdom that, if you want your organization to be innovative, agile and high-performing, you need a successful mechanism to help people reflect on what’s going well and what’s going less well.
It’s simple, right? You need your people to be able to have conversations where they offer and receive feedback from a place of good intention. You want to push the needle to improve the way you are working together to improve the bottom line.
Simply put, you want to create a “culture of feedback.” And, it’s dang hard.
Take Jorge:* A first-time CEO of a fast-growing digital marketing firm based in New York City. Jorge loved the collegial vibe in his organization. People genuinely liked each other and loved coming to work.
But Jorge also quickly realized colleagues were not giving each other tough feedback. They weren’t delivering the hard messages, in part, because they feared damaging relationships or hurting feelings.
Instead, they created workarounds. For instance, they would talk about weaknesses on the team, but they were not having candid conversations directly with the people who possessed those weaknesses.
Six months into his tenure, Jorge also realized something — he, himself, was not receiving direct feedback. Despite the silence, he knew his coworkers had thoughts about what he could do better.
As a first-time CEO, frankly, he was struggling — there was so much to know, and the daily unknowns were overwhelming. So, he brought us in to change the feedback culture at the firm and to help him personally create processes to get the feedback he craved.
It’s a fact: when leaders become better feedback receivers, they (and the organization) accrue three obvious benefits:
- They get better because they get candid coaching and accelerate their own learning.
- They model the behavior of receiving feedback and demonstrating how the organization values continuous learning.
- They become more empathetic and skilled feedback givers.
One of the challenges of the word “feedback” is that it is hard to define. We propose that feedback is actually an umbrella term under which are (at least) three distinct types of feedback that we need to learn, grow and improve.
A stands for appreciation, which demonstrates that you are seen and valued. Appreciation demonstrates that people “get” you and can articulate — specifically — what’s going well.
C is for coaching, which is all of the ways you might improve. Coaching might be a formal conversation where we sit and discuss how you might improve, but coaching may also be the comments on a brief I send back to you, or a quick chat we have after leaving a tough client meeting. Good coaching is specific and offers both what you might do differently and how you might do it.
E stands for evaluation, which tells you how you rank and measure. Did you “exceed expectations?” Are you in the bottom quartile? When we speak in qualitative terms, evaluation is essentially answering the question, “did you meet the expectations I had of you on this project?”
It turns out we need all three of these types of feedback. We need to feel seen, we need to know what to improve on and we need (even if we don’t always like it) to know where we stand.
A few years ago, some organizations received a fair amount of attention for eliminating their formal evaluation systems. And, yes, we’re sure there was silent (or not so silent) cheering from the ranks and managers at those companies who didn’t have to spend endless time and energy filling out performance reviews.
But don’t kid yourself — they didn’t rid the system of evaluation. People started seeking feedback in every interaction. Did my boss look at me funny? When my manager says “good job,” why didn’t she say “great job?” Should I be looking for “another job?”
It is helpful to be explicit about having appreciation, coaching and evaluation in the culture and habits of your organization — just maybe not all at the same time.
Appreciation and coaching should happen consistently and often. Evaluation — whether formal or informal — is best used more sparsely, lest you make people feel constantly evaluated and judged.
When we worked with Jorge to audit the culture at his firm, it was apparent appreciation abounded (which is great!), but we also found little coaching and almost no evaluation in the system.
When we spoke to a sample of individuals at the firm, we learned they had no idea how they were doing or how they were perceived by the organization.
They took it as a good sign that they were still getting a paycheck, but beyond that, felt clueless. They didn’t get the coaching they needed to know what they could improve on, and employees were starving for it.
We knew where we needed to start with our intervention.
Here’s a challenge, should you choose to accept it: Look at your team and company culture with a keen eye — how are you doing on the ACE front? How much genuine appreciation is there in the system? How much helpful coaching? And, how would you evaluate how you evaluate?
Doing even a quick audit can be eye-opening and help you see where some pain points are.
If you want to build a culture of feedback, it’s important to understand what makes feedback hard. It isn’t as simple as saying, “Hey everybody, we’re getting on board with this feedback thing. Everyone is talking about it, so maybe we need to start doing it, too. GO!”
If it were that easy, every organization would have it all figured out.
Creating a feedback culture isn’t as simple as telling people to give more feedback either. At Triad, we think it’s imperative to spend time understanding what is blocking the ability to do something before offering suggestions for change.
We know feedback is challenging for many people, but what specifically makes feedback hard to take?
We have found three triggered reactions that often pop up for the receiver when someone is giving them feedback.
These reactions can act as defenders or pop-up blockers of the feedback. The triggered reactions can make it so that the receiver doesn’t even get a chance to wrestle with the feedback because they’ve already dismissed it.
Pause reading this article for just a moment and think of a time in your life when someone important gave you a piece of advice that you rejected.
Maybe it was a parent or coach. Perhaps a professor or mentor. Maybe a boss, former colleague or even a romantic partner. Summon that advice to your mind, and think about the reasons why you didn’t take it.
You might imagine there are as many reasons as there are readers of this article, but in our work, we’ve found there are three broad categories of reasons why we defend or reject feedback, and we call them the three triggered reactions.
See if any ring true for you:
The first is what we call Truth Triggers. This is when the content of feedback — or even just a small piece of it — simply doesn’t feel true or helpful. It is missing data, context or there are factual inaccuracies. Our brain is tricky because, once it spots something wrong with the feedback, it gives us license to throw out the whole message — we call this phenomenon ‘wrongspotting,’ and it is happening ALL THE TIME. We find something incorrect, and the whole feedback goes into the “wrong” or “bad feedback” dumpster.
The second is called Relationship Triggers, and this category is all about who is giving the feedback. If you don’t like or trust the giver, or don’t feel liked or respected by them, you are much less likely to take their feedback. If you doubt their intentions or feel like they are not invested in you, it becomes easy to defend or reject the feedback. There are some people — mentors or trusted friends — who can say anything to us, and we will seriously consider their suggestion. Whereas if someone we like less said the exact same thing, we would dismiss it. When a relationship trigger is present, the who can matter more than the what.
The third type is what we call Identity Triggers. This is about how you, individually, metabolize the feedback as a receiver. Some people are pretty chill about feedback, and it doesn’t hit very hard, whereas others would describe themselves as very sensitive. It’s as if the feedback is tattooed on their souls. How you take in feedback is actually a mix of many things in our hardwiring. Individuals’ sensitivity to feedback can be wildly different which means that when we give feedback, it needs to be unique to each individual.
Having familiarity with these triggered reactions is helpful for two reasons. First, as a feedback receiver, it is useful to have increased self-awareness of our shared blockers so you can negotiate with yourself to at least hear and consider the feedback. Then you can decide what is or isn’t helpful. This is much preferable to simply throwing the whole message out.
Secondly, it’s helpful to have a sense of the triggered reactions so you know what you’re up against when you are the feedback giver. These three triggered reactions are the goalies you face as you try to kick the feedback ball into the net. Knowing the triggers that might block your feedback offers you the chance to reflect and be more diligent about how you prepare for the feedback conversation.
Here are a few simple things that can help individuals and organizations improve their feedback culture:
- Understand blind spots — you have them too.
- Ask for one thing.
- Create a Containment Chart.
1. Blind Spots
If there is one thing we know for certain — and we try really hard to stay away from certainty — it is that you have blind spots. Meaning, there are things about you that the whole world knows, but you do not know about yourself.
There are some obvious ones, like what your voice sounds like or what your face looks like (raise your hand if you’ve been told “you don’t have a poker face”). There are also more complex things, like how you are perceived or how you impact others.
You know who holds all of that information? The people around you. The people you live with and work with. Your clients and vendors. Your bosses and your direct reports.
So really, they are in the best position to know what’s true or not when they offer feedback to you. And yet — if the feedback truly sits in your blind spot — it simply doesn’t feel true about you. So, there’s the rub.
A note for leaders is that, like Jorge, the more senior you go in an organization, generally, the less feedback you receive. Your colleagues and direct reports may be hesitant to share their observations about you directly with you. Thus, you miss opportunities to learn, grow and expand your capacity as a leader.
What can you do about this?
- First, be proactive. Research has shown that leaders who proactively seek developmental feedback are more likely to experience higher raises, demonstrate greater flexibility in the face of change and have more overall satisfaction with their career.
- Secondly, if someone offers you feedback that doesn’t feel true, pause and ask yourself if it might be sitting in a blind spot, particularly, if this is feedback you have heard — and rejected — multiple times. It is possible that you would be well-served to spend some time considering it and perhaps taking on some of this feedback rather than dismissing it.
2. Ask for “One Thing”
Please do not put down this article, walk into someone’s office and ask, “Do you have some feedback for me?” They aren’t going to know what kind of feedback you want.
Are you asking for appreciation? Because if so, you are going to feel mighty deflated when their response is a litany of the 17 pieces of coaching they’ve been storing up for you. But, you can probably handle one thing.
It helps to ask for one thing. Why one thing? Because the giver will likely triage their list and offer you the most pertinent thing, and because as a receiver, it’s easier to absorb one thing than 17. Be specific about the kind of feedback you are seeking.
If you are seeking appreciation, you might ask:
- “What’s one thing that I’m doing well that you’d like to see me continue doing?”
If you are seeking coaching, we have two potential questions for you to ask:
- “What’s one thing you see me doing — or failing to do — that’s getting in my way?”
- “What’s one thing that if I changed it, it would make a positive difference to you/make your life easier?”
If you are seeking evaluation, perhaps:
- “What’s one thing that I could do to better meet, or even exceed, your expectations next time?”
Asking these questions demonstrates you are feedback-seeking and that you value their opinion. Additionally, you are letting them know you’re aware you have things to improve upon. In fact, you know there is at least one thing.
So, the wording is crucial. Do not ask, “Is there anything I could change?” or, “Do you have ideas about something I could improve on?” Note those are closed-ended questions, and there is likely going to be pressure — particularly if there is a power imbalance — for the respondent to say, “No, you’re great!”
It is critical that you frame the question with the clear presumption that there IS (at least) one thing, and you are asking for just the one.
Our CEO friend, Jorge, was quite taken with these questions and decided he would create a new ritual. He began every meeting asking each person in the room to offer him one thing he was doing or failing to do that was getting in his way, and he diligently wrote their feedback down.
At the weekly company happy hour, he would share his favorite one with the whole organization. He chose one that was either enlightening, funny or even painful.
He demonstrated to everyone that he was willing to do the work to receive feedback, and he also demonstrated that taking feedback was going to be woven into the fabric of the culture.
In our individual coaching with him, we looked through all the feedback he was accruing and worked through the pain of some of it. By doing that, Jorge was able to figure out where he needed greater clarification and further conversation.
Jorge talks about this simple habit as the catalyst that took him from an insecure leader to — in his own words — “a pretty good CEO.”
3. Containment Chart
Whether you are more or less sensitive to feedback, it’s helpful to right-size the feedback you get. That is, to pause and reflect on what the feedback is about, and what it’s not about. We encourage you to actually make a ledger of sorts:
As a receiver, the chart can help your giver be more specific about what the feedback means.
Then, as a leader giving feedback, it’s important to clarify the feedback for your receiver: “This is about this one thing I have observed; you have complete control over whether you do something about it or not. It’s not about how everyone views you. It is a small ripple in the broader sea of great work you are doing.”
This is important because people heavily weigh what you say and will have a tendency to distort it. Have you ever noticed that your mere suggestions seem to inspire a flurry of immediate activity? What you say matters, so helping to manage the distortion is important.
The containment chart helps you to do a reality check, whichever side of the conversation you’re on.
Feedback is important. And complex. Implementing more feedback into your organization’s culture is a key driver in increasing morale, productivity and efficacy. This requires commitment at every level of the organization, starting at the top.
*name and identifying characteristics have been changed.
Triad Consulting Group
Debbie is a Principal and the Managing Director of Triad Consulting Group. She teaches negotiation as a faculty member at Harvard Law School and Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has also taught at Tufts University School of Medicine and was an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center for many years.
Triad Consulting Group
Michele is a senior consultant with Triad Consulting Group, where she applies her 30 years of experience to helping professionals manage their most difficult conversations, build and repair strategic relationships, navigate through organizational changes and manage challenging team dynamics.