Recently, my co-founder and I were attending an event at one of Singapore’s more spectacular venues overlooking Marina Bay. We were chatting with a senior leader at LinkedIn (let’s call him Steve) and the course of the conversation took its inevitable turn to the question “So, what do you do?” We opted to answer the more interesting (but unasked question) “What are you creating?” by describing our passion for helping teams transform from ordinary to extraordinary, and the Team Relationship Management software start-up we’ve created to help realize that purpose. The ensuing conversation reflected genuine interest on Steve’s part about the concept of Team Relationship Management and how the TRM software works. He then asked a very revealing question, “But how do you get people to provide the feedback?”
The Questions We Ask
“How do you get people to provide the feedback?” is a question I frequently get from leaders of average teams, and never – not even once – from someone leading a high-performance team. Exactly why it’s such a revealing question. When asked by a senior leader like Steve, it hints at choices people are making throughout the organization that affect both team performance and individual well-being.
- For senior leaders, the questions they ask their people reveal a lot. If team well-being is only on the agenda once or twice a year, the message to team leaders about what is important is clear – and it’s obviously not their people. Likewise, asking for feedback on whether or not people are getting the level of support they expect from their leaders versus their actual experience is critical to building a high-performance organization. Failing to ask questions that drive the conversation toward what’s most important to people’s energy, engagement, and welfare is a decision to risk weak relationships and allow mediocrity to spread.
- For team leaders, it’s overcoming the fear of asking for feedback. There is extensive evidence supporting the connection between a leader seeking constructive critical feedback, and the effectiveness and wellbeing of both the team and team leader. But, it doesn’t happen often enough. Avoiding feedback is not uncommon, particularly among average performers. The behavior is driven by a complex mix of psychological needs, self-assessment, and self-image. Fearful team leaders need senior leaders’ support to develop the habit of continuous feedback. This habit starts with feedback being a part of every coaching conversation, along with the results of actions taken in response to that feedback. While developing the habit of seeking feedback may not be easy, choosing not to get feedback is a decision that diminishes trust and engagement for everyone on the team.
- For team members, it’s about engaging – overcoming the skepticism that their voice doesn’t matter. People are told over and over the importance and benefits of candid, healthy feedback. Despite that encouragement, research by Gallup shows that only 30% of U.S. workers believe their opinion at work makes a difference. When team leaders fail to seek honest input from their team, it can lead to reduced psychological safety, loss of trust, the deterioration of key relationships, and ultimately disengagement. The impact on performance and well-being carries a heavy price. Far too many employees choose silence – and in doing so, they doom their team to the middle of the bell curve or worse.
A Little Courage
Senior leaders must weave the expression of candid, healthy feedback into the fabric of an organization, and have the courage to support it through their words and actions. Doing so doesn’t require dramatic change initiatives or massive budget allocations. Regularly asking team leaders for proof of the strength of team relationships, and engaging those same leaders in coaching conversations around improving team performance and satisfaction, goes a long way in changing behavior.
Team leaders need to muster the courage to seek feedback – and take timely action based upon that feedback. Feedback sits at the center of building strong, trusting relationships.
With senior managers asking the right questions, and team leaders embracing feedback and acting on it, team members will quickly develop the courage to be heard and shift from being skeptics to enthusiastic participants.
Returning to Marina Bay
The straightforward answer to Steve’s question: “How do you get people to provide the feedback?” is “Leadership.” Being a leader means having the courage and conviction to pursue excellence by setting the bar high for themselves and their teams, and then helping everyone reach it. If someone claims to be a leader, yet doesn’t understand how to motivate people to do something as fundamental as providing feedback, then they need to start with a mirror and reflect on how their own behavior affects their people. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy, and people can be stubborn. However, every exceptional leader knows that they must ask the questions that are essential to developing the strong, trusting relationships that lead to extraordinary performance and personal well-being. It just takes a little courage.