Giving feedback to colleagues can feel like crossing a muddy minefield. One wrong move and – boom – you’re no longer the likeable boss you have tried so hard to be. At least, that’s how we imagine the situation to be. Alternatively, you might feel at home telling people how to do their job better, but none of it seems to stick. If there is ever an opportunity for frustration to build – through things left unsaid or undone – this is it.
So how do you turn the feedback culture around? Is it simply a matter of walking a delicate tightrope somewhere between the nice boss and the jerk boss? What effective leadership skills can help you when your team is ready to flinch at the first sign of criticism? There is an altogether different way to approach the many-tentacled monster of feedback, and it starts by allowing yourself to get stung.
Invite radical candour
“Not only did he permit Matt’s challenging him—he seemed to relish it… he wanted not just Matt but everyone at Google to feel comfortable criticizing authority—especially his.” – Kim Scott, Radical Candor – How To Be A Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity
In Radical Candor, Kim Scott chronicles how she started her own company as the nice boss. After waking up to the fact that her refusal to give candid feedback had stunted the growth of her company and confused those she employed, she switched lanes and started a job at Google.
At Google, she noticed that everyone was giving feedback to one another. Especially – to her surprise – to those they worked for, not only those that worked for them. She began following their example. Instead of focusing on giving feedback to her team, “I did everything I could to encourage people to criticize me…the team started to open up. We began to debate openly, and we had more fun together.”
Creating a culture of effective feedback starts by enabling others to feel they can give leadership feedback to you. And this requires being willing to change. You need to model how this feedback thing works from the top, asking questions about your work together, actively listening and learning through the process. As Kim remarked, “I learned just as much from the people who worked for me as from the people whom I worked for about how to be a good boss.”
Swap ‘being nice’ for radical transparency
“In an effort to create a positive, stress-free environment, I side-stepped the difficult but necessary part of being a boss: telling people clearly and directly when their work wasn’t good enough..” – Kim Scott, Radical Candor – How To Be A Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity
Chances are, if you want to be the nice boss, what you really want is harmony between people. This isn’t a bad thing at all. But you need to recognise that real harmony, the kind that is rooted in trust, can only come about when people are candid as well as cared for.
You can still take the time to care. But demonstrate that care through spending time with your team, listening to what matters to them, and opening up about your own life. Share your struggles in radical transparency. When people know one another, it removes a layer of reserve that enables better feedback to flow both ways.
Point out people’s strengths, but don’t be false about it. Praising people where they are weak only confuses them and can invalidate the other encouragement you give. But always be looking for something to encourage – and add your feedback to this habit.
Create a 360 feedback environment
“Believe me, you don’t want to be at a company where there is more candour in the hallways than in the rooms where fundamental ideas or policy are being hashed out. Candour isn’t cruel. It does not destroy. On the contrary, any successful feedback system is built on empathy, on the idea that we are all in this together, that we understand your pain because we’ve experienced it ourselves.” – Ed Catmull, Creativity Inc.
So how do you give feedback? Well, once you are in flow with receiving criticism, being transparent and encouraging the strengths of others, you’ll likely find people are near-desperate to hear what you have to say that could improve their work. Your feedback will also be a sign that you respect them enough and care enough to help them raise their game.
As Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall note in the Harvard Business Review, “Learning happens when we see how we might do something better by adding some new nuance or expansion to our own understanding.” This kind of feedback can and should be given at any opportunity. Removing feedback from the formal context of an annual review and placing it firmly in your everyday work together takes the pressure out of the process, and makes the whole affair feel like a normal part of your working relationship.
Don’t just stop at yourself. When you encourage this giving and receiving of feedback among all team members, your entire team gets smarter. Your team might have more disagreements, maybe even more arguments, but they’ll also have a lot more fun. Team coaching could help you with this. Everyone will feel invested in everyone else and the word team will have more weight to it than ever.