Feedback — Do It Right or Not At All

October 21, 2009

I had the rare pleasure of spending a weekend in Bermuda with six talented and dynamic friends.  Our ambitions vary widely at this point in our lives, despite the similarity of our professional DNA (we all met as thirtysomething women at Harvard Business School). Some of us are gunning for top spots at some of the world’s most competitive companies.  Some, like me, are still searching for the right voice and path.  Some are embracing motherhood as a vocation.

Some are doing all of the above.

I had three clear takeaways from the weekend.  One, I need my friends.  I need a strong team around me to have any hope of taking the ride of modern living with sufficient grace.  Two, I need a better plan for declaring my marital status in countries that don’t recognize my marriage.  I was really stumped when the border guard asked for clarification when I couldn’t decide whether I was a “Miss” or “Mrs,” which is a disservice to the screaming toddlers in line behind me.  And, three, feedback systems are not working very well in most organizations.

All of us had had frustrating recent experiences giving or receiving feedback within the structure imposed by an organization, and the pattern seemed material.  In many cases, formal reviews were incredibly resource-consuming (measured in months of corporate effort, not weeks or days), with an often shockingly unclear payoff.  Informal feedback was regularly ad-hoc, clumsy and unproductive.

In this focus group of seven, the examples where feedback worked had occurred in organizations with the following characteristics:

  • Improvement was an integral part of the culture, in all areas.
  • People were considered the firm’s primary strategic asset.
  • Investments had been made in feedback training – how to give, receive and solicit effective feedback — not just in compliance with the appropriate tools and forms.
  • Feedback was actually incorporated into the incentives and promotions structure, not just rhetorically incorporated.
  • The feedback model reflected the firm’s strategy and values, as well as the skills needed to perform a particular role.  As a result, the process connected participants to the organization’s larger purpose.

All of us, at some point, had endured feedback in organizations that lacked these characteristics.  These experiences were, at best, harmless and distracting, and at worst, damaging for participants both professionally and personally.  The consensus, non-scientific view from the group?  It may be better to have no formal feedback system than a bad one or even a mediocre one, which I would argue describes too many organizations today.  Too many are checking the box on a review process, then getting on with the real business of the firm.  This choice, it seems, is not free.

Culture Change at GM: Declaring it Doesn’t Make it So

October 9, 2009

The NYT reported that the board of GM wanted the culture of the organization to change:

In the interim, Mr. Henderson stressed that G.M.’s new board was pushing management to speed up decisions on new products and install a culture devoted to pleasing customers.

I’m not optimistic. The first red flag is the title of the article, G.M. Is Adapting to a New Culture, Chief Says.  In my experience, culture doesn’t change upon decree from the top.  Culture exists because of years of reinforcing norms and behaviors.  It exists because smart people constantly pick up on how status is gained and which behaviors are valued in practice (not in the introduction to the annual report). Changing culture requires unraveling and replacing that normative system in a comprehensive way.  The analogy that always comes to mind is clearing a patch of land to be farmed. You can’t just cut down the trees and declare victory. You have to get your hands dirty beneath the surface, digging up roots and turning over the soil.

In other words, you have to address the underlying conditions that allowed certain behaviors to thrive in the organization. Where to begin?  I suggest starting with my favorite question, now familiar to our readers:  why would reasonable, well-intentioned people do what they’re doing?  Once you can answer this question with an open heart, once you can identify the organizational drivers of the actions and choices you want to change, then you can begin to influence them.

Maybe the article got it wrong, but if it’s even close to correct, the 90 days allocated to this activity at GM will be wildly insufficient.

Hidden Risks of Crisis Leadership

September 14, 2009

The NYT’s Adam Bryant delivered an interesting interview with Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs.  Blankfein offers some suggestions for leading in a crisis, which can be summarized as keep talking, to everyone, both to better inform your choices and to communicate changing conditions and strategies.  Blankfein walked the halls constantly during the height of the financial crisis and left a daily voicemail for the entire organization.

Blankfein also speaks to the need to “be good” to your people without lowering standards, a theme I explored in an earlier post.  In his words:

…being good to them doesn’t mean you pay them more or you’re more liberal, or you let them get away with things. Most people, what they want is to be better.

Getting this right is a central part of good leadership, but it’s harder to do in a crisis.  There is often intense pressure to care too little about your people — to become distracted by anxiety and external events — or to care too much and lower your expectations of their performance.  The first reaction is more common, but the second is more insidious.

Anxiety is a deeply selfish emotion. We don’t think of it that way because it’s often threats to other people that trigger the sensation, but anxiety’s unique rush of hormones and chemicals is biologically designed to promote our own survival.  The response is self-distracting, by design.  It’s almost impossible to focus on the experience of other people in these moments, to perform the very act that makes leadership possible, and so we end up hardening ourselves to the people who need us most.  Anxiety is an indulgence that destroys our capacity to lead.

In contrast, a crisis tempts some of us to become overly sympathetic and lower our standards.  When people you care about are going through a tough time, it can feel reasonable to compromise and let them off the hook a bit.  But there are two significant costs to that choice.  First, it denies your team the opportunity to learn.  People, like muscles, need to push themselves beyond their comfort zone to grow.  They need to bump up against their perceived limits in order to break through them, and protecting them from reality disrupts that growth process.  Second, lowering standards signals your hidden belief that maybe they’re not up for it after all.  It reveals a lack of confidence in your people when the stakes really matter.  They will internalize the message.  Their performance will rise only to the level of your diminished expectations, and everyone will conclude that you were right.  It is hard for organizations to recover from those dynamics.

A provocative way to think about it is that a crisis tempts us all to become anxious mothers or protective fathers.  Leadership requires that we reject both of these unproductive stereotypes.