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How Feedback Can Fail and What to Do Instead

I recently surprised a COO by giving him very different advice about a business problem from what he had heard from others. Here’s the situation:

Through the grapevine, a bunch of junior R&D folks expressed concern about a team of colleagues who were frustrated and unhappy with their leadership. Their senior team leader was a founding employee, and although she had been a star in her day, she was now out of step with current best practices. Plus, she often disagreed publicly and contentiously with her assistant team leader to the point that both had lost significant credibility with the team’s junior members.

Both the COO and his boss were concerned about retaining junior staff and maintaining a healthy culture. The CEO suggested that the COO give the senior TL feedback that her team members had grown so unhappy that their distress was now circulating in the hallway. The COO discussed the situation with some external colleagues, who were giving him a variety of tips about how to deliver the feedback that all agreed needed to be given.

Playing the Contrarian

“Some of those suggestions sound very smart,” I said, “but once you deliver the feedback, how much good do you think it will actually do?” Not very much, said the COO, because the senior TL is set in her ways and knows there’s a lot of regard for her history and acumen, so she doesn’t fear losing her job.

“And do most of your junior R&D staffers stick around for the long haul?” It turned out that there is a large group of relatively junior workers who need to learn the business. Only a few of them progress through the ranks to become team leaders themselves. Most cycle out into other organizations.

We talked at length about what it takes to have a healthy culture, and the COO expressed his commitment to improving the culture overall, in addition to resolving this particular problem.

By the end of our conversation, the COO recognized that even if the feedback was relevant and well-presented, it wasn’t practical to expect that the senior TL would automatically or successfully change her behavior once she understood that people were unhappy — and even if she did, it might not be enough.

Step Back to See the Big Picture

We’ve all been in situations where a committed person made an effort to improve, but still couldn’t turn a complicated situation around. For bosses and leaders, as well as for the rank and file, organizational norms have impact on behavior. So if direct feedback to the senior TL wasn’t likely to increase team member satisfaction, what could the next steps be?

Once the COO recognized that personal effort alone was insufficient, he was willing to evaluate the larger situation and consider the other organizational aspects that might be creating unhappiness among the junior team members. For example, they might be focusing on the dynamics between the senior and junior TLs because they can’t figure out what else will help them grow and progress in their jobs.

The COO noted that the old history of TL control and the existing norm of the revolving door for junior staffers could be suppressing team member participation in and commitment to the team’s outcomes.

We discussed the importance of helping the juniors feel like they matter to management, and showing how they can learn, build their careers, and accomplish good work. Yes, the senior TL needed to work on developing a better relationship with her deputy and incorporating team members’ input in her decisions. But more crucial issues might never come to light if the focus is only on her “bad” behavior.

Build a Portfolio of Response

Figuring out what needs to change so that the junior team members can grow, thrive, and stick around longer — rather than taking their training and development out the door after a couple of years — could pay off for this organization far beyond the impact on this single team.

There could also be substantial long-term benefit if people on the lower organizational rungs learn that when something isn’t working, their senior executives will explore the problem, incorporate their opinions and concerns, and propose and test a variety of solutions — from performance feedback to cross-training, exposure to clients, and new approaches to R&D itself.

And better and more consistent communication to manage junior staffers’ expectations about career path will also help.

But the bottom line is that, in the absence of a structural review, it rarely works to hook hope of improvement to performance feedback alone, unless the organizational culture is already in truly good shape.

Onward and upward,


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