If we want people to act on our suggestions for improvement, the trick may not be what we say, but how much we share. While it’s tempting to try to fix all the wrongs we find in others, going after everything means getting comparatively little in return. It’s neither helpful nor productive to pile on feedback that becomes too overwhelming the moment it is delivered. Being particular about our feedback rescues people from information overload and helps them focus their decision-making energy on one choice at a time. The less we say, the more others will do.
Hint: It’s not how well they interact, but how often
As companies continue to reinvent the ways employees experience and perform their work, teams play a crucial role in how that work is shaped, managed and executed.
But what are the habits of high-performing teams?
Cisco has spent the past several years researching, analyzing, prodding and experimenting the ways the tech company drives performance and empowers its 73,000 employees. In a recent interview, Cisco’s SVP of leadership and team intelligence, Ashley Goodall, highlighted three key characteristics of successful teams:
They play to people’s strengths: When asked about the dynamics of their group, members of high-achieving teams said they felt empowered to do their best work and that team leaders encouraged them to use their strengths every day. Not surprisingly, Gallup’s latest State of the Global Workplace report shows that strengths-based leadership has the potential to deliver improved business outcomes: Employees who say they use their strengths every day are 8% more productive and 15% less likely to quit their jobs. They are also more likely to strongly agree that they like what they do each day.
They create a safe environment: The litmus test of team effectiveness is psychological safety, the ability of group members to think and act without worrying about social repercussions – basically, to just be themselves. Google discovered this firsthand when it studied 180 of its own functional teams to learn why some were successful and others were not. After a series of trials, research analysts turned up only one reliably consistent pattern of high performance: psychological safety.
They have common goals: Great teams need a shared roadmap: a realistic appraisal of where they are, clarity on what success looks like, and a common path to that success. Each member of the team knows what’s expected of them and how that role contributes to the team’s larger purpose and priorities.
Naturally, team leaders lie at the heart of this – it’s their job to help challenge and develop their reports to reach personal and team best. But Cisco has found that the real driver behind great teams isn’t how well leaders interact with their teams. It’s how often.
When leaders showed a high frequency of attention, team effectiveness spiked. The more often team leaders held routine check-ins with employees, provided just-in-time feedback, and intentionally built development and career advice into performance conversations, the better their teams became.
But the most surprising discovery: These gains emerged regardless of how well these interactions actually went. Team leaders who consistently made time for weekly conversations with reports delivered increased value for the employee and the team’s working dynamic – even when those conversations may have lacked style or finesse.
There’s a powerful lesson here for other organizations. Rather than coach leaders on how to design quality conversations or improve their EQ – not an easy proposition, especially at scale – a simpler target would be to get people talking to each other.
Silos can cause problems. How “bending” them can speed the flow of information and strengthen collaboration.
Conventional wisdom tells us that the best way to deal with organizational silos is simply to break them. Whether it’s the inward focus of HR departments or the “tower vision” that blinds leaders to surrounding issues and events, silos must be torn down – or so they say.
The problem with extreme thinking is that it’s rarely correct. On a functional basis, silos do a lot of good: They provide service specialization. They create defined work structures. And they foster a deep sense of socialization and interaction between colleagues. Hardly a reason to bring out the wrecking ball.
Instead of trying to break silos, we should bend them. A more effective approach is to find the touch points that run between different departments and begin to form what I call “genius bonds” – networked connections that speed the flow of information and bring together the very best ideas and talents across teams. In this framework, specialized units or departments retain their unique function within the organization, just arched differently. The goal is not to eliminate silos but to address the problems they cause: lack of collaboration, drags in communication, and diminished trust.
In The Feedback Fix, I show how companies who managed to bend silos achieve breakthrough success. In 2011, when Nest Labs started developing its first-ever learning thermostat, it knew that it had to do more than just produce a marvel of artificial intelligence capable of saving people energy. It needed to sell consumers on the merits of energy conservation.
So Nest assembled a cross-functional team made up of engineers, designers and marketing executives to link all stages of product design. These traditionally siloed departments leaned into each other’s space and brought specialized knowledge to bear during critical stages of development. This process of “creative abrasion” set the conditions for ideas to be tested and challenged productively. For their part, the engineers succeeded in designing a device that taught itself to raise and lower temperatures based on homeowners’ schedules. The marketers infused the concept with the Nest Leaf, a clever display feature that rewarded homeowners for choosing an energy-saving temperature. The engineers mastered the intricacies of AI. The marketers leveraged the human need for recognition and control. Working together, these departments formed genius bonds that gave rise to a product smart enough to make a difference and sexy enough that people actually wanted to buy it. Instead of hoarding talent in silos, Nest sparked collaboration among teams.
Silo-bending can also lead to better service outcomes. In 2008, the Cleveland Clinic – arguably one of the world’s best healthcare centers – got a devastating prognosis: negative patient feedback. Patients gave the hospital low marks for room cleanliness, noise levels and doctor-nurse communication. Hospital floors with as many as three separate specialties and staffs operated in siloes. In effect, there was a wide gap between the level of care and how patients experienced that care during their hospital stay.
That began to change once Cleveland Clinic instituted a practice of weekly huddles between care givers. Doctors, nurses, case managers, head of housekeeping assembled to discuss patients, raise concerns, and coordinate care-giving measures. Now considered a standard of patient care, these huddles not only increased the overall efficiency of patient flow, but also delivered a more complete picture of patient care. By causing these entrenched silos to bend, the Cleveland Clinic turned specialization into a force for collaboration.
How can your organization get better at silo-bending?
Get teams to bump up against each other: Find opportunities for creative collision between teams. For all the hype about offices that are cubicle-free, it’s important to consider how all that open space can be used for intentional interactions. A few ideas: Arrange a company read or monthly lunch-and-learn series. Align business goals with team-building exercises that match different units and departments within the organization. Town halls may be great for big announcements, but what about a “village square” for less formal but frequent gatherings of your employees? Putting a premium on meaningful interactions won’t eliminate the silos, but it certainly shaves off the rough edges.
Increase people’s capacity for empathy: Empathy is the signature skill of collaboration. It comes from seeing things from another person’s perspective, and while that’s not easy to achieve, research shows it surfaces at a young age. In one study, researchers gave a group of infants ranging from 14 to 18 months two bowls of food: one containing Goldfish crackers and the other filled with broccoli. As the infants gobbled up the Goldfish and ignored the broccoli, researchers ate from the same two bowls – except this time, they showed visible signs of disgust while eating the crackers and obvious delight while eating the broccoli. When researchers stuck out their hands to receive food, the infants were more likely to give them a broccoli – as much as 7 times out of ten. Even though the infants favored Goldfish, they could already sense that their adult companions had a stronger preference for broccoli. If infants can reason past their own desires and demonstrate empathy, surely we can do the same.
Create channels of information sharing: Nothing screams “silo” like a bottleneck. When information is slow to reach various departments, the drag creates distrust and discord in the workplace. The best companies I’ve worked with know how to ensure that information continues to move at a steady pace throughout the organization. Creating a culture of information sharing is the cornerstone of strong teams. Take the way Facebook onboards all of its engineers. Rather than putting them through standard HR training, it requires new hires to participate in an intensive six-week program called Bootcamp. According to Andrew Bosworth, who helped launched the program, Facebook’s goal is to “immerse the new engineer into our code base, give greater flexibility in choosing a project, and promote the types of habits that would allow us to scale up our organization.” The premium on information sharing – fixing bugs from the live site, building internal tools, and making improvements to Facebook’s infrastructure – not only gives new engineers the chance to immediately work on and solve real problems, it also fosters a culture of information sharing that permeates the culture long after engineers land in different functional units.
Cooperation, communication, and collaboration are the three keys to working across silos. The remedy to a silo isn’t a sledgehammer, but a shoehorn – something that allows the space inside the silo to fit in more seamlessly with its surroundings. If we focus on bending silos rather than eliminating them entirely, we’ll create stronger organizations and better relationships among the people who serve them.
When teachers “bundle” feedback for parents, tough conversations can go much smoother.
As educational partners, teachers and parents share responsibility for the success of children. Keeping open lines of communication is essential to maintaining a relationship of transparency and trust. Parents expect and deserve honest feedback about their children’s progress. But when situations call for difficult conversations, teachers can become agitated and apprehensive. Read More
Ask these questions to create self-awareness about your work, goals and growth.
Great coaching starts with mirror holding – the things we say and do to help people see themselves in a whole new light. Instead of telling others how to improve, great coaches ask questions that help others chart their own improvement path.
It’s also the key to generating more self-awareness about how you work and develop next-level strengths.
Based on the inspiring leaders I wrote about in The Feedback Fix and my own experiences as a leadership coach, here are five must-have question sets that can help you become more self-aware and drive deeply honest conversation about work, goals, and growth.
1. Strengths: What am I good at doing? Which work activities require less effort? What do I take on because I believe I’m the best person to do it? What have I been recognized for throughout my career?
2. Passions: What do I enjoy? In a typical work-week, what do I look forward to doing? What do I see on my calendar that energizes me? If I could design a job with no restrictions, how would I spend my time?
3. Values: What feels most useful? Which work outcomes make me most proud? Which of my tasks are most critical to the team or organization? What are the highest priorities for my life and how does my work fit in?
4. Goals: What creates a sense of forward momentum? What am I learning that will help me in the future? What do I envision for myself next? How’s my work today getting me closer to what I want for myself?
5. Relationships: How do I relate to others? Which working partnerships are best for me? What would an office of my favorite people look like? How does my work enhance my family and social connections?
Asking these kinds of questions helps us re-calibrate our personal and professional objectives and create an inner sense of alignment. It sets the conditions for more intentional and purposeful work and allows us to cut through the clutter and noise so that we have a clearer view of who we are, and, more importantly, who we are becoming.
Before you offer feedback, make sure you PREP first.
It’s a simple four-part formula to make your feedback more specific, actionable and clear. And it’s incredibly easy to do, whether you’re offering unsolicited feedback or asked to weigh in on an issue.
“PREP” stands for Point, Reason, Explain, & Prompt. And it can be applied virtually anytime and in any situation.
Let’s say your boss asks for your thoughts on a new product idea. Instead of offering up a hazy or unfocused praise sandwich, use the PREP method to deliver more specific and substantive feedback.
Point: “I have concerns about the new product.”
Reason: “It seems to me that developing this concept is going to interfere with other important projects.”
Explain: “My team is deep into our current project, and taking on something new will push us off course. That’s gong to cost us valuable time and resources.”
Prompt: “Could we hold off on the new concept until our current project is finished?”
Or, if you see a report doing something that needs correction, try this:
Point: “I think you should consider listening more and talking less when meeting clients.”
Reason: “You’ll actually get a better understanding of their needs this way.”
Explain: “Our clients really appreciate it when they feel heard.”
Prompt: “Would you like me to show a few techniques that have helped me?”
Here’s why the PREP approach is so effective:
- You state your feedback clearly and up front. (Specific)
- You provide clear rationale and context to back up your feedback. (Clear)
- You offer purposeful alternatives instead of just shutting ideas down. (Actionable)
Rather than disguise our feelings or dance around them, we share feedback openly, honestly, and with radical transparency. We tell people where we stand and make sure they understand why we feel that way. And because we offer context and future directions, we don’t alienate others or cause undue resentment.
The PREP approach is an effective way to handle feedback in a variety of settings and situations. Whether you’re offering advice to a report, pointers to your boss, or even guidance to your child, PREP your feedback before you give it. You’ll not only make sure that others hear what you’re saying, but will want to act on it, too.
Are you “bike-shedding” your feedback?
Bike-shedding refers to the act of spending lots of time on unimportant details while leaving crucial matters unattended.
The term traces back to 1955 article in The Economist by C. Northcote Parkinson, a British naval historian and author. “Parkinson’s Law of Triviality” states that people tend to focus on things that are trivial but easy rather than those that are important and hard.
To make his point, Parkinson described a fictitious committee overseeing plans for a nuclear power plant. The members spent the majority of their time discussing relatively minor but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bike shed, while neglecting the proposed design of the plant itself – a far more important but detail-heavy undertaking.
Too often, people end up “bike-shedding” their feedback. They focus on easy but trivial issues related to performance while ignoring the bigger and more nuanced conditions surrounding development. It’s easy to tell people who they are. It’s much harder to show them who they are becoming. That requires a coach approach to giving feedback – one that turns feedback givers into mirror holders.
When you give feedback, choose your frame carefully. You can’t fix everything, and not everything matters. Stick with feedback that helps people become incrementally better. Provide them with small but significant support. It’s easy to build bike sheds. But with the right feedback techniques, we can help people build – and become – so much more.
If you dislike workplace jargon but find yourself using it anyways, you’re not alone.
A recent survey by American Express found that 88% of respondents said they use jargon without understanding it, and 64% reported using words and terms like this “multiple times” weekly.
Honest feedback is a gift. Here’s how you can start delivering it.
Giving transparent feedback is a challenge for most people.
Want to know what radically transparent feedback looks like? Here’s an actual email sent to Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates, by an employee named Jim Haskel:
You deserve a “D-” for your performance today in the meeting. You did not prepare at all, because there is no way you could have and been that disorganized.
In the future, I/we would ask you to take some time and prepare, and maybe even I should come up and start talking to you to get you warmed up or something, but we can’t let this happen again.
Now, if you’re the billionaire CIO of one of the world’s most successful hedge funds, what are the odds that you’d fire Jim Haskel? But not only didn’t Dalio fire Haskel, he sent him an apology. Not just that, he copied the management committee of Bridgewater and asked them to investigate his history to see if this behavior was part of an ongoing pattern.
That’s radical transparency. And it’s why Bridgewater consistently outperforms other firms – they relentlessly probe for feedback that shows where the consensus is wrong.
Even though there’s surprising research that highlights several benefits of giving negative feedback, most people are reluctant to share it with others. This happens because:
- We don’t think they’re smart enough to handle it.
- We don’t think they’re mature enough to handle it.
- We don’t want others to think we’re jerks.
- We don’t want to be mean.
The problem with resisting transparency is that it creates a weak signal. Critical information keeps getting filtered out of conversations or muted entirely. We disguise negative feedback with pleasantries, serve up praise sandwiches, or simply void giving it altogether. By time we come around to breaking the bad news, it’s usually too late for a course correction. Our desire to be “nice” and avoid “rocking the boat” perpetuates the unforced errors that could have otherwise been resolved had we only mustered the courage to speak up with candor, clarity and confidence.
It turns out there are measurable performance benefits to being more honest. A 2010 study by CEB showed that companies with a culture of open communication had a 270% higher 10-year shareholder return (7.9% as compared to 2.1%) than those who operated in silence. And research from management firm Zenger/Folkman showed that employee engagement rose when managers provided honest feedback – what employees needed to know, not simply wanted to hear.
How can you break down barriers to honest feedback?
Begin with those you trust. If the prospect of becoming a transparent organization seems too risky, consider a slow rollout, starting with the people you trust most. Approach close colleagues and offer to give honest feedback about their performance in exchange for transparency about your own. The two-way nature of the arrangement divides the stakes equally and reduces the potential for judgement and acrimony. From there, broaden the effort to include others in the organization, demonstrating how your team’s transparency practices can be duplicated and shared. Transparency should be radical in its design but not in its delivery.
Keep others in the loop. Only 40% of employees report that they are well informed about their company’s goals, strategies, and tactics. This uncertainty about the company’s direction leads to chronic stress, which inhibits trust and undermines teamwork. If you want to create a transparent environment, everyone in the organization has to work on a “need to know” basis. People can’t be transparent when they’re kept in the dark.
Build a challenge network. Change starts at the top, and leaders have to model transparency if they want it to spread throughout the culture. In my book The Feedback Fix, I describe how some of the most successful organizations have transformed their feedback processes starting with the way information reaches the CEO. These leaders appoint a circle of “loving critics” – the people who are empowered to give their bosses the honest feedback they need, even when they don’t think they need it at all. When leadership takes an active role in modeling and reinforcing the behavior – like Ray Dalio did at Bridgewater – then radical transparency can become a radical reality.
Be deliberate about how you put together your teams.
Fresh ideas and new perspectives are the lifeblood of great work. But what happens when inspiration routinely comes from the same place – people who think the same as you? Homogeny of thought can stifle originality and threaten creativity, leading to a creative echo chamber that prevents good ideas from reverberating across teams. Read More
Feedforward is a unique approach to giving feedback that improves performance, boosts productivity, and keeps teams on track. Unlike traditional feedback, feedforward is timely, continuous, and focused on development – a refreshing change from the typical feedback fare that rarely makes a positive difference or offers much insight about how work gets done. Read More