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.

An adaptive culture is an important part of enterprise agility. It is a culture that helps people prepare for change and build the ability to lean into uncertainty, rather than fear it. One way to build this is by applying a growth mindset.  People with a growth mindset see failure as a way to identify their current level of competence, thus making them more likely to feel more comfortable in an environment where they can rapidly experiment and learn.

Growth mindset to receive feedback

Helping people develop a growth mindset is an important part of the work we do at Radically and one of the tools we use to help people develop one is feedback.

Many people really struggle to both give and receive feedback. And us Kiwis seem to especially struggle with it. New Zealanders tend to be quite indirect. We tend to prefer subtle suggestions, indirect hints and innuendo. While plenty has been written about how to give feedback, little has been written about how to receive feedback.

In 2019 I wrote this guide on how to receive feedback for the Radically team. I share it here with you today in the hope that it might help you.

How to receive feedback

First off, let me provide some context. I was bought up in conservative, suburban Christchurch. People who were direct were considered somewhat crude and uncultured. Like the rest of NZ, few around me were direct.  When I started my consulting career, and it was now part of my job to give and receive feedback, it is fair to say it did not come naturally. In particular, I had moments when receiving feedback was hard and my response, mostly internally, was emotional.

Over time, I realised that many others are the same. And that is why I wrote this guide. It is for those of you who might at first struggle to receive feedback. Here is how I learned to do it.

Acceptance -  first off, don’t be surprised if your response is emotional. It’s natural to feel knocked if you are not used to receiving feedback. The way I approach this is to notice the emotion, accept it, and then simply let it pass over me. I learned not to fight it. Just observe it, accept it and let it run its course. Breathing deeply helps.

Objectivity - now give yourself time to allow the emotion to fade away into the distance. For me, this sometimes means leaving it overnight and thinking about it the next day with a clear head. Once you do this, you can observe the feedback objectively. Try to imagine being a neutral third-party observer who was listening to the feedback. Could it possibly be true? Is it possible that with the emotion removed, the perspective offered could be valid? Most of the time, you will find it is.

Helpfulness - the next step, while you are in an objective viewpoint, is to ask yourself whether the feedback is actually useful. Does it help you grow and become a better person? If the feedback was indeed correct, by taking it on board, could you take something from it and grow?

Perspective - now take the time to reflect on why the person gave you feedback. There is often little personal benefit for the other person in feedback. So why did they give it to you? The purpose here is to build an appreciation for the fact that someone was courageous enough to tell you the truth for your benefit. Maybe, just maybe, they were trying to help. So start by offering them thanks, even if it is just in your head 😉

Changes - If you were to make changes because of this feedback, what would they be? What might be involved? List out the key things you would do. And finally, double-check by considering how will you know the changes have stuck?

Effort - some changes require a lot of effort. And sometimes you might not have room in your life to make those changes. Be honest with yourself! If it is too much effort right now then that’s fine. Make note of it and consider implementing it later.

Implementation - assuming you decide to do it, then get on with it! Don’t analyse, don’t think too much, just make a decision that you are going to give this a go and do it.

Follow-up - now comes the moment of truth - go close the loop with the person who gave you the feedback. Discuss whether you are going to do something, what your plan is and ask them to be part of the solution by periodically checking whether the change you are making has stuck.

 

Summary

I have used this simple, 8-Step model to help practice receiving feedback and it has greatly helped me. I hope it goes some way to helping you too.

Please feel free to share your comments and any additional suggestions you have below and let's learn to improve NZ’s feedback culture one step at a time!

One of the real highlights of 2019 for me was launch the Agile Leadership Collective.  The ALC has been an ambition of mine for many years and it was an honour to be able to draw together business leaders in one space to support one another with modernising our businesses.

Continue reading “The Agile Leadership Collective”

Vodafone has accelerated their digital journey through the adoption of agile ways of working. In parallel, other parts of the business started to look at Agile to leverage new ways of working outside of IT with a firm focus on how to better win in the market, and better deliver strategic objectives. Vodafone engaged us to help achieve this by designing & embedding new ways of working for strategic business teams responsible for managing the key consumer products like broadband, mobile plans and pre-paid offers. In this webinar, we discuss how we use different tools, models and frameworks to help Vodafone’s business teams, along with the cultural & leadership changes needed to enable agile ways of working.

Throughout my career I have helped many leaders adapt their style to one that better supports teams reach a high-performing state. Across a wide range of different industries the patterns of high-performing teams, and how leaders help shape them, have some striking consistencies.

I can clearly recall one of the highest performing teams I ever worked in. It was during my first career as a chef. The Head Chef quit, and the owner of The Ruptured Duck (yes, that was the pizzeria name) asked me if I would take over. I was only 23 years old and felt totally daunted, but figured I had nothing to lose so gave it a go.

Throughout the following two years, I somehow helped shape an incredible team of people who felt they could literally achieve anything. The lines between work and fun blurred. We were all “in the zone” – that incredible space where everything around you seems to fade into the distance and you are utterly present. We were somehow there nearly 100% of the time.

The team could handle massive, unpredictable waves of customers and work under incredibly intense pressure for prolonged periods of time, often during extremely trying conditions. Yet we consistently delivered an incredible experience and regularly had customers commenting how obvious it was that we all loved what we were doing. I would regularly have staff coming to work early, working unpaid, just because they liked being there.

How on earth did we achieve this?

Reflecting back, I can see some clear patterns:

  1. Goal: We had a clear objective – to provide the most awesome casual dining experience in Christchurch in a friendly, fun environment.
  2. Leadership: at 23 years old, with less than a year of practical chef experience under my belt, I was not in a position to tell others what to do. I had never done this before, so how could I? All I could do was lead by example. I worked hard and expected others to also. We were largely self-managing.
  3. Culture: we created a culture of extreme teamwork by always having each other’s backs. If the chefs got a lull in work, we helped the front of house staff, and vice versa. This was never questioned. It was how we rolled. When introducing new staff, we’d focus on the team culture and would only introduce one or two new people at a time. It created trust and courage as a core group value.
  4. Continual improvement: we would hold what I would now call a retrospective every night. We’d have a couple of beers and talk through how the evening had gone, what worked, what hadn’t and what we could do better.
  5. Transparency: the entire operation, kitchen, dishes and all, could be viewed by the public the entire time. Nothing was hidden.
  6. Rapid experimentation – we would constantly try new ideas as “specials”, gaining valuable customer feedback as we went.
  7. Fun – we had a lot of fun together as group.

The result was a team that could turn over an 80-seat restaurant 6 or more times in a single evening without a glitch. That’s close to 500 people and we could do this 7 days a week if needed.

Agile Ways of Working

Fast forward to my current world: helping knowledge workers achieve similar outcomes. Radically is helping organisations transform the way they work, applying new ways of working, autonomous teams, a high-performance culture and a relentless focus on customer value.

While the setting is different, the themes are the same. High-performing teams have those same characteristics: goals, appropriate leadership, culture, continual improvement, rapid experimentation, transparency, trust, courage and fun.

A key aspect of this is helping organisations unlearn last centuries management practices.

Ivy league business schools and the big management consulting firms pushed these practices for decades. “Good management” was based on planning, hierarchy and control. The mindset was that the top layers of the organisation would come up with the right strategy, and then the troops would execute. The focus was on coming up with the best strategy (which of course you would need help with) and on execution excellence, namely conformance to plan (i.e. control).

However, with business increasingly operating in a world of unknown unknowns, this approach increases risk, reduces responsiveness and ultimately results in the organisation becoming fragile. To adapt, we have to acknowledge the approach we have used for the last 30 years doesn’t work in all contexts, and then explore alternative approaches.

Instead, at Radically we help leaders focus on establishing a clear, compelling vision and then re-thinking how their organisations deliver on this, largely through the exact same characteristics as my Ruptured Duck team. It isn’t about Agile. It is about the mindset, the environment and the culture required for high performance.

Autonomous Teams

Autonomous teams are self-managing. Self-management requires two critical ingredients:

An absence of traditional management.
A light set of constraints. Constraints help balance autonomy with accountability. Constraints might be an iteration, a Sprint Review, a social contract or a facilitated meeting.

An absence of management is important as people cannot self-manage when they have a manager telling them what to do.

For many managers, creating an absence of management is truly frightening. How can you be accountable when the teams manage themselves? How does a manager approach this situation? Do they just let go of everything and hope for the best? We are seeing a lot of people struggle with this.

The art of it is choosing how much space to leave by actively stepping out, in order to allow others space to step in. You can’t just walk away, leaving a gaping hole, and expect everyone to magically self-manage. Yet if you don’t leave enough space, you will prevent them from self-managing.

We ask leaders to move their focus away from telling others how to do the work, to the following three areas (leveraging David Marquet’s experiences captaining a nuclear submarine with no knowledge of how it worked):

  1. Clarity – what do you seek? What difference does it make and to who? Why is this important? What does success look like?
  2. Competence – does the team/individual have the competence to deal with this situation (or at least the growth mind-set to learn what is required). Does the structure support them in their level of competence? What help might they need?
  3. Control – delegate control to the people doing the work, once the platform of Clarity and Competence is in place.

This is precisely what I unwittingly established all those years ago as a chef at The Ruptured Duck!

Leadership and Culture

I believe one of the most critical factors for a high performing culture is leadership. The agile community has pushed servant leadership as the answer, but I don’t believe this is correct. I believe situation-appropriate leadership is the right answer.

To help organisations discover what this means, we prefer a discovery-based approach.

We use the Cynefin framework to first establish context. Collectively, we work through what it feels like to work in each of the four domains, what is different about each, and which approaches might work best for each domain. We then work through what sort of culture and leadership style would be required to support this way of working in each domain. Then, we review how we all currently think and lead compared to this.

The results can be quite profound.

These are some of my experiences helping create high-performing teams. What are yours? Have you ever worked in a high-performing team? What was it like? How did it compare to my pizzeria team? What was the predominant leadership style?

“Leading is not the same as being the leader. Being the leader means you hold the highest rank, either by earning it, good fortune or navigating internal politics. Leading, however, means that others willingly follow you—not because they have to, not because they are paid to, but because they want to.” – Simon Sinek

If your employees were all volunteers, would they still follow you, or would they up and leave? The days of leading from position are long-gone – it’s not enough to have title, rank or authority as a platform to lead. As the battle for talent takes center stage in this digital age, leaders have to actively grow and intentionally practice their leadership skills if they are to thrive and succeed. A good test for this is to ask yourself, would your team follow you if they didn’t have to?

It goes without saying, that in order to be a leader, you have to have followers – A leader has followers if they truly believe that their leader has their best interests at heart. For this to happen, employees have to feel safe to be who they truly are. Then, and only then, will they trust, follow and fully throw themselves into their leader’s cause. This is true follower-ship.

With disruption in technology today, there is also an exponential rise of confusion within leaders, many of whom find it difficult to connect with a changing digital workforce. This culture can be impatient, fast paced, ever-changing, experimentation driven and information rich. While this could be mistaken as the millennial effect, a recent Forbes article which surveyed leading millennials, gives us an insight that regardless of generation and environment, common sense leadership principles prevailed.

The article captures four key principles to leading millennials:

  1. Empower your team
  2. Think long term
  3. Acknowledge what they do
  4. Treat them as individuals

What is interesting is that the principles above aren’t at all unique to the environment or types of employees being led. Distilled to its core, the type of leadership required in a digital organization is simply genuine leadership. Despite the changing times, the core skills of leadership have not changed. Employees will follow leaders who have their interests at heart, understand them as individuals and sometimes even make decisions at their cost.

What we see is a rise in employees who are hyper-sensitive to genuine leadership. We often hear employees don’t leave organizations, they leave managers. This couldn’t be more true. It is this that showcases the vital role genuine leadership plays when finding and retaining great talent, which can make or break your organization.

So what makes a Genuine Leader? Here are four characteristics to reflect on,

Genuine Leaders take time to understand the individual as a whole

So much of who we are, how we think and behave is shaped by our past experience and how we have grown up. A conversation I had with my CEO recently went like this:

“Hearing how you grew up in Singapore and the environment there, helped me understand how you make decisions and what you are influenced and shaped by”

It’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing on the tasks at hand, simply working through what needs to be done with employees. The problem with this is that when conflict arises, most of the time it’s due to individuals looking at a situation through different perspectives. Their perspectives are shaped by who they are, and we often don’t take time to understand those who we lead fully, in order to stand in their shoes and see their perspective.

How often have you been in the situation where you can’t seem to get through to someone and no matter how many times you try, they just don’t seem to be on the same page? In these situations, we can be tempted to resort to leading with authority out of frustration.

Take time to understand individuals as a whole – we expect them to bring their whole selves to work, so why not take the time to know them as a whole?

Genuine Leaders are front-stage and back-stage leaders

It’s easy to spot leaders who aren’t genuinely for the individuals in their team. In front of an audience, they say and do the right things, but behind the scenes when the individual isn’t there, their actions reflect different intentions.

Being a leader is not about prestige, nor should it be a status symbol – simply put, leadership is a choice, and that choice comes with a weight of responsibility. Individuals that follow you believe you will create a safe environment for them, and have a desire to add value to add to them. When leaders see their job at hand as a weighted burden, their perspective changes from “How can I get Bob to do what I want him to do”, to “How do I help Mary be the best she can be”.

When leaders adopt that kind of mindset, their actions naturally reflect that positive intent regardless whether they are in front of a stage, or whether they are working behind the scenes.

Genuine Leaders understand that people learn at their individual pace

Giving feedback is an important part of leadership. People should never be uncertain of how they are performing, good or bad. At General Electric a culture of candor was an important part of who they were, so much so that if you saw your manager in the bathroom, it would be normal to have a quick chat around performance and progress. It was not seen as a formal thing that happened once a year, rather something natural that represented who they are.

That said – giving effective feedback is a skill, and sometimes giving direct feedback too early can rob individuals from getting true value out it. In my time leading, I’ve found that the timing of giving feedback is just as important as giving the feedback itself. Sometimes the time-pressures of a day leads leaders into feeling that giving feedback is a task to tick off. Genuine leaders take time to understand the growth journey of an individual, and understand that individuals might not change immediately not because they don’t respect or want to listen to your feedback, but simply because change is hard!

This is where understanding the individual as a whole is so important – sometimes coaching over a longer period of time is much more effective, and you’ll find that when the individual realizes their blind spot, they end up “getting it”, being a bit embarrassed, and become exponentially more committed to real change.

Genuine Leaders give context, understanding that why is more important than what

I’ve seen leaders fixated on the “what” – a decision or outcome that they want their teams to buy into, and forgetting to communicate the “why”. When we are focused on the outcome, we tend to focus on the “what”, but when we focus on leading the individual, we take a more holistic view and focus on “why”.

This is why conversations are often more important than the actual outcome. Two leaders deliver the same message, with totally different responses – one with high-performers in their team feeling demotivated, and the other who created buy-in and support from employees. Whether it be policies, constraints to work within, or simply a difficult task at hand, genuine leaders who focus on leading the individual naturally focus on the “why” and not the “what”.

If you are leading from a place of authority of position, it’s likely you’re communicating “what” you want employees to do. The next time you are struggling to get buy-in, take a step back and reflect on the conversation. Try leading with “why” before giving direction and keep your focus on genuinely leading the individual.

In a time where more and more buzz words are being created to tackle the fast changing nature of adapting to a rise in being digital, it’s important for us to understand that leading in a digital culture isn’t all that digital.

Whilst new digital tools may aid us, nothing beats genuine, authentic and real leadership.