Feedback: Stage by Stage

Learning how to give and receive feedback effectively is imperative for leadership development.  Some people dread it, some people don’t get enough of it.  Some leaders are great at giving feedback and some avoid it except when forced.  Feedback has become so weaponized and so polarized that tools like anonymous 360s are used to try to increase the psychological safety of the exercise and give people usable feedback.  Feedback is used and handled differently depending on the culture of the organization. 

There is Minimal Feedback at Stage 1 and Stage 2

In stage 1 groups where the team is failing and willing to do whatever it takes to protect itself and its members, feedback isn’t safe and feedback isn’t used.  Think of the Wells Fargo Banking Scandal and the Volkswagen Emissions Scandal.  Feedback is not happening.  360s are not happening.  There is no safety and people are sneaking around, cheating the system in one way or another, and trying not to get caught, fired, or thrown in jail.  Most of you, hopefully, won’t be in a situation like this.  

In stage 2 groups, which are very common–about 25% of the groups we work with– there are rules and systems in place to create stability and order and most of them don’t require much expertise to interact with.  Think of organizations like DMV, Wal-Mart, McDonalds, and even Starbucks.  The systems and processes create order and the people are just there to follow the rules.  Follow the rules or get fired.  No feedback required.  It’s only when stage 2 begins to evolve to stage 3 and people need to be trained or developed that feedback begins to be relevant in stage 2 tribes.

Individualized Feedback at Stage 3

In stage 3 groups, expertise is required.  This is the majority of the groups we work with – about 49%.  Individuals are hired and retained for their credentials, their training, and their experience.  Think about physicians, engineers, executives, lawyers, accountants, and salespeople.  They are expected to know what to do and how to do it.  They are rewarded for performance.  There is competition for resources, attention, and outcomes.  Some of these people risk being fired if they make a mistake.  These are the people who most often need feedback.  In stage 3 cultures, feedback is often weaponized.  This is the realm of the 360.  360 Degree Feedback is a system or process in which employees receive confidential, anonymous feedback from the people who work around them. This typically includes the employee’s manager, peers, and direct reports. Smart executives that have the option to select their own raters will choose their fans so that they get feedback that looks good and proves that they are awesome.  High five!  If they don’t get to select their raters, and they often don’t, they generally get mixed and confusing results. In this type of situation, raters are generally your boss, all your peers (many who won’t bother to take the time to rate you because they’re too busy), and all your direct reports (who are afraid not to rate you but are generally afraid to tell you the truth, as well).  What you’re generally left with is with four types of feedback:

1. A self-evaluation that is probably the most useful part of this whole process.  One of the best and most usable tools for working with individuals in stage 3 teams is self-rated instruments. Self-reported data is seen as valid and useful and safe and can lead to great coaching, development, and performance conversations.  We tend to favor robust self-assessment tools like the Hogan Assessment for development and coaching.

2. The boss’s evaluation is hopefully helpful, but it generally depends on the boss and how good they are at giving feedback.  Preferably, this is not the only way your boss gives you feedback.  Ideally, there are no surprises here.  Unfortunately, the reality is that this is sometimes the only time a boss gives their employees any kind of feedback.  Hopefully, it’s usable.  The best part about the boss’s feedback on a 360 is that it is NOT anonymous.  So, if you have questions or want examples or want to work on something, you can actually talk to your boss about it.

3. Peer evaluations are inconsistent and unreliable.  Most stage 3 groups are extremely busy so the people who will take the time to do the evaluation generally have something to say, often something they haven’t said to your face but do say behind your back. Peers often lack sufficient context to give effective feedback.  And, this is where the people who have an ax to grind will grind it. 

4. The idea of asking direct reports for anonymous feedback is great in theory.  If they need to be anonymous to tell you the truth, this speaks volumes about the culture, the lack of safety, and the fear of retribution.  Dealing with that is more important than dealing with any of the feedback you get.  

Anonymous Feedback

In the case of both peer and direct report feedback, anonymity is designed to provide a way for people to give feedback without hurting feelings or without the fear of retribution.  But feelings still get hurt and retribution still happens.  According to Steffan Maier, whose company offers a non-anonymous feedback option, “Anonymous feedback became so popular precisely because it is difficult for most people to give others candid feedback. Anonymous reviews, in most instances, send the message to employees that all feedback-givers need to be protected and that it is dangerous to speak openly to your co-workers on an ongoing basis. Anonymous feedback can undermine the transparent, open and trusting culture people want to create today.”  Some HR experts say anonymity should rarely—if ever—be used when assessing performance.  According to an article posted by SHRM, the Society for Human Resources Management whose mission is to create better workplaces where employees and employers thrive together, “360 reviews have their downsides, organizations have discovered, not the least of which is that they can allow ill-intentioned employees to anonymously slam colleagues they may not like, may want to harm professionally or may feel competitive with.”

Weird Feedback

People will often get conflicting feedback on their 360s.  It will say both “you need to be more assertive in meetings” and “you should try to be less assertive in meetings.”  What are you supposed to do with that?  Most people try to wrestle with it a little bit, then dismiss it because the cognitive dissonance is too much to make sense of.  They don’t have the ability to put the feedback into context.  Perhaps, their peers want them to be less assertive so that they feel like they can get their way.  But their direct reports may want them to be more assertive and stand up for their team.  Or you might get comments like, “We need to have more meetings” and, also “we need to have fewer meetings.”  Perhaps, the extroverts want you to share more and talk more and have more meetings and the introverts want you to share less, talk less, and have fewer meetings.  

In a stage 3 environment, people often get feedback that is sort of like “if you were more like me, I’d be happier, and you’d do better.  Here’s how you can be more like me.”  Or “here’s how you can make my life better.” People get told, “Stop being so much like you and start being more like me.”  People get told, “Stop using your strengths.  They’re annoying.”  Or, “Fix all your weaknesses.  They suck.”  At this level, the feedback generally says more about the person giving the feedback than it does about the person the feedback is for.  But that is exceptionally hard to make sense of.

Dealing with Stage 3 Feedback

The identity is one of the strongest forces in the human psyche.  And, feedback like this often challenges a person’s identity, belittles their strengths, and highlights their weaknesses leaving them with the feeling that they only have a few options:

1. Quit.  “If I can’t be myself here, then I don’t belong here.”

2. Shrink and hide.  “In order to be less annoying, I need to hide my strengths.  In order to be less vulnerable, I need to hide my weaknesses.”  

3. Fake it.  “If I can figure out how to pretend to be less like me and more like some sterile standard, I can succeed here.”  This leaves you with the Stepford Wives version of the office where everyone looks the same and acts the same (until you’re in a conflict or a high pressure situation and people’s true colors shine). 

4. Put on armor and avoid responsibility for impact.  People decide to just not care about what other people think and decide to be themselves no matter the consequences and decide that how they are impacting others is other people’s problems and not their own.  

“I think the poster child for such a toxic culture has most recently been Amazon,” said Anna Carroll, an independent consultant to executives and author of The Feedback Imperative: How to Give Everyday Feedback to Speed Up Your Team’s Success. “I think Amazon’s emphasis on results at the expense of people led to the lack of integrity that resulted from this use of feedback.  Amazon has been harshly criticized following a New York Times article that described, their “Anytime Feedback Tool,” which allows employees to send praise or criticism about colleagues to managers. Bosses know who sends the comments, but the subjects of the remarks don’t. Employees told the Times that the tool is frequently used to sabotage others and has created “a river of intrigue and scheming. They described making quiet pacts with colleagues to bury the same person at once, or to praise one another lavishly. Many others described feeling sabotaged by negative comments from unidentified colleagues with whom they could not argue. In some cases, the criticism was copied directly into their performance reviews.”

There is an on-going collapsed distinction between performance and development.  A 360 is a developmental tool, but it often gets used as a performance evaluation tool.  And, it gets put (either officially or unofficially) in a person’s “permanent record.” Worse than that, it becomes indelible, data driven, proof of an employee’s performance, reputation, and potential and can create a narrative that is hard to rewrite.

Stage 4 Groups are Feedback Seeking

Stage 4 groups–22 % of the groups we work with–embrace strengths and differences and unite their teams around values.  They tend to be places where conflict is productive and where people give each other regular feedback.  Ideally, they don’t really need 360s.  Typically, they do anyway.  People generally don’t fully understand their strengths, their weakness, and their impact.  Ideally, they’re getting regular, usable feedback from their boss, their peers, and their direct reports.  But, a well-designed 360 process can be used effectively for development.  Companies like General Electric and Microsoft are taking an interesting approach to feedback.  General Electric has dropped annual performance reviews and the stack-ranking system that sorted workers into tiers and fired the bottom 10%.  Microsoft adopted this practice after GE’s Jack Welch and has, also, now dropped this practice under CEO Satya Nadella.  Nadella’s goal is to transform Microsoft’s corporate culture into one that values continual learning and growth and has adopted a “growth mindset” philosophy at Microsoft.

They polled Microsoft employees to better understand what is and isn’t working with performance feedback and learned that 90 percent of their employees find it valuable to share and receive feedback, yet only 25 percent say they get regular feedback from colleagues. And, only 7 percent regularly get feedback about how they can improve—though this is the feedback they want the most.  They have now adopted a program called Perspectives where they deliberately do not refer to “feedback” as that word, according to neuroscience researchers like David Rock, causes employees to recoil from feedback and triggers a fight or flight response.  

Kristen Roby Dimlow, the human resources executive in charge of implementing Perspectives at Microsoft, says “Even when you hear the word feedback, you can see a brain light up (in an MRI), and you feel a threat response.  If you feel threatened, your brain shuts down.”

Microsoft’s approach normalizes and institutionalizes giving and receiving feedback and creates a learning orientation on a team.  I know they’re walking their talk on this.  They hired us to come in and lead a two-day retreat on how to give and receive effective feedback.  They asked us to focus on appreciation, acknowledgement, coaching, and mentoring.  

Okay, how does all of this help you? What should you do?

We challenge you to seek more feedback, give better feedback, build regular feedback loops into your teams and your organization, and create more psychological safety around the whole idea of giving and receiving feedback. Let us know what you’re doing that’s working or if there’s anything we can do to help you improve your feedback process.  

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