Organizational Success Depends on How Leaders Give Feedback

Everything is changing, and quickly. Whether businesses respond to the environment or vice versa is a bit like the chicken and the egg situation. Small and big organizations alike, and the people that comprise them, are being called to demonstrate human-centric leadership to spark rapid innovation.

Human-centric leaders balance humility and confidence. Some call them “transformational leaders;” people who stimulate creativity by facilitating team flow rather than dictating rigid roles and responsibilities. They lead with their humanity. In stark contrast with transactional leaders, a transformational leader’s team is likely to have higher morale, engagement, and willingness to take appropriate risks — the cornerstones of change.

Everyone at an organization is responsible for and contributes to developing a culture of innovation, regardless of rank. An individual earns acknowledgment as a human-centric leader by consistently showing a combination of skills including self-awareness, team smarts, curiosity, resilience, fearlessness, and confidence. There is a specific time when embodying such leadership proves most needed: during conflict.

There are varying degrees of conflict, but no team is immune. It’s inevitable. What’s less obvious is how foundational conflict is to success. The best leaders lean into conflict and turn the most uncomfortable dynamics into powerful moments of mutual understanding. People are desperate to be seen and valued in their wholeness. If only praised for greatness, they are haunted by the belief that they are doomed when shortcomings are exposed or further, needed areas of growth won’t be capitalized on. It’s a fear of failure that ultimately strangles potential. Simply put, innovation depends on a team’s ability to establish and grow trust through conflict. Over time, teams that successfully navigate conflict create a culture of “psychological safety” wherein members are empowered to speak candidly, take moderate risks, and think creatively.

A psychologically safe culture transforms an inherently diverse team — made up of people from various backgrounds — into a team of “acquired diversity” where individuals with unique experiences are encouraged to contribute opinions, ideas, and feedback. The former looks good on paper; the latter drives organizational success. Implementing robust internal feedback loops is a powerful vehicle to achieving acquired diversity, but the road is bumpy when organizations fail to develop members’ handling of the vehicle.

It’s not surprising how ill-equipped people are when it comes to maneuvering difficult conversations. Just look at what’s happening on a broader scale regarding politics or recall the last time a family member or co-worker pissed you off. We’re human and naturally bad at acknowledging tough feelings and facts, particularly in front of others. Generally, relaying feedback comes down to centering oneself, choosing to be vulnerable, and engaging another person with compassionate directness (a term coined by Arianna Huffington). Because “generally” doesn’t always cut it, here is a detailed six-step approach with guided questions to help give honest feedback:

Step One: Ground Yourself

Take a deep breath. Ask yourself these questions to make a mind-body connection: “How do I feel about giving feedback, and where are these feelings showing up physically?” Observe without judgment. Now, reflect on why you feel this way.

Step Two: Relate

It’s important to consider the role you play in the feedback exchange. How do you relate to the person you are giving feedback to within the organizational context. What are the many factors influencing your shared dynamic? Write them out.

Step Three: Be Vulnerable

Take a moment to reflect on your perception of vulnerability. What informs the extent of your valuing or devaluing of vulnerability? Now, try to recall a time when being vulnerable served you. What might it look like to be vulnerable in this situation? Trust yourself and take another deep breath or a pause if needed.

Step Four: Empathize

Empathy is huge. Consider the other person’s experience of what occurred and notice where you are less confident in your understanding. If they are anticipating receiving feedback, how might they feel? Now, what’s your intention, and how will you communicate it compassionately?

Step Five: Give Feedback

A great way to refrain from inciting defensiveness in another person is to present feedback using the Situation — Behavior — Impact model (SBI Model). First, paint a picture of the situation. Then, describe the specific behavior or quality of behavior you’re addressing. Lastly, share the impact of the person’s behavior, whether it be a feeling or project-oriented. Please fight the temptation to make statements about the motivations behind the person’s actions. Instead, stick to the SBI model, let it sit, and allow space for the person to respond.

Step Six: Ask for Feedback

Don’t be shy. Invite the person to give you feedback, even if only on your delivery.

How people receive feedback matters too, but it’s a whole lot easier to process information when it’s delivered with compassionate directness. Anyone can embody transformational leadership; however, those with leadership titles are most responsible for cultivating a psychologically safe environment that unlocks individual potential and drives organizational growth.

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