You know how when you see someone smile, you smile too? Or when you see someone crying, you feel their sadness? It is caused by an incredible phenomenon called mirror neurons. This article unpacks how to leverage mirror neurons to develop high-performing teams.

Mirror neurons came into the public sphere through the book Mirroring People, The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others, by Marco Iacoboni.

Richard Saavedra, a University of New Hampshire researcher, described the power of mood to spread and “infect” others as “one of the most robust phenomena I have ever seen, and it’s all unconscious.”

 

matches mirror neurons

 

What are Mirror Neurons?

Mirror neurons are specialized cells in our brains that play a crucial role in our ability to empathize and understand the actions, intentions, and emotions of others. Interestingly, these neurons respond to emotional experiences. When we feel emotions like joy, fear, anger, or sorrow, our mirror neurons activate. This response is mirrored when we witness others experiencing these emotions.

For instance, if we see someone feeling sad, our mirror neurons trigger a similar feeling within us, fostering a sense of empathy. This process is automatic and instinctive, allowing us to understand and share the emotional states of others without consciously thinking about it.

 

Intentions: the hidden side of communication 

People communicate on two different levels. One is the basic mechanics of communication we know - the content of the message, the voice tone, the body language and the context in which we are communicating.

But we also communicate by reading subtle nuances in the facial expressions of who we are communicating with. According to the research, this is our brain trying to interpret the other party’s intentions. Intentions add a “4th dimension” to communication by triggering the exact same areas of the brain in the receiver as if they were experiencing the emotions themselves.

For example, I see you clearly upset and crying and I comfort you. As you communicate with me I see the pain I, your eyes and other facial expressions. My mirror neurons trigger the exact same areas of my brain, as if I were the one upset.  Through this mechanism, I can empathise with you.  The fascinating point is that I am not just observing you; I am part of the same experience.

 

two minds

 

Why do we do this?

One theory is that for one human to understand another’s emotions, we must have experienced that emotion. In other words, the brain is attempting to build emotional literacy in a just-in-time way. Another theory is that this also allows us to learn about our own emotions by experiencing others emotions as if they were ours.

As a species, we have evolved by working closely in groups with the emotions each of us experience impacting the emotions of all of those around us. We are essentially a collective social-emotional network. Our group setting impacts our emotional growth.

 

How to leverage mirror neurons for your teams

Two techniques you can use to apply this knowledge with your teams are self-awareness and curiosity.

Self-Awareness

Being mindful of how your behaviour impacts others is a critical skill for effective groups.

When you understand your own emotions, reactions and biases, you're less likely to misinterpret the behaviours of others. This leads to more empathetic interactions and healthier teams.

Self-awareness also helps encourage an understanding of the diversity of human experiences and perspectives and enables us to see beyond our viewpoint and appreciate the feelings and motivations of others.

When team members are self-aware, they tend to be more open and authentic, which fosters trust. High levels of trust in a group create a psychologically safe environment where members feel comfortable taking risks, making mistakes, and being creative. This is a vital aspect of a high-performing team.

 

Curiosity

Curiosity is another brilliant skill that helps build the ability to understand others' intentions. Curiosity serves as the bridge that connects diverse thoughts and perspectives. It encourages us to delve beyond the surface level of conversations.

When we approach interactions with genuine curiosity, we open ourselves to truly hearing and understanding what others are expressing, beyond just their words. This deep level of engagement is crucial for meaningful communication, as it allows for a fuller comprehension of the context, emotions, and nuances that shape each individual's messages.

Curiosity encourages us to ask insightful questions, seek clarification, and explore the motivations and feelings behind what is being communicated. This not only enhances our understanding but also conveys to others that their thoughts and experiences are valued and respected, fostering a sense of connection and trust.

 

Conclusion

The remarkable power of mirror neurons reveals a profound truth about human interaction and emotional connectivity; we are all highly connected. By understanding and harnessing this, we can significantly enhance the performance and cohesion of our teams.

Self-awareness and curiosity emerge as pivotal tools in this endeavour, empowering us to create environments where empathy, understanding, and genuine connection thrive.

Self-awareness allows team members to be cognizant of their own emotions and how these influence others, leading to more empathetic and constructive interactions. It cultivates a culture of trust and psychological safety, essential for high-performing teams.

Curiosity drives us to explore and understand the intentions and emotions behind our colleagues' actions and words, fostering deeper connections and more effective communication.

Together, these skills enable teams to leverage the power of mirror neurons effectively. They create a dynamic where team members are not just working alongside each other but are emotionally attuned and deeply connected.

As we continue to explore and understand the intricacies of human emotions and how they shape our interactions, the insights gained from the phenomenon of mirror neurons offer a valuable pathway to building stronger, more resilient, and more effective teams.

Behaviours are values in action. If you want to change your organisation, then live the values you seek. Let the contagious nature of mirror neurons do some of the heavy lifting to spread these behaviours, building upward spirals of behaviour.

 

upward spiral

 

The phrase "one bad apple spoils the barrel" implies the undesirable behaviour of one person can spread to others, impacting the performance of an entire team. Many have experienced this phenomenon, feeling like their team is falling well short of its potential. But is there any evidence supporting this phenonium? A fascinating study has shown that indeed, a single, toxic team member can create group-wide dysfunction and breakdown.

 

Bad Apple

The Toxic Blend: How One Rotten Apple Spoils the Barrel

We have all worked in teams where there is that one “difficult” person.  They often display a lack of respect for their colleagues, disregard for team goals, and have an unwillingness to take responsibility for their actions. They may engage in gossip, create conflicts, and foster a hostile work environment.

They seem to consume a disproportionate amount of time and energy. Conversations with them feel “heavy” and they tend to sap your energy. There are many common examples - The Brilliant Jerk, The Controller, The Slacker, The Anti-Establishment Person, The Career Politician, The Passive-Aggressive.

 

The Impact of Toxicity on Team Dynamics

Often teams don’t have any choice but to do their best and simply tolerate the difficult person, citing personality eccentricities, often with a roll of the eyes.  The impact can be severe, ranging from reduced morale, increased stress, burnout, turnover, low levels of creativity and problem solving, along with reduced productivity.

 

The negative influence of a toxic team member can spread like wildfire, causing dysfunction in the entire group.
- Simon Sinek

 

rolling eyes

The Toxic Team Member: A Catalyst for Chaos

Will Felps, Associate Professor of Organization & Personnel Management at Rotterdam School of Management, published a fascinating paper titled How, When, And Why Bad Apples Spoil The Barrel: Negative Group Members And Dysfunctional Groups.  The paper discusses how, when, and why the behaviours of one negative group member can have a powerful, detrimental influence on an entire team.  In other words, how one bad apple can rot the barrel.

Felps conducted a social experiment. He took groups of four college students and arranged them into teams. Each team had to compete against the other to solve some management problems. Unbeknown to them, Felps planted an actor in each team, designed to feign one of the three personality types Felps suspected caused major issues:

 

  1. The Depressive Pessimist - will complain that the task that they're doing isn't enjoyable and make statements doubting the group's ability to succeed.
  2. The Jerk - will say that other people's ideas are not adequate but will offer no alternatives himself. They'll say "you guys need to listen to the expert - me."
  3. The Slacker - will say "whatever", and "I really don't care."

 

The existing research assumed that groups had the ability to overcome bad apples and the power of the group would override the bad apple forcing them to change their behaviour. However, Felps findings proved otherwise.

Groups with a bad apple performed 30 to 40 % worse than groups without a bad apple.  The ability to get along, share work and collaborate significantly dropped in groups with a bad apple.

Poor functioning team

 

The Domino Effect: From Toxicity to Dysfunction

In groups with a bad apple, other team members begin to take on the bad apple's negative behaviour. When the bad apple actor acted out one of the three personalities, the other team members started to act in the same way.  When the actor was a jerk, other team members would begin acting like a jerk. When the actor was a slacker, they began to slack, too. Even worse, they didn’t just act this way to him – they acted this way towards all other team members. The bad behaviour had a ripple-on effect, propagating that type of behaviour throughout the team.

This is an immensely important discovery. One bad apple can cause rot in the entire cart by altering the behaviour of everyone.

Interestingly, there was one exception in the experiment. One group performed well, despite having a bad apple. The difference? This group had a leader with strong skills in diffusing conflict.

 

 

Psychological Safety

Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson identified psychological safety as a cornerstone of effective teamwork and organizational success.  Psychological Safety is a vitally important part of our consulting work at Radically.

Edmondson defines psychological safety as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking." Project Aristotle, an initiative at Google, sought to uncover the dynamics of successful teams and identified psychological safety as one of the key factors driving high-performing teams. They found psychological safety was more impactful than the next four factors combined.

However, a culture of psychological safety isn't just a leader's job -  it is everyone's responsibility, especially as organisations become more decentralised and self-managed.

 

Restoring Harmony to Rebuild a Dysfunctional Team

So if undesirable behaviour can damage teams, and it can spread, what can we do about it?

There are broadly two key ways to approach this - by developing a group's ability to self-manage this and through people in leadership and management roles supporting this. the combination of both is the most successful approach.

The Power of Teamwork

Humans naturally form social group norms to guide behaviour. Norms take shape and change over time as the group evolves. Often group norms are implied and unstated, detected through the day-to-day interactions with others.

One way to help bring this into focus is to establish a team charter. This preventative action involves a team defining their desired values and behaviours. It can be quickly achieved with little more than a flipchart and some markers, using prompts such as

  • What would make our team powerful?
  • What can we count on from each other?
  • How do we want to be when we are challenged?

A team charter provides a clear statement of expectations - that is, what good looks like.  If behaviour slips off track, the group's role is to call each other out and self-moderate. However, this assumes the group has the capability and experience to do this. enter the leadership role.

The Role of Leadership

A good leader will help a group retain ownership of their behaviour and step in if it becomes unsafe or they see the group struggling with a lack of skills and experience.

A technique I frequently use is to help the group "notice" their behaviour if it differs from what they said was important in their team charter. The way you do this is very important. Avoid assumptions and embrace curiosity: "I am noticing that [observation]. Do you notice that too or am I misreading the situation?" If they agree, I might facilitate a discussion on what happened and what we can learn from this to improve. Note at no point am I taking ownership. The group is accountable for their behaviour. Reveal dont resolve.

Motivational interventions

Felps calls these “motivational interventions” - acts of teammates that attempt to change negative behaviour via influence. His research shows this is an effective way to deal with The Slacker and The Brilliant Jerk, but is less successful with the Depressive Pessimist.  Most people do not have the techniques required to resolve a teammate’s negative moods, and so tend to simply avoid or reject them. This is where a different leadership stance kicks in. Rather than facilitating (which is for a group), a personal coaching stance would probably be a better choice. In other words, connect with them, empathise,  share how you observe their behaviour impacting the group, and help them consider some options to move forward.

 

Honest conversation in a team

Conclusion

In conclusion, the impact of a toxic team member carries profound implications for group dynamics and team performance. The fascinating study by Will Felps has provided valuable insights into the impact of a single toxic team member on an entire group. This research has shown that the negative influence of such an individual can indeed spread like wildfire, leading to reduced morale, increased stress, burnout, turnover, and decreased productivity within the team.

Moreover, Felps' experiment shed light on the domino effect of toxicity, where other team members often begin to adopt the negative behaviour exhibited by the bad apple, causing a ripple effect of dysfunction throughout the group. This discovery underscores the critical importance of addressing toxic behaviour promptly and effectively.

Psychological safety, as highlighted by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, emerges as a vital factor in promoting effective teamwork and organizational success. It is essential for fostering an environment where individuals feel safe to take interpersonal risks, contributing to high-performing teams.

To counter the detrimental impact of toxic team members and restore harmony within a dysfunctional team, there are two key approaches: empowering the group to self-manage behaviour and leveraging leadership to guide and support the team when necessary.

Motivational interventions, as described by Felps, offer a powerful tool for addressing negative behaviors, especially when coupled with a coaching stance that emphasizes empathy and constructive feedback.

In summary, the study by Will Felps and the broader discussion surrounding toxic team members emphasise the importance of fostering positive group dynamics and addressing negativity promptly. By promoting psychological safety, establishing clear expectations, and combining self-management with effective leadership, teams can mitigate the influence of the "bad apple" and work together harmoniously to achieve their goals and reach their full potential.

If you are interested in learning more about Will Felps work, listen to this recording from the “This American Life” show. It’s an absorbing interview with Felps.

Many organizations are striving to become more adaptive a means not just to survive, but to thrive.  The success of an adaptive organization hinges significantly on the capabilities of its people, which often raises the question of how to select people for agile teams.

Those who excel in an adaptive environment exhibit three key characteristics. To begin with, they welcome uncertainty while maintaining their focus. Secondly, they focus on outcomes over process. Thirdly, they prioritise the health of the team. By focusing on the traits that define successful teams, adaptive organizations can enhance how they select people for agile teams.

 

people for agile teams

 

The Characteristics of High-Performing Agile Teams

From decades of working with successful agile teams, we have learned that the highest-performing teams tend to have the following characteristics:

  1. They embrace uncertainty: They exhibit a high degree of flexibility. They focus on goals and are comfortable adapting the path to reach those goals, often starting with minimal information.

 

  1. Outcome orientation: They focus on delivering valuable business outcomes, as opposed to frameworks and processes. This often requires them to “loose the training wheels” of agile frameworks once they have built basic reflexes.

 

  1. Team Collaboration: They actively contribute as team members, fostering cooperation and cohesion within the team. As individuals, they exhibit skills in empathetic listening, collaboration, and valuing team input over individual ideas.

 

Embracing uncertainty

People who tend to thrive in agile teams avoid spending a lot of time comprehending every intricate detail and potential risk, nor do they meticulously plan. Instead, they are comfortable with enough planning to feel confident in their team's ability to start, accepting that more will emerge as they progress and this emergent work can be discussed and prioritised accordingly.  The secret here is choosing what "enough planning" is for the specific context.

Individuals who embrace uncertainty tend to display high levels of curiosity. They use curiosity to foster a mindset of continuous learning and flexible decision-making (a growth mindset). For example, when working with a team on a complex problem, when they speak they tend to ask questions in order to better understand both the problem along with how others are thinking about it. They avoid assumptions and jumping to conclusions.

They also tend to embrace challenges. They see challenges and obstacles as opportunities for learning and growth. They are more likely to take on new and difficult tasks with enthusiasm. they're open to learning from others and seek feedback that enables them to enhance their abilities.

Finally, they are resilient in the face of setbacks and failures. They understand failure is not a permanent state but a stepping stone toward improvement.

When considering how to select people for agile teams, focus on people's curiosity, approach to challenges and setbacks, their attitude to failure and their persistence to overcome challenges.

 

Outcome orientation

Clarity on the business outcomes and goals is critical for an organisation that decentralises decision-making. Yet this is often an area where many teams struggle.

We often see teams that take a narrow view of their work, believing their job is to select product backlog items and turn them into outcomes. This is commonly known as a "Feature Factory" mindset, and only differs from a production line by the fact that it is a team doing the work rather than an individual.

Successful agile teams start with a clear business goal and break that down into smaller iteration-level goals together. They focus on the iteration goal, not the tasks. They

 

  1. Are clear on “the why” (goal) of the iteration. Why are we doing this work and what is the intended outcome we are seeking to achieve? Test whether everyone can clearly articulate the goal and what success looks like.

 

  1. Co-create “the what” with their stakeholders or product owners. They determine what work needs to be done to achieve the why. If they are working with a product backlog, this means selecting (or creating) work items that align with the goal. Remember the purpose of an iteration is to deliver the goal, not the work items.

 

  1. Take ownership of “the how” by creating and owning their plan to get that iteration of work completed. It is vital that this is their plan. Leaders must give the team the space to create their plan. People take their own commitments more seriously than commitments made for them by others.

 

This helps solve one of the most common failures in knowledge work: the people doing the work dont understand the work.

Empathy

When seeking people for agile teams, check for outcome orientation. How do they remain focused on goals? How do they achieve this when they are head down in the details?  What are their personal habits and traits they use to remain goal-focused?

Team Collaboration

Successful agile teams understand the nature of the problems they are solving are beyond the ability of individuals and require multiple perspectives to find the best results. They actively contribute as team members, fostering cooperation and cohesion within the team.

This often requires significant shifts in behaviour from individuals. Traditional organisations tend to encourage and reward individual expertise. Agile organisations tend to value skills like curiosity, empathetic listening, mentoring, knowledge sharing and giving others an opportunity to contribute. This requires a significant shift in leadership.

When seeking people for agile teams, look for how they work with others. Do they look around the room to check the levels of participation of others?   Are they comfortable accepting a direction a team wants to go in when they personally disagree with it? How do they approach such situations? Ask for examples!

 

Process for Selecting Team Members

Choosing the right team members can be approached in various ways, each with its own advantages and drawbacks.

Teams choose

Our preferred approach is for teams to choose their team members. They identify the gaps they are looking to fill and the behaviours & values they are seeking. They interview potential new members and have the autonomy to decide.

The risk of this approach is affinity bias and groupthink, where the team tend to look for people like them, whereas diversity tends to result in better teams. A good way to mitigate this in an enterprise setting is to engage with a People and Culture (HR) business partner/advisor. They’re experts in people and can help avoid blind spots.

 

Self-selection

Sandy Mamoli has had success with self-selection and has written a book about it. We’ve used varying levels of self-selection, depending on the context. We’ve learned that culture plays a key role in self-selection.  A colleague of mine who works in the field of team dynamics and human psychology shared an interesting piece of science on the topic recently. He said, “when a new group forms, they always seek a leader to provide the structure necessary to move towards an emergent order.”  This is an important point – psychology suggests the role of the leader in self-selection is enough structure for emergent order to occur.

 

Manager led

In our experience, this is the worst way to form a team. It assumes one person is better placed to make the decision, despite the fact that they won't themselves be involved in executing the work. It can work and we have consistently helped organisations to get this approach to work, but in our experience, the other options are more effective.

No matter the approach, selecting team members based on values, behaviours and diversity is key.

 

Conclusion

Successful agile teams are not solely composed of the most technically skilled individuals but those with the right personality traits and values. The important traits to look for are the ability to handle uncertainty, an outcomes-oriented mindset, and people who focus on team collaboration. These factors are instrumental in building strong and adaptable teams ready to thrive in today's dynamic business environment.

 

Modern leaders face a tough challenge - deliver outstanding results while nurturing a work environment that encourages innovation, collaboration, and growth. As a leader, fostering an environment of psychological safety within your team is paramount to managing this balance.

psychological safety

Understanding Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is a concept that encompasses the belief that one can speak up, share ideas, ask questions, or admit to mistakes without fearing negative consequences. It's about creating a workspace where team members feel secure in expressing their thoughts and feelings.

The term was coined by Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School professor, and it has since become a cornerstone of effective teamwork and organizational success. She defines it as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”

Project Aristotle, an initiative at Google, sought to uncover the dynamics of successful teams and identified psychological safety as one of the key factors driving high-performing teams.

 

Key Findings of Project Aristotle

Project Aristotle analysed data from hundreds of Google teams to understand the key components that make a successful team. Among the key findings were:

  • Psychological Safety: The most crucial finding was the importance of psychological safety. Teams where members felt safe to take risks and voice their opinions were more likely to be successful. This safety allowed team members to admit to mistakes, ask questions, and share their thoughts without the fear of judgment or reprisal.
  • Dependability: Successful teams were characterized by a sense of dependability. Team members could trust each other to complete their tasks competently and on time.
  • Structure and Clarity: Teams with clearly defined goals, roles, and plans were more effective. When team members knew what was expected of them and how their work contributed to the team's goals, it fostered a sense of purpose.
  • Meaning: Successful teams found a sense of meaning and purpose in their work. They believed that their work had a positive impact and were aligned with the organization's mission.
  • Impact: Teams that felt their work made a difference in the world or in their organization were more motivated and successful. Understanding the significance of their contributions increased team members' engagement.

 

Psychological safety at Google

 

Total Motivation

These findings are well supported by Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor’s work from their outstanding book Primed to Perform. I highly recommend viewing this webinar we ran with Neel during lockdown. It is a game changer.

Neel and Lindsay on psychological safety

The Four Stages of Psychological Safety

The concept of psychological safety involves four stages:

  1. Inclusion: This is the first stage where individuals feel that they are part of the group and that their contributions are valued. Inclusion sets the foundation for psychological safety by creating a sense of belonging.

 

  1. Learner Safety: In this stage, team members feel comfortable asking questions, seeking feedback, and admitting mistakes without fear of ridicule or negative consequences. This is essential for fostering a culture of continuous learning and improvement.

 

  1. Contributor Safety: Contributor safety takes psychological safety a step further by encouraging team members to actively share their ideas, opinions, and concerns. They believe their input is not only welcome but also essential for the team's success.

 

  1. Challenger Safety: The final stage, challenger safety, encourages team members to voice dissenting opinions and engage in constructive debate. Team members are not just comfortable with their ideas being heard; they actively challenge the status quo to improve processes and outcomes.

 

These four stages represent a progression toward a work environment where team members not only feel safe but are also empowered to engage fully, question assumptions, and drive innovation and growth.

 

The Six Benefits of Psychological Safety

 

  1. Elevated engagement stems from a workplace environment that fosters a sense of safety and security. This heightened engagement manifests during team meetings, problem-solving sessions, collaborative project work, and interactions with both customers and colleagues.
  1. Cultivating an inclusive organizational culture: Creating an inclusive workplace has become increasingly critical. Inclusive environments embrace diverse teams and enable all members to thrive, regardless of factors such as gender, race, ethnicity, background, or political affiliations. This fosters a dynamic, collaborative atmosphere where everyone experiences a sense of belonging and unity.
  1. Nurtures creativity and fosters innovation - For creativity and innovative ideas to flourish, it is essential that team members feel comfortable expressing themselves. Consider the countless innovative ideas that may have gone unspoken due to a team member's hesitation to share them in an environment lacking a sense of safety.
  1. Enhanced employee welfare - Mental health plays a significant role in the overall welfare of individuals. When employees enjoy good mental health, they are better equipped to operate at peak performance and mitigate stressors that might otherwise hinder their productivity.
  1. Reduced employee attrition - a recent study found that employees who experience psychological safety in their workplace exhibit reduced inclination to depart. After all, why depart from an organization that treats you with respect, ensuring your sense of security and value? The significant costs associated with recruiting, hiring, and training staff, among other expenses, render high employee turnover an unsustainable model for thriving businesses.
  1. Enhanced team effectiveness: When your workforce comprises deeply engaged, loyal employees, teams thrive. When a culture of inclusivity prevails, coupled with brand advocacy and a wellspring of innovative ideas, teams excel. When you combine these factors with the well-being of your employees, you've assembled a winning formula for elevating team performance.

 

psychological safety

Summary

 

By actively promoting psychological safety and embracing these key findings, you're not only contributing to the well-being of your team members but also paving the way for your organisation's long-term success, as demonstrated by Google's Project Aristotle. Remember, the seeds of psychological safety that you sow today will yield a bountiful harvest of innovation, collaboration, and growth in the future.

 

Interested in diving deeper into this top? Come along to our Psychological Safety in the Workplace.

 

 

Many self-managing teams struggle to reach a truly high-performing state. When an organisation moves to a self-management model, a key service centralised management traditionally played – giving feedback – is often ignored, leaving teams struggling to truly grow.  In this article, we share how to give effective feedback to improve both team and individual performance.

Models for high-performing Teams

There is a clear and obvious pattern across the models for high-performing teams. Dr Patrick Lencioni’s 5 Dysfunctions of a Team says the trust and the ability to productively process conflict are critical foundations. Trust is built on being vulnerable, being prepared to ask for help and not being afraid to make mistakes in front of others.

Team model for feedback and performance

In addition to this, Tuckman’s model shows the importance of keeping a team together to give them the opportunity to work through the stage he called Storming. This is where differences surface and they learn how to process conflict productively.

The result of this is a set of team norms that guide how the team works. Eventually, when a team stays together long enough to build on these norms, it can increase performance. Productivity often suffers during Storming as they learn how to manage conflict and truly become a team.

Tuckman on performance and effective feedback

Google’s Project Aristotle made another significant contribution. In one of the largest studies of its kind, Google gathered some of their best statisticians, psychologists, sociologists, engineers, and researchers to try to understand what makes a high-performing team. They found Psychological Safety was the single most important factor. An individual’s belief that it is safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of their teammates was the most important factor of all.

Project Aristotle effective high performing teams

It turns out trust matters big time.

“There’s no team without trust” – Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google

While this work is a major step forward in what we need to create high performing teams, the question of how to do it is often left unanswered.

An approach we take at Radically is to help our clients develop a culture of feedback.

How to give effective feedback

Many organisations we work with have no consistent approach, training, or support for their people how on to give effective feedback. We believe this inhibits a critical feedback loop in individual and team development. When feedback is given, it is often clumsy, sugar-coated or worst of all, toxic. When it is received, it is often painful, upsetting and manipulative.

There are better ways! It just requires practice and support.

A useful starting point is Radical Candor – a model developed by Kim Scott during her time at Google. The model is really simple, which is one of the reasons we like it.

Radical Candor how to give effective feedback

The way we use it is to first assess your intent on the Y-axis. Do you care about the person you are giving feedback to? Be honest with yourself. If you are in the bottom two quadrants, then you are better to keep silent and take some time.

Assuming you are on one of the top two quadrants, you now need to decide whether you will “be nice and say nothing”, or whether you will be honest with them.  In my experience, this is where most people come unstuck. They tell themselves “best say nothing” or “I will just avoid working with them next time”. This isn’t helpful.

Kim Scott suggests you start your feedback by showing you care personally. Think about the benefit for the receiver and position it this way. Example – “I know you do a lot of public speaking, and this is an important area of your career, so are you open to some feedback on some suggestions I have?”

In my personal experience, you genuinely need to care about the person and want them to do better. If you don’t, it shows through and feels hollow.

Now share the feedback

The next step is to share the feedback. This introduces the second model we use extensively, again because of its simplicity.  The Situation-Benefit-Impact (SBI) model is a fantastic way of constructing the feedback in a way that focuses on the problem, not the person.

It helps you structure your feedback into

  1. The specific situation – when was it, during what part, who was there, what was going on.
  2. The behaviour you observed. What did the person say or do?
  3. The impact – what was the impact on you from the behaviour. This is the part that is impossible to argue with because the impact is the impact you felt.

SBO for how to give effective feedback

Here is a good example:

Example of positive feedback

Notice how the situation, behaviour and impact are clear and specific. The impact also doesn’t pass judgement. It simply expresses the giver’s concerns.

Also notice how the feedback focuses on the problem, not the person. That is the entire objective, and it now gives you an opportunity to work together to address the problem.

Finally, use curiosity. You can’t assume you are right and they are not. There may be many other factors involved.  Here is how:

  1. Adopt a learning mindset, assuming you don’t have all the facts. State the behaviour as an observation.
  2. Engage them in an exploration discussion. For example, “I imagine there are probably a few different factors at play. Perhaps we could uncover what they are together?”
  3. Ask for solutions. The other person may well hold the key to growth. Ask directly, “that do you think needs to happen?” Or, “wow could I support you?”

By shifting our energy away from unhealthy conflict, to solving the problem, trust is built. As per the high-performing team models – it is safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of my teammates.

Don’t forget positive feedback

While feedback on areas to improve is important, just as important is feedback on areas where someone is doing well. But in what proportion?

Research suggests there’s a golden ratio for high-performing teams. The ideal positive-to-negative ratio is 5:1. Meaning, for every piece of feedback about something that to improve, you need to share five positive comments as well.

The research showed

  • high-performing teams has a 5:1 ratio
  • medium-performing teams 2:1 ratio
  • low-performing teams had a 1:3 ratio meaning three times as much negative feedback as positive.

Positive feedback is important! Here is another example.

Example of positive feedback

How to bring effective feedback to life

Now that you know how to give effective feedback, you need to make it a habit. The way we tend to do it is to mentor individuals and teams using both Radical Candor and SBI. At first, it requires time together to work through how they give the feedback effectively, and perhaps even practice together, but like most things, practice makes perfect.

What to watch out for

When we first established Radically, we set out to create a strong feedback culture. Along the way, we learned a lot of important lessons and it is fair to say there are definitely some gotchas to watch out for. Here is what we learned:

  1. There is such a thing as too much feedback! We got to a point where it all became a bit overwhelming and we had to tone it down. Some of us had moments of “for goodness sake – enough with the feedback!” Each organisation needs to find the right balance for them. Inspect & adapt.
  2. It is okay to say no. We always ask if someone is open to feedback and if they say no then you need to respect that. Sometimes people might be having a bad day or going through tough times elsewhere in their life and now is simply not the time.
  3. Culture, upbringing and mental models impact people’s attitude to feedback. For example, many of us Kiwis have been raised in a culture of Ruinous Empathy. We are generally a kind bunch, but we are very indirect. We prefer suggestions, hints and innuendo over directness. Overcoming this can feel very uncomfortable. Other cultures are comfortable being more direct as this is normal. Others still tend to be hierarchical and would never give feedback to a more senior person. These are all challenges to discuss with your people and work through. Find what works for you.
  4. SBI can be weaponised. I have seen SBI manipulated into “when you do this is makes me feel like that” with the implication that you need to stop what you are doing. In one situation many years ago, I had to give feedback to a consultant who had gone to the client site dressed inappropriately. He said, “when I have people tell me what I can and can’t wear it challenges my belief system and makes me feel anxious. The impact on me is that I need to take the rest of the day off.”
  5. Timing is everything. Sometimes, impromptu feedback is best. If the moment is right and the situation has just occurred, that can be the right time. Other times, it is better to stop, wait and think it through. This is all down to your own professional judgement.
  6. Feedback isn’t just a tool or practice – it is a culture. An organisation is a living, Complex Adaptive System where the system influences the behaviour, and the behaviour influences the system. For change to be successful you need to influence both. There is no point in expecting a certain behaviour if your system does not encourage or reward it. This is why we try to focus on a culture of feedback, not just a practice or tool.

Finally, there is also an art to receiving feedback. During our “too much feedback” crescendo, I wrote this guide on how to receive feedback for all the Radically team. I have now published this as the sister article to this.

Do you have experience on how to give effective feedback? How has it worked for you and what challenges did you experience? Please feel free to share in the comments below so we can learn and grow together!

Feedback is a critical part of building an adaptive organisation. While people have talked about how to give effective feedback, little has been said on how to receive feedback.  In the early years of Radically, we tried to build a strong feedback culture, and frankly, we overdid it. We were so passionate about the growth of our people that feedback came too thick and fast, and it all became a bit much. We have now reached a happy balance, and through that journey learned a lot I would like to share our guide on how to receive feedback.

Continue reading “How to receive feedback”

I recently spoke with a diverse group of small-medium business owners about how to apply agile in business.  The audience was both big and small firms from almost every business sector conceivable, from manufacturing to construction, media, health care, real estate right through to a large freight and logistics firm.

They had all heard about agile but thought it was just for technology companies. To help them understand how to apply agile in business in very practical day-to-day terms, I had to strip out the jargon and show them how they could apply agile at their workplace right away.

We all found the conversation extremely valuable. They were grateful for someone who could make it real for them. I was grateful for the challenge of explaining agile to an everyday business owner, short of time but wanting to understand how they could get started without all the jargon and terminology.  This article attempts to capture that conversation for others to understand how to apply agile in business. Continue reading “How to apply Agile in business”

Transparency is critical for agility, but often the power of transparency is challenged by long-hold cultural norms. This article shares examples of the power of transparency and how it can be used to create breakthroughs in performance. Continue reading “The Power of Transparency”

We have all been in meetings that don’t seem to have any purpose. You attend because you were invited and felt you should go but find the purpose of the meeting isn’t clear and the meeting itself doesn’t create any meaningful outcomes. Sound familiar? The POWER start technique results in better meetings and better outcomes.

Meetings are an essential part of work, but poor meetings are a chronic waste and can drastically hamper organisational performance and agility. This post shows you how to use the POWER start technique to keep your meetings focused, meaningful and valuable. Continue reading “Using the POWER start technique for better meetings”

Many organisations have adopted agile but how many ask the obvious question: What is the ROI on our investment in Agile and how will we measure it?

There are two ways I’d like to explore this topic: from the perspective of delivering an initiative (a product or project) with agile, and from the perspective of scaling this to an entire organisational (Enterprise Agility).

The ROI of Agile Delivery

fast agile

On a project or product level, the ROI on agile is without doubt orders of magnitude greater than traditional methods. There have been a number of studies, the most notable by the University of Maryland, all of which provide extremely compelling evidence.

The University of Maryland study found that agile projects were 20 times more productive, had five times better cost and quality and had a 7 times earlier breakeven point. Furthermore, agile projects had an 11 times greater ROI, 11 times higher NPV, and a 13 times higher ROA when expressed as a percentage.

This research has been backed up by several private studies.  Without doubt, the ROI on agile projects is compelling and an order of magnitude improvement over traditional methods.

The ROI of Enterprise Agility

Naturally, this has led companies to want to scale these benefits beyond single initiatives and reap the organisation-wide benefits. Who wouldn’t want significantly improved breakeven, ROI, time to market, quality and NPV – and the ability to change course as required!

At an organisational level, the ROI becomes harder to measure. This is because Enterprise Agility is about improving the entire system for all future outcomes, not just one specific project. In other words, this is a core infrastructure investment, and these types of investments take many years to pay off.

An investment in Enterprise Agility tends to yield the following benefits:

  • Customer engagement – putting the customer front and centre of our efforts and testing the validity of our assumptions by regularly releasing work and obtaining their feedback.
  • Better solutions – when complex problems are solved by interactive, cross-functional teams, the solutions tend to be more robust and of higher quality. This is because we have taken in many different perspectives on the problem – technical, sales, marketing, quality, commercial, operational, plus we have baked quality in from the outset and tested it every iteration.
  • Culture and engagementthe research on intrinsic motivation is compelling – when teams can shape the work and work in a self-directed way, engagement, creativity and productivity go through the roof.
  • Adaptability – the ability to continually adapt our strategic direction, based on evidence of what we see in front of us. Agile brings transparency and empirical data. We can use this focus on only what is important and limit having too much work in progress, thus creating the ability to pivot.
  • Value – When the above four benefits are combined, we can focus on only delivering what is of value to both the customer and our business. While this seems obvious, what is often overlooked is our ability to cull a significant number of features we assumed customers wanted. Research into feature usage shows customers often only use 25-50% of the features delivered. Imagine if you could cut your investment in features by 50%!
  • Reduced Total Cost of Ownership – TCO accounts for the lifetime cost of the product, including maintenance, enhancement, and support. In many cases, this accounts for 60-90% of TCO, making the development cost looking minimal. By only developing features customers care about, we can repurpose investment into more product places.
  • Market share – combining all the above effectively tends to result in increased market share and eventually market dominance if done well.

Clearly, these are all long-term investments in the infrastructure of our businesses, based on designing it for agility.

long term investment view

ROI on this sort of investment take years to measure, not months. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t measure it. On the contrary.

One useful approach for measuring the ROI of Agile is Evidence Based Management (EBM). Many organisations lose sight of the real goal of agile ways of working as they get stuck focusing on improving activities and outputs instead of business outcomes.  Agile is a means to an end, not the end itself! EBM helps prevent this by focusing on the value delivered to the organisation from an investment in agile. This enables organizations to make rational, fact-based decisions, elevating conversations from preferences and opinions to empirical evidence,  logic, and insight.

If you are interested in EBM, please contact me.

Otherwise, you may find the approach and the metrics as a useful way of considering how you are going to measure your Return on Investment in agile.

Good luck!