In our November Ask Me Anything, four experts with extensive experience in giving and receiving feedback provided responses to questions from the community. This topic is relevant for everyone, from first-time employees all the way up to seasoned executives, and sparked a lively conversation between our community and experts.
Thanks to the following mentors for shedding light on the challenges our community brought to the conversations:
Marc Rubner, Vice President Community Engagement, Blackboard
Chandar Natarajan, former leader at IT service providers like Wipro Technologies and Fidelity Investments
Lisa Leary, Vice President of Sales North East, FairPoint Communications
Peter Lurie, Partner Technology Strategist, Microsoft
Many managers struggle with the best way to provide feedback, particularly when it is critical. Several of our community members asked about how to ensure that feedback is not interpreted as judgmental or personal.
Lisa Leary suggested to start any conversation by indicating a goal of fostering a culture of continued improvement and investing in employees’ future as a coach. Then, in keeping with that theme, present candid feedback on particular behaviors or actions. Asking questions can be an effective way to engage an employee in a potentially sensitive conversation like this, such as whether they believe they achieved the desired outcome and if this task could have been completed differently? Leary observed that it is interesting to see the outcome: “Some seasoned employees will push back initially but may consider your feedback and discuss with you at a later time.”
Chandar Natarajan recognized that this concern is particularly relevant these days due to the constant changing of roles resulting from new technology and shifting business conditions. In his experience, conversations to deliver this kind of feedback often require a lot of preparation and gathering of relevant data and examples. Natarajan recommended being candid and open with facts and showing the employee what could happen in a given situation based on their choice of actions. He recommended emphasizing that the feedback is given with the employee’s best interest in mind and ending the meeting with an action plan to work together and check in with the necessary follow-ups. Natarajan conceded that in these kinds of situations, it is possible for employees to push back or show emotion. If this happens, being a good listener and showing genuine empathy will go a long way.
Marc Rubner built upon Natarajan’s advice, recommending a shift in perspective to think of feedback as neither positive nor negative: “Lose the modifiers. In doing so, over time, you will see that feedback is information. Information has value. To establish feedback as information, leaders must establish a constant flow of it between themselves and their teams, colleagues, stakeholders, and customers: what could have been better? What did I do well? What more could I have done? The answers are just information that people can use to improve their output.”
Rubner noted that in his experience, trouble tends to arise when feedback is inconsistent or only offered on a periodic basis. In these cases, it becomes an event, and many modifiers begin to link themselves to the feedback. Therefore, constant and consistent feedback is key. All this said, Rubner reminded the community that feedback is meant to be taken personally – it is provided in response to how an individual performs and where they can improve: “feedback is sometimes information wrapped in opinion. Cut through the opinion part and focus on the information. That’s the value.”
While much of the conversation surrounding feedback tends to focus on managerial feedback to employees, several people also wondered about circumstances in which it is appropriate to give feedback to a manager and the best way to do so. Rubner asserted, “Every circumstance! Do it constantly, and it will never be awkward. If you offer information (not feedback) to your manager and your manager has a problem with it, find a new manager.”
Peter Lurie also noted that he constantly gives feedback to his managers. However, he acknowledged that managers are only human, and each one responds to feedback differently.
Depending on how a manager responds to feedback, Lurie suggested masking the information in the form of a question or request: “For example, if a manager keeps changing the scope of a task midway through, it may be better to say: ‘I’m trying to complete this project by next Friday. I understand the requirements to be A, B, and C. However, last time we did this type of marketing project you also wanted X and Y. Is that something we’ll need to deliver as well?’” He recommended ensuring that feedback is never framed negatively. Laying out the situation one is unhappy with in a factual matter, explaining why it is difficult, and then presenting a couple solutions. Framing “feedback” in this way will spark a positive, productive conversation.
Just as giving feedback is a skillset to develop, the process runs both ways, and it is important to learn and practice how to constructively receive feedback.
With this in mind, many community members wondered how initiate the feedback process. Peter Lurie suggested that the key to receiving candid, constructive feedback is to actually ask for it, and to do it in a way that the respondent can provide thoughtful feedback at some point in the future (versus demanding for it on the spot). Lurie conceded that getting constructive feedback can be difficult, but that it is all in how one asks. He recommended asking three questions per topic: first, a subjective rating for a skill; second, examples of the skill; and third, examples of where improvement could take place. Lurie also recommended, “Make sure you thank your team… and explain you’re going to work on their top 3 items in the next year and you look forward to hearing from them how you’re progressing.” This will make them feel welcome and valued in your long-term development process.
Developing a Culture of Feedback
Several members in the community wondered what, in the experts’ opinions, a strong review process might look like. In Lisa Leary’s experience, the best organizational feedback processes include a written plan for employees and clear expectations to ensure everyone is on the same page. She recommended clearly scheduled checkpoints in between annual reviews in order to ensure employees are on track to reach their mutually agreed upon goals.
Natarajan recalled having a very strong culture of feedback in one of his earlier organizations: “we had a system wherein each individual had to come out with his personal plan for enhancing skills and aspirations over the next three years at the beginning of the year. Since this plan was by the individual, there was a high level of buy in.”
This organization used 360 feedback internally and amongst clients. That feedback served as the foundation for monthly one-on-one discussions with one’s supervisor, which culminated in the annual planning meeting mentioned above. In Natarajan’s opinion, these discussions were one of the most “effective and powerful performance management tools if used well.” HR could access meeting notes in read-only format and see if the manager and employee missed a monthly meeting for some reason. This created accountability and consistency across the organization.
In this same system, managers would indicate employee “stability,” and any instances of “instability” due to work-related issues or others would be flagged, which helped senior management and HR take proactive action to support these individuals. Natarajan found that each component of this system came together to improve retention, build employee engagement, and create an ongoing, sustainable review system.
At another organization where Natarajan worked, one of the Vice Presidents took the initiative to share his 360 review verbatim with all his direct reports and stakeholders along with his action plan to address any criticism. Natarajan noted that this executive was able to lot of trust throughout the organization by openly sharing his vulnerabilities. He would also update this group on progress made against his action plan. Natarajan saw many others adopt this method with great success, and he continues to share the example as a best practice for people to consider integrating into their individual and/or team feedback methodologies.
The Best Feedback?
The community discussion closed with the question, “what is the best feedback you’ve ever received?”
For Leary, the best feedback she received was simple and to the point: “Speak clearly and don’t look down!” This is advice she has carried with her and has used to hold her own as a leader at global organizations like IBM, Siemens, and EarthLink.
Natarajan replied, “The best feedback I received was a candid, open observation about my (in)ability to make impactful presentations, which shook me up completely and led to a positive behavior change.” He had historically been overconfident in his ability to get by with last minute efforts and did not leave adequate time for preparation. However, after delivering a progress report, Natarajan received feedback from a senior leader who reported to the chairman of the firm and was managing the project so had sat in on the presentation: “He immediately expressed his disappointment and questioned my commitment and capability in front of the whole audience (which included external consultants).” Natarajan recalled his embarrassment, saying, “I wished the earth would swallow me to escape this ordeal. It shook me up completely.” However, upon reflection, Natarajan is confident that this “hard-hitting feedback” helped him grow as an effective communicator.
Rubner recalled a similar experience when he was “a young manager in a very large multi-national corporation with a big ego and a big mouth.” Rubner had had success in a previous position at a smaller company, so when a senior manager invited him for a cup of coffee, he assumed it was to pay him compliments and recommend him for a promotion. He was shocked to hear, “Everyone on the team thinks your work is great…. But they also think you’re a giant a-hole.” Rubner recalls, “she provided example after example of this kind of behavior, and in doing so, provided me the EXACT type of information I needed to hear. This wasn’t feedback. It was information. And it turned my entire career around.” Upon reflection, he realized that this senior manager saw enough potential in him and cared enough to straighten him out as opposed to letting him dig his own grave. “Best. Day. Ever,” he said, “It happened 20 years ago and I still remember it like it was yesterday.”
Lurie closed out the conversation recalling the philosophy of his manager’s manager: “When in doubt, start with the customer and work backwards. Do that, and I will always stand behind you.” These two sentences have guided Lurie throughout his career. He left the community with great perspective: “In general, any feedback that I can understand and apply is most helpful. Can’t understand the feedback you received? Print it out and leave it on your desk. Read it every morning. Eventually, you’ll get it.”