Coach at work: 'How do I know whether my colleagues' feedback is true?'
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Coach at work: 'How do I know whether my colleagues' feedback is true?'

We put your workplace woes to an executive coach.

At the end of a recent 360-degree feedback round, I was handed a report that included comments from my team about taking too long to make decisions. It seems I'm causing bottlenecks in processes that are time-sensitive (we handle risk assessments for the rest of the organisation). You'd think I was a liability, but no one seems to notice how often I've saved the organisation's bacon: I routinely pick up errors that others overlook.

I don't expect to be thanked (I'm just doing my job) but the feedback doesn't ring true. I'd also like more appreciation from my team about the value I add as an experienced player. How do I push back without coming across as arrogant?

Make feedback chats routine: schedule them into your calendar and resist all temptation to defer.

Make feedback chats routine: schedule them into your calendar and resist all temptation to defer.Credit:Johnny Greig

The coach:

Part of the struggle of engaging thoughtfully with feedback, particularly if it doesn't "land" or seem true to you, is letting go the thought that you're supposed to be perfect. You're not. You're human, which means you're also flawed, blind to your weaknesses and afraid of being found out. How fragile we all are, and what a relief it can be to just let yourself feel the truth of it.

Truths of feedback

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Finding out something about yourself that you didn't know is called "adaptive learning". It's the very thing that turns a technical expert (like you) into a terrific manager of teams – but it also burns like bare feet on a winter frost, which is why most of us do our best to find a way around it.

The coach: Jacqueline Jago.

The coach: Jacqueline Jago.Credit:Sari Sutton

360-degree feedback provides a mechanism for depersonalised information from colleagues about your areas for development. If moderated by a consultant, the information has been bleached of blaming, shaming or threats to end the relationship. That's the upside.

On the downside, taking feedback out of the context of the relationship and the moment deprives your colleagues of their struggle to tell you to your worried, risk-averse face what they want from you and how your tight-fisted behaviour affects them. It also deprives you of the granular and local detail that would help you really understand, in your muscles and mind, what's going on in your interactions with your team and its work. When you can map that objectively, you'll know how much truth there is in the feedback you got – and not before.

Make feedback routine

At a guess, you're a middle manager having trouble letting go of your role as a subject-matter expert – but your colleagues will have the best sense of what's holding you up. The adaptive challenge is to grow a new habit of talking to them, a lot, about how you're going – and to do the same for them: offer your views on how they're going.

  • A first step would be to go for a walk/chat/coffee with each team member separately and invite their suggestions on how they think you could lift your game.
  • To make these feedback chats routine, schedule them into your calendar and resist all temptation to defer. Prepare yourself for the "burn" of adaptive learning: you might need a few repetitions before your tolerance for learning more about yourself begins to rise. As US investor and former chief executive Ray Dalio observed: "pain times reflection equals progress".
  • Having garnered detailed intelligence on your own performance from the people who know most about it, you might then start growing a feedback and learning ("deliberately developmental") culture in your team. You can suggest that your direct reports make the same attempt with their own staff – they are much more likely to if they have seen you ahead of them, having crossed the Rubicon of listening to feedback.
  • At any meeting, you as leader can call for observations from everyone, about everyone, on what could have worked better in terms of behaviour and processes – the more specific, the better; and the more often, the better. Every team meeting. At the end of every conversation ("How do you think this went?").

When these non-shaming feedback conversations happen all the time, a developmental culture emerges in your team – and your people start to tell you, in the thick of the workplace moment, exactly when and how you're falling back into your bad old habits (in your case, possibly of being too cautious, or perhaps of pulling back from fully trusting your own judgment).

The leader is critical in influencing team culture. Since you love being the expert, I suggest you start reading everything you can on how to help others (the technical experts in your team) develop and collaborate. You could start with Lynda Gratton and Tamara J. Erickson's excellent article in the Harvard Business Review, "Eight ways to build collaborative teams". Once you've tasted the pleasure of developing a team and growing yourself in the process, the satisfaction of knowing best in any room starts to taste like sherbet: the fizz is short, and low in nutrients.

Feedback tips

  • When giving feedback, be highly specific about what you want, rather than focussed on what went wrong. "I'd like you to focus on meeting Tuesday's deadline" rather than "your work is always late".
  • Communicate effects: "When your input is late, it means the rest of the work is delayed and I've noticed a spike in the team's stress levels."
  • Express commitment to the relationship: "I really want this to work and I want to see you succeed."
  • Add in second and third-order consequences: "When we deliver past deadline, the budget people have less time to finalise their reporting and it's harder to get their help when we need it later."
  • If you're angry, spend some time practising what you want to say – this will help you process any emotional intensity beforehand and choose words that are neutral and direct.

Jacqueline Jago is an executive coach and the principal of Bloom Coaching & Consulting. Send your questions to counsel@canberratimes.com.au.