Feedback behind the feedback: How I found a gem beneath a simple comment
I vividly remember that Wednesday morning. A few years ago, during summer, my staff meeting was going well; at least that’s what I thought. Then, we proceeded to the next item on the agenda: ask my direct reports for feedback.
Niraj (I): “From what I can see, the team morale is good. What feedback are you receiving from your team?”
Tina: “A few members on my team have told me that you should wear casual jeans on Friday, like they do.”
At this point, I looked at Tina in a confused manner. She smiled and said, “you wanted honest feedback, didn’t you?”
“I did. Thank you, Tina,” I attempted to show my appreciation.
During my weekly team meetings, I tend to ask for feedback on what I can do to improve myself as a leader.
I cannot stress the value of feedback enough. Ken Blanchard said, “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” When I heard this quote the first time, I thought it was one of those cheesy one liners that feels good but does not have a real use. From many years of experience though, I have come to appreciate the value of feedback; even the ones that sting. Recently, General Electric decided to replace their famous ABC performance ranking system with one’s ability to give and receive feedback.1. Yes, feedback is that important in improving our results at work. Giving and receiving feedback is a skill; we can get better at it with practice. Reflecting on the feedback and incorporating it into your leadership behaviors is also a skill that will do wonders for you and your team.
Asking for feedback allows me to practice a tenet fundamental to growing as a leader; I let my team members influence me. By remaining open to influence from my team, I value their contribution. By incorporating diverse viewpoints, we also achieve a more holistic outcome for our customers. I believe feedback is a gift; it takes courage on the part of someone giving a constructive feedback. I have learned that the only gracious way to receive feedback, even if I disagree with it, is to say, “thank you.”
My organization had a policy allowing employees to wear casual attire on Fridays. During summers, the casual dress policy changed to include weekdays as long as on is not meeting customers. My team members were unhappy about my Friday attire, i.e. dress pants, shirts and shoes. This feedback was unlike any other I had received. My first reaction was that of confusion. I thought to myself, “Of all the things they could have told me, this is what they chose to share and complain about. How does it affect anyone’s performance?” I went on a quest to find out what was beneath the feedback.
When it came to fashion, I was a novice (I still am). So, I reached out to others including a few colleagues on my team. I observed others, asked questions and synthesized responses. I learned new insights by going through this exploration journey. Turns out — Employees feel relaxed and informal when they wear a casual attire. Samuel feels open to discussing non work topics, e.g. company’s golf tournament. Tara talks about the weekend trip her family has been planning for her twins. For many employees, this means an opportunity to talk like friends and deepen their social connections. These interactions increase the sociability among team members, a feature of an innovative team.2
Team members also believed that someone dressed casually is more approachable. When I dressed formally, I sent a signal to the team members that I was not approachable. Leaders, you and I, need to be approachable so the team members can share what is on their mind. You and I can also keep a pulse on their life events, at least the ones with impact on their performance at work.
Did I adopt the casual dress code on Fridays? Of course. Changing how I dress was just the trigger; there were further consequences. I increased my social interactions with coworkers.They shared their career aspirations with me. I became aware of their nuanced strengths, and could find assignments that suit their needs. They felt free to approach me and share their concerns and complaints, including ideas to improve processes.
Here is the bottom line: By exploring beneath the surface, I was able to learn a valuable lesson and then apply it to improve my leadership skills. You can do the same. If you are able to locate the meaning behind the words spoken during feedback, not only you will improve your skills but the feedback giver will also feel validated and appreciated. Our team members need appreciation and sometimes they don’t get enough of it at work.
Next time you receive feedback that seems banal at surface but seems to have a promise underneath, scratch the surface. Reflect, ask and act on the feedback. You might find something valuable, something that will help you give a better version of you to your followers. And when you do, tell us about it.
Wish you leadership!