The Feedback Primer Series_3x5 Leadership_Primary Graphic

Through our openness to and desire for feedback from others as a leader (addressed in part 3), we have hopefully begun to inspire others to do the same. Following this, it is time we expand these efforts to a collective level. We, the leaders, must create feedback loops for our people and team. We must own and innovate mechanisms to allow feedback to permeate throughout the team; we are not merely victims of our organizational circumstances and should not wait for “them at corporate” or “higher” to create these systems for us. Such feedback loops within the team do require some creativity, leader time investment, and commitment – but it is possible with resources that are universally available. We can start this now.

We begin this discussion on feedback loop application by looking at some important dynamics and considerations when starting to expand feedback across the team, which we do in this part. Next, in part 5, we offer specific examples and ways to apply these dynamics to help frame future ideas.

Necessary Precursors

Before we can begin the challenging process of organizational change, we need to ensure there are a few things that are well embedded within our team and instilled within our people.

Psychological safety. We have covered psychological safety in parts 2 and 3 before this. We are coming back to it again because I believe it is that important. If we hope to introduce feedback loops in the team that will be effective, make our people and team better, and endure – we must have peoples’ trust first. I highly encourage leaders to commit extensive time to building and reinforcing psychological safety across the team before introducing new feedback loops. We must ensure that we have enough leader currency (trust) and social capital for people to be open to this new, challenging activity. Again, we can learn more about psychological safety here.

Education and perspective. Let’s use a metaphor to dive into this precursor. Imagine a basketball player’s coach informs them that their 3-point shots are their weakest skill on the court and that they need to target it to improve game performance. Their improvement will include some instruction, learning new or better ways of shooting; we will call that education. It will also require extensive repetition to build the habit – 100s and 1,000s of shots.

When introducing feedback loops to our team, we are the basketball player’s coach, and it is a very similar process.

  • First, we need to tell our people (the “player”) that we must improve in this feedback skill and why we need to. No organizational change will succeed if we are not communicating a relevant and compelling purpose behind the change. Help them understand why this matters.
  • Second, we need to provide some education to improve their feedback abilities. With the basketball player, we wouldn’t merely tell them to get better at 3-pointers and expect them to start doing better. As leaders, we need to provide some education and instruction, just like a coach would to the player. We can use sources like part 2 of this Feedback Primer to help refine our peoples’ abilities in giving and receiving feedback. Obviously, there are many other resources beyond that, but leaders need to consider how we are equipping our people with new ways of thinking and skills to improve their proficiency with feedback.
  • Third, we need to practice! The basketball player will likely not take months or years to perfect his/her 3-point shots before getting back into a game. They will practice for some time and test their refined skill in a game. Over time, they will continue to sharpen the skill and test it in games. Getting in “the arena of feedback” is the same. We sharpen the skill a bit and go practice it. We iterate this loop of improvement to form habits with highly refined and mastered feedback proficiencies.

Leaders provide this education to better equip others with the knowledge and skills necessary to better thrive in the feedback arena. We also offer opportunities to practice, gaging improvement and developing that “feedback muscle.” Through this iterative process, we aim to establish a team norm of accountability and feedback, setting a new team norm and expectation that this is how we do routine business routinely.

Time for your example to take root. For the final precursor, we must enable sufficient opportunity for our example to take root, be noticed, and impact and inspire others. A major reason for leaders to first seek feedback and create personal loops for their own development, as discussed in part 3, is to role-model this behavior for others; we must set the example that others can follow. But the impact of our role-modeling takes time and I don’t want leaders to underestimate how long this impact can take. It will take time for our actions to merely be noticed by others across the team. It will take even longer, with strict consistency, for our behaviors to be perceived as genuine and legitimate personal habits. I implore leaders not to rush this phase for our example to take root across the team before expanding that to the rest of the team and introducing feedback loops to them. From personal experience, I generally see this taking many months or even a year within smaller teams (maybe less than 150 people).

5 Dynamics of a Feedback Loop

Now, we can start planning on what feedback loops we should introduce within the team. No single model for organizational feedback loops is best; there is no right way. Leaders need to think through these 5 dynamics of feedback loops below. What flavor from each dynamic do we want? What do we need? And what is feasible to introduce – what capacity does our team (and do I personally) have to sustain this new activity? We need to determine what will be the best challenge and fit for our team across these dynamics.

  1. Source. Where is the feedback coming from – up, down, or across? Is it up from our boss, down from subordinates or junior leaders, or across from peers? As discussed in part 3, each different source can provide a unique perspective on our leadership, impact, and behavior. All perspectives are valid. We must appreciate all of them.
  2. Formal vs informal. Should the source offer this feedback in a formal setting, like a pre-scheduled meeting, or can it be done in a more informal way, like in passing while walking back from a meeting or something similar? Both have different impacts on how feedback can land on someone as well as their readiness for feedback in the moment. The source and the type (attribution and scope) of the feedback may influence preference in this dynamic.
  3. Attribution. Should the feedback be attributional or developmental? Attributional means that it influences one’s assessment; attributional feedback is often tied to formal evaluations. Developmental feedback, however, has no impact on assessments or evaluations and is solely intended for the development of that person. Both are important, but they will look and be received very differently. Attributional feedback may provide better assessment on how we compare to others, which can improve self-awareness in a very direct way. Developmental, however, tends to be less “formal” and usually offers “messier” truth than we may be unwilling to tie to official evaluations.
  4. Timespan. How long are the feedback loop time intervals? Is this type of feedback occurring daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, or longer towards an annual rate? Why? Shorter timespan loops obviously require more capacity and time to maintain, so we need to determine what is sustainable long-term. Timespan also directly impacts the scope and focus of the feedback.
  5. Scope and focus. What are we targeting in this feedback? At the most micro-level, I think feedback can target small, in-the-moment behaviors that close our self-awareness gap. A personal example of this type of feedback that I received last year was during a small-group project work session. I was writing members’ and my ideas on a large butcher block paper. Apparently, how I threw the marker on the table when I was done writing gave others the perception of arrogance – that I had completed my thinking process and that my mind was made up; I was not open to any other ideas. That was far from my intention obviously, so that small moment taught me about a personal tendency that can have a larger negative impact on others. It has also clearly resonated with me, even a year later.

Conversely, I think the most macro-level of feedback scope and focus we can provide are broad perceptions of one’s performance and future potential over long timespans like a whole year of observation. This type of feedback is often offered through annual evaluations and associated conversations. While this high-level scope cannot address specific behaviors, they can address major trends and an ability to assess future potential. It is important this level of scope is reinforced by tangible data points, though. Macro-level feedback of this scale tends to be based more on perceptions over time and thus run the risk of leaders being unable to support their claims with observed or concrete examples. Without legitimate support for such perceptions, the feedback loses validity.

So, feedback loop scope and focus can and should span from these small micro-levels to the most macro, and everything in-between.

Value in Diversity

Finally, to form a more robust developmental model for our team with multiple feedback loops, we should look to leverage a variety of these dynamics. What that means is, if we are able to introduce multiple feedback loops to our people over time, they should vary across the 5 dynamics.

For example, if the first feedback loop I establish as a leader is a formal meeting once a quarter where I provide feedback to my junior leaders on their performance over those 90-days, the next loop I introduce should not replicate those same dynamics. Can we make the new loop’s source peer-based or bottom-up fed to help round out the 360-degrees of feedback input, rather than coming from me again as the leader? Or can I shorten the time span of the loop, making this new one a weekly iteration, which would focus on more detailed and targeted behaviors. This would be a good balance to the existing 90-day loop I first established.

Ultimately, as we are able to expand the depth and breadth of feedback across our team, we should seek variety and complexity among the 5 dynamics: multiple types of sources, formal and informal, attributional and developmental, short and long time spans (and even more in-between), and multiple levels of scope and focus (daily behavioral feedback to annual perceptions on performance and potential).

To make these dynamics more tangible for others to consider, and possibly adapt from, we look at some specific feedback loop examples that leaders are able to initiate now in part 5, next.

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