A few years ago I was called into a meeting with my manager to discuss my latest 360 review, a process we would go through every quarter or so. It wasn’t great. Most things were okay but there was one area that stood out for my manager (and me) as a significant area of improvement and it really surprised me. It was how my colleagues and direct reports evaluated my openness to feedback.
It took me by surprise because I genuinely love and value feedback. I thought I was doing it right by being nice but it turns out that because of the nature of feedback, just being nice and being open to feedback doesn’t necessarily mean that your team or colleagues are willing to share it.
Feedback Requires Intentionality
Embracing feedback, it turns out, requires much more intentionality and focus than I had given it. That review gutted me. More so because I’d somehow created an environment where my team in particular felt that sharing their genuine and honest feedback was not something they could do safely with me.
The thing I’ve learned about myself though is that when I am confronted with actionable feedback, I’m open to taking the steps to make a change. I reached out to a colleague of mine and shared what I’d learned and together we created a plan to change the atmosphere.
I think many of us in the WordPress ecosystem, whether we acknowledge it or not, probably face the challenge of creating a truly great environment for feedback. We think that being a nice manager or a nice person is enough.
For managers or team leads in particular, I think it’s easier to fool ourselves into thinking we’re okay at this. As leaders, no matter how close we are to our team, we’re in a position of power and authority that gives us oversight and control over what our team works on and to some degree, who works on our team. That on its own can create fear and an unwillingness to rock the boat.
That fear robs us as leaders of valuable feedback potentially reducing the effectiveness of our team and ultimately limiting what our team can achieve.
But, there is hope and for me it’s all about embracing feedback.
Embracing Feedback Starts With Permission
The first thing I needed to do as a leader was to change the way I did one-on-ones and team retros to create space for feedback.
For me, that meant actually carving out time in every single 1:1. By asking for feedback, I was giving my team permission to speak up. I’ve since begun adding prompts for feedback too. That is, asking specific questions that help to get my direct reports talking and evaluating. When I am specific in my prompts for feedback it creates the opportunity for specific feedback that is more helpful and easier to action.
For teams, I’ve found facilitated retros to be particularly helpful. By introducing a third party, the conversation and evaluation are directed at them rather than at me as the leader/manager. This acts as a layer of protection for people who might not otherwise be willing to share what they’re really thinking with me as the team leader directly.
Permission is also something that needs to go both ways. We’ve talked about creating space to receive feedback but we also need to create space to give feedback and assuming you’ve got permission can actually break any psychological safety you’ve created rather than improve it.
We all process feedback differently and we’re not always in the right headspace to receive it. For example, I ask my managers to avoid giving me feedback in the late afternoon because I’m mentally and physically exhausted and my responses will be much more emotional than logical. I won’t be able to process feedback in the way it’s intended.
I use meeting agendas to emotionally prepare myself (and others) for the possibility of feedback. In team settings where I’m facilitating and it’s not explicitly declared that we’re going to give/receive feedback, I’ll ask first. In this setting, using anonymizing tools to capture sentiment can be helpful (like voting) to ensure an honest response rather than groupthink.
Feedback Requires Positive Intent
Feedback is not criticism for the sake of criticism. It’s not about looking for things someone is doing ‘wrong’ or ‘poorly’. It’s grounded in empathy and care for each other and a genuine desire to help someone get better and stronger.
I find swim/golf coaches to be a great example of this. Their role is to help their athletes identify opportunities for improvement that will lead to better performance and results. It’s a relationship where both are open and give permission to the other to provide feedback and where wins are shared.
As leaders, we owe it to our teams to create a healthy and empowering space for feedback. It’s hard at first because it’s likely that you (and your team) have some feedback ‘debt’ that needs to be worked through. This happened to me and what made it most uncomfortable wasn’t the feedback but that people had been ‘enduring’ some of my habits and ways of working for a while without saying anything.
Feedback Creates Friction, It’s Okay
Regardless of intent, how someone experiences us is their truth. What makes feedback especially helpful is when it aids us in closing the gap between our intent and how people perceive us.
Good feedback is specific. It points to events, actions and outcomes that when called out for improvement, can sometimes lead to a defensive reaction. Especially when what’s shared is not what we intended to happen or not what we were thinking at all or not how we wanted others to feel.
Embracing feedback means we have to learn how to navigate through that friction. It’s fairly natural for people to get upset or react if something is bothering them. In the workplace, we don’t do a great job of creating permission for these feelings to be voiced and heard which often leads to gossip and slander. That can create friction and conflict much more than figuring out how to work through emotions in a constructive and safe way.
As a leader, I expect to create friction and even conflict. At the team level, challenging ideas and opinions leads to better, more thoroughly vetted outcomes. At the individual level, challenging ideas and opinions can lead to conversations and outcomes that move us forward on our professional journey.
Embracing Feedback Leads To Belonging
When my 360 review came back and said people didn’t feel comfortable giving me feedback I was truly gutted. I thought I was doing everything right and that my team was happy. Team meetings were fun (I thought), work was progressing well (I thought) and we seemed to get along (I thought).
When I spoke to my colleague about it, she recommended a few things. The first was that together as a team, we do some shared learning around giving and receiving feedback. LinkedIn Learning was a resource our company had access to and there was a course that we could all take together.
So we did and it was really helpful for me (and I think the team too) in starting some conversations around the importance of feedback both as a giver and receiver of it and the responsibility we have to make it part of our team rituals.
Along with that, we decided to create two different types of retros. Our first was task-oriented and focused on the work we were delivering. The second was about us and how we worked together. In our first session together, we used a meeting room with sombreros in it and did a team activity that involved the sombreros so that session became affectionately known as Sombrero Time for our team.
It was a chance to reflect on how we were working together, with facilitated prompts and activities to help us communicate better with each other and exercise the feedback muscle. It didn’t always happen at work either. We regularly went out for drinks together and even did some fun activities together to build our sense of team.
The result of all this effort along with adding more space in 1:1s for feedback led to a much higher level of personal engagement in our team and a greater sense of belonging. By embracing feedback we grew to care more deeply for each other and our trust in each other grew too. That led to a much better work environment and ultimately better outcomes too.
I’ve only just scratched the surface on the power of feedback and I highly recommend the book Radical Candour by Kim Scott for a comprehensive guide on integrating feedback into your team and culture. If you implement feedback in your team, I’d love to hear how it goes too, connect with me on Twitter.