by Gael O’Brien

Have you ever wished your teams had more “A” players? I’ve heard that often. Sometimes it’s from a new leader inheriting a team. Or, a leader’s frustration because goals weren’t met.

We know hiring for the right abilities and creating a supportive environment where team members can succeed are fundamental. However, a supportive environment? That can be far trickier for leaders to recognize when it isn’t happening to the degree they believe. Consider 2019 Gallup findings  that only 26 percent of employees surveyed strongly agree feedback they receive helps them do better work.

As 2020 approaches it’s time to revisit the power of feedback and how its content and delivery shape a culture – for good or ill. First, an observation about feedback and then two examples that provide ways of answering a question that leaders should be asking: “How can I/we inspire the best from our team members?”

Organizations devote a lot of time to feedback. There is no shortage of approaches. For example:

• Effective feedback requires caring personally and challenging directly, according to author Kim Scott, who recommends radical candor, which I’ve written about here;
• Performance reviews – no matter how frequent – can often fall short; and
• In-the-moment feedback is at the mercy of whether a boss is demonstrating reactive behavior  –in person or through employee feedback apps.

And then, there are assumptions employees make when they get little or no feedback which can range from complacency to feeling totally alienated.

I was reminded of feedback’s transformative power reading stories in two recent leadership books, bought simply because I liked their covers. (Shallow, yes, but stay with me.) The books are: Unlocking Creativity: How to Solve Any Problem and Make the Best Decisions by Shifting Creative Mindsets and The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups.

Little did I know they’d refer to the same 2013 research led by psychologist David Yeager about connection, belonging and motivation, referred to as “magical feedback.”

Management professor Michael Roberto, in Unlocking Creativity, describes how extraordinary teachers challenge, set high expectations and show confidence in their students’ abilities. He explains the experiment Yeager and colleagues conducted with the help of a group of middle-school social studies teachers. The teachers gave students an assignment to write an essay, providing afterward their customary detailed feedback.

The researchers asked that one line be added at the end of each paper. Some students received “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know you can reach them.” Other students received “I’m giving you these comments so you’ll have feedback on your paper.”

When the papers were handed back, students were told it wasn’t a requirement, but they could revise their essays. Students receiving the line about high expectations revised their paper at a significantly higher rate (and with higher scores from teachers and independent readers) than other students. Researchers noted African American students receiving “high expectations” feedback benefited even more than white students.

Wherever one is in school or career, someone representing high standards who believes in you is an impetus for further effort and accomplishment. We build trust through relationships where empathy makes the wonderful human connection that enables someone to feel he or she matters. A comment attributed to basketball coach John Wooden is useful for those leading others: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Author Daniel Coyle, in The Culture Code, devotes the chapter “How to Build Belonging” to basketball coach Gregg Popovich’s approach. Popovich, head coach of the San Antonio Spurs for 23 years, is famous for his five NBA titles and the culture he’s built with players. Coyle ties into the research Yeager and colleagues did to demonstrate how high standards and believing in players meeting them creates personal impact.

He explains that Popovich’s body language, attention and behavior demonstrate consistently “I care about you” to his players. The coach’s performance feedback is hard hitting, relentless coaching and criticism to the high standards expected. As consuming as the focus on the game is, Popovich ensures the players see a big picture also. Coyle indicates that through social events Popovich creates and conversations with players about politics, food and history, he shows that “Life is bigger than baseball.”

Boilerplate language on leadership is about developing people by establishing the standards and encouraging each team member’s success. In a world of different styles, egos, insecurities, pressures and time constraints, some people can seem far harder than others to encourage. I have a theory that perfectionists and over-achievers who are very hard on themselves tend to be bosses who are potentially very hard on others. That behavior can erode trust especially if a personal connection is more surface.

Leaders develop their effectiveness by recognizing their own limitations and how to move beyond them to foster connection, belonging and the right fuel to motivate. Roberto writes in Unlocked Creativity that leaders should not “simply focus on finding ‘better’ people, but instead remove the obstacles that impede creativity of the talented individuals already in their midst.”

That’s a tall order. However, it is far easier when leaders regularly check in with team members about what they think is working – and what might work better and why – before leaders share their opinions.

As to the question of “how can I/we inspire the best from others?” It’s a great way to rethink what feedback approaches might have greater positive impact on a culture.

Gael O’Brien is a catalyst in leaders leading with purpose and impact through clarity, presence and connection. She is an executive coach, culture coach, speech coach and presenter. She publishes The Week in Ethics and is also a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, a Kallman Executive Fellow, Hoffman Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University, and a Senior Fellow Social Innovation, the Lewis Institute at Babson College.


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