Book review: “Humble Inquiry”

Edgar H. Schein, a former professor at MIT has done a lot of research in the field of organisational culture, and I particularly like the work he has done with respect to effective communication. His 2013 book “Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling” is a prime example of Schein’s endeavours to help create what he refers to as ‘positive relationships and effective organisations’.

What does the ‘humble’ part of Humble Inquiry stand for?

When Schein talks about humility in the context of humble inquiry, he refers to ‘Here-and-now Humility’. Schein describes this type of humility felt when a person is dependent on another person to help achieve certain goals or tasks that he or she has committed to. As Schein writes “My status is inferior to yours at this moment because you know something or can do something that I need in order to accomplish some task or goal that I have chosen.”

People can thus choose between denying the dependency on another person (and avoid feeling humble) or engaging with the other person (and be humble). Schein explains why Here-and now Humility’ is hard to learn; in achievement-oriented cultures where knowledge and display of it are admired, asking questions or admitting that you don’t know can be felt as a loss of status.

What does the ‘inquiry’ part of Humble Inquiry stand for?

Inquiry comes down to curiosity. Plain and simple. It means that you ask questions. But Schein is at pains to urge us not to ask any old question; in Humble Inquiry there is no place for:

  • Leading questions – a question that prompts or encourages the answer wanted.
  • Rhetorical questions – a question asked purely to create a dramatic effect or make a point, instead of getting an answer.
  • Statements in the form of questions – you are just making a point or are trying to provoke, but not asking a question.

One of the things I like about the book is that Schein isn’t trying to be prescriptive about the specific questions you should ask. Instead, he encourages the reader to reflect on the kind of relationship that she wants to build and the forces that hinder us in practising Humble Inquiry. I’m keen, however, to offer some practical examples of questions that you could ask, which I believe stimulate active listening and trusted relationships:

 

“Can you help me understand why ___?”

“Would love to understand what you did here.”  

“Just for my learning, can you please explain?”

“Can you think of any major risks related to this task”

“What is the biggest you learned from _____?” 

“What is ____ like today? “Why is that?” 

What could we do differently and why?”

“Can you please talk me through the pros and cons?”

Main learning point: The concept of curiosity sounds so simple and obvious, but in reality we often resort to ‘telling’ instead of ‘asking’. Humble Inquiry teaches us to be mindful of other people and encourages developing a genuine interest in other people and the creation of trusted relationships.

Book review: “Why Are We Yelling?”

 

Buster Benson, entrepreneur and former product leader, has written “Why Are We Yelling?”. In this book, he covers ‘the art of productive disagreement’. Most of us are weary of disagreement, so Benson’s claim that disagreement can be productive is intriguing. The book begins with some of the common misconceptions with respect to disagreement:

  • Arguments are bad – They aren’t bad, but they can’t be unproductive. We aren’t taught how to argue productively.
  • Arguments change minds – We can really change only two things: our own minds and our own behaviour.
  • Arguments end – Arguments have deep roots and will always find a way to grow back again.

Benson then flips these misconceptions to make the case for the “gift of disagreement”:

  • Truth 1: Arguments aren’t bad – They’re signposts to issues that need our attention.
  • Truth 2: Arguments aren’t about changing minds – They are about bringing minds together.
  • Truth 3: Arguments don’t end – They have deep roots and will pop back up again and again, asking us to engage with them.

I thought it was refreshing to read how Benson starts dissecting product disagreement by zooming in on anxiety. He explains how anxiety sparks “when a perspective we value bumps into another perspective that challenges it in some way” and offers ways to stop anxiety from derailing your disagreement (see Fig. 1 below).

There are number of internal voices that come to life in the case of a disagreement. Benson cites the three main ones and explains how these tend to be culturally engrained:

  • The voice of power – This is the internal voice which will tell you things such as “Take it or leave it” or “My way or the highway”. The voice of power isn the ultimate conflict-resolution strategy, because you can’t argue with sheer force. Benson states that this what power does – it forcibly closes down arguments and ends conflict in your favour, which is an undeniable evolutionary advantage.
  • The voice of reason – This is the internal voice which will tell you things such as “Why?” or “That doesn’t add up”. The voice of reason is all about using reasons to shut down a debate. Benson argues that the voice of reason works best in situations where you have disagreements with people who share respect for the same higher authority or are part of the same group or organisation that your reasons draw from.
  • The voice of avoidance – This is the internal voice which tells you things such as “I would prefer not to” or “Leave me out of it”. Benson describes how “conflict avoiders have identified flaws in the voices of power and reason and so have chosen to address conflicts by simply refusing to participate in them in the first place.”

Core to the book is the fourth voice that Benson introduces: the voice of possibility. The voice of possibility seeks to make conflict productive. This voice resonates in questions like:

  • What are we missing?
  • What else is possible?
  • What else can we do with what we have?
  • Who else can we bring into the conversation to give us a new perspective?

Benson makes the point that the voice of possibility encourages us very explicitly not to do what the other three voices – power, reason and avoidance – have made habitual in us, which is to find a way to uproot and kill the conflict. We need to, Benson argues, develop ‘honest bias’. He also offers a set of useful guidelines with respect to product disagreement:

  1. Watch how anxiety sparks – These sparks are signposts to our own internal map of dangerous ideas. Notice the difference between big and small sparks.
  2. Talk to your internal voices – Most of us have internal voices that map to the voices of power, reason, and avoidance. Get to know yours so you can recognise their suggestions as merely suggestions, not orders.
  3. Develop honest bias – There is no cure for bias, but we can develop an honest relationship to our own bias with self-reflection, frequent requests for thoughtful feedback, and a willingness to address feedback directly, however it comes.
  4. Speak for yourself – Don’t speculate about others, especially groups that you don’t belong to. Instead, seek out a respectable member of any group you might otherwise speculate about and invite them to your table to speak for themselves. Listen generously.
  5. Ask questions that invite surprising answers – Think of big wide-open questions that create space for divergent perspectives to be heard. Measure the quality of your questions by the honesty and eloquence that they draw out from the person answering them.
  6. Build arguments together – Structure arguments into evidence of the problems and opportunities (to support conflicts of head), diverse perspectives within the argument (to support conflicts of heart),and proposals to address the problems and opportunities ((to support conflicts of hand).
  7. Cultivate neutral spaces – A neutral space is inviting; it opens up big questions and allows arguments to strengthen and the fruit of disagreement to grow. It creates wiggle room for perspectives to shift and expand without punishment or shame. It reminds us that it’s okay to be uncertain indefinitely and it’s okay to act while uncertain.
  8. Accept reality, then participate in it – We can’t change reality from the realm of wishful thinking and wilful blindness. We can’t hide from dangerous ideas. We’re right in the mess with all of it, getting our heads, hearts, and hands dirty. The only way out is through.

Main learning point: ‘Why We Are Yelling?’ successfully demystifies the common notion that disagreement needs to be painful and unproductive. In this book, Buster Benson describes the rationale behind this notion – through three, culturally engrained voices – and introduces a powerful new voice; the voice of possibility.

 

Fig. 1 – How to stop anxiety from derailing your disagreement – Taken from: Buster Benson – Why Are We Yelling?, pp. 54 – 55:

  1. When you notice anxiety, pause and ask yourself: are you anxious about what is true, what is meaningful, or what is useful?
  2. Ask the other party the same question. Do they give the same answer or something different?
  3. Narrate out loud what each of you is anxious about (this buys more time and slows things down). Reiterate how each of you answered the question to see if that leads to new connections for yourself or the other person.
  4. Check to see if either of you is willing to switch to what the other is anxious about. Who has more cognitive dissonance happening and could use the other’s help?

Book review: “The Fearless Organization” by Amy C. Edmondson

Before you read this review of “The Fearless Organization” by Amy Edmondson, I’d encourage you to watch Amy’s Tedx Talk in which she talks about how to build psychological safety. Edmondson is a management professor at Harvard Business School and has done a tremendous amount of work in the area of psychological safety.  In her Tedx Talk, she describes psychological  safety as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” I believe that psychological safety is a critical yet often overlooked concept, and one which underpins Edmondson’s latest book, The Fearless Organization – Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.

 

 

These are the things that I took away from reading The Fearless Organization:

  1. Starting with “Personal and Organizational Change through Group Methods” – The aforementioned concept of psychological safety dates back to a 1965 book titled “Personal and Organizational Change through Group Methods” by Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis, which addresses the need for psychological safety for to help people cope with the uncertainty and anxiety of organizational change. Schein later noted that psychological safety was vital for helping people overcoming the defensiveness and “learning anxiety” they face at work, especially when something doesn’t go as they’d hoped or expected.
  2. Psychological safety isn’t a personality trait or difference – Based on her extensive research, Edmondson observes that psychological safety “is not a personality difference but rather a feature of the workplace that leaders can and must help create.” This observation made me think about the conditions that leaders can and must ‘enable’ to create a culture of psychological safety within the organisation, establishing a climate that supports learning. Edmondson mentions a number of other things which psychological safety is not, and which I’ve captured in Fig. 1 below.
  3. Measuring psychological safety – Perhaps you think of psychological safety as quite a fluffy idea, but it can actually be measured. I like the seven survey items which Edmondson introduced in her original research dissertation and which I’ve included in Fig. 3 below. She uses a seven-point Liker scale to obtain responses (from strongly agree to strongly disagree), and three out of seven items are expressed positively. Agreement with these items indicates greater psychological safety, whilst those items items expressed negatively (highlighted with an “R” for reverse), such that disagreement is consistent with higher psychological safety.
  4. Adopting an agile approach to strategy – I loved Edmondson’s point about viewing a company strategy as a hypothesis, to be tested continuously, rather than a plan. This perspective ties in with Edmondson’s broader theme around organisational learning. She argues that organisational learning – championed by company leaders but enacted by everyone – requires actively seeking deviations that challenge the assumptions underpinning a current strategy.
  5. Set the stage for psychological safety – In the book, Edmondson offers some useful tips with respect to ‘facilitating’ psychological safety, sharing a valuable toolkit (see Fig. 4 below).
  6. Proactive inquiry – Being able to say that you don’t know and driving participation through inquiry are two strong tenets of psychological safety. Edmondson shares some rules of thumb for asking a good question: one, you don’t know the answer; two, you ask questions that don’t limit responses to Yes or No, and three, you phrase the question in a way that helps others share their thinking in a focused way (see also Fig. 5 below).

Main learning point: In “The Fearless Organization”, Edmondson has written a valuable book about psychological safety. Even if you’re unable to create a truly fearless organisation anytime soon, Edmondson offers a number of valuable starting points with respect to critical aspects such as questioning, conflict and speaking up.

 

Fig. 1 – What Psychological Safety Is Not – Taken from: Amy Edmondson, The Fearless Organisation, pp. 15-19

  • Psychological safety isn’t about being nice – Working in a psychologically safe environment doesn’t mean that people always agree with one another for the sake of being nice. It also doesn’t mean that people offer unequivocal praise or unconditional support for everything you have to say. Psychological safety is about candour, about making it possible for productive disagreement and free exchange of ideas. Conflict inevitably arises in any workplace. Psychological safety enables people on different sides of a conflict to speak candidly about what’s bothering them.
  • Psychological safety isn’t a personality factor – Some have interpreted psychological safety as a synonym for extroversion. They might have previously concluded that people don’t speak up at work because they’re shy or lack confidence, or simply keep to themselves. Psychological safety, however, refers to the work climate, and climate affects people with different personality traits in roughly similar ways. In a psychologically safe climate, people will offer ideas and voice their concerns regardless of whether they tend to toward introversion or extroversion.
  • Psychological safety isn’t just another word for trust – Although trust and psychological safety have much in common, they aren’t interchangeable concepts. A key difference is that psychological safety is experienced at a group level. Further, psychological safety describes a temporally immediate experience.
  • Psychological safety isn’t about lowering performance standards – Psychological safety is not an “anything goes” environment where people aren’t expected to adhere to high standards or meet deadlines. It isn’t about becoming “comfortable” at work (see Fig. 2 below). Psychological safety enables candour and openness and, as such, thrives in an environment of mutual respect.

 

Fig. 2 – How psychological safety relates to performance standards – Taken from: Amy Edmondson, The Competitive Imperative of Learning, https://hbr.org/2008/07/the-competitive-imperative-of-learning

 

 

Fig. 3 – A survey measure of psychological safety – Taken from: Amy Edmondson, The Fearless Organisation, p. 20

  1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you. (R)
  2. Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  3. People on this team sometimes reject others for being different. (R)
  4. It is safe to take a risk on this team.
  5. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help. (R)
  6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilised.

 

Fig. 4 – The leader’s tool kit for building psychological safety – Taken from: Amy Edmondson, The Fearless Organisation, p. 159 

Setting the stage:

Leadership tasks:

  • Frame the work – Set expectations about failure, and interdependence to clarify the need for voice
  • Emphasise the purpose – Identify what’s at stake, why it matters, and for whom

Accomplishes:

  • Shared expectations and meaning

Inviting participation:

Leadership tasks:

  • Demonstrate situational humility – Acknowledge gaps
  • Practice inquiry – Ask good questions and model intense listening
  • Set up structures and processes – Create forums for input and provide guidelines for discussion

Accomplishes:

  • Confidence that voice is welcome

Responding productively

Leadership tasks:

  • Express appreciation – Listen, acknowledge and thank
  • Destigmatise failure – Look forward, offer help. Discuss, consider and brainstorm next steps
  • Sanction clear violations

Accomplishes:

  • Orientation toward continuous learning

 

Fig. 5 – Attributes of a powerful question – Taken from: Amy Edmondson, The Fearless Organisation, p. 171

  • Generates curiosity in the listener
  • Stimulates reflective conversation
  • Is thought-provoking
  • Surfaces underlying assumptions
  • Invites creativity and new possibilities
  • Generates energy and forward movement
  • Channels attention and focuses inquiry
  • Stays with participants
  • Touches a deep meaning
  • Evokes more questions

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.businessinsider.com/amy-edmondson-on-psychological-safety-2015-11
  2. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00207284.1967.11642993
  3. https://hbr.org/2008/07/the-competitive-imperative-of-learning
  4. https://marcabraham.com/2017/08/17/book-review-radical-candor/
  5. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/matt-tenney/be-a-dont-knower-one-of-e_b_7242468.html
  6. https://hbr.org/2014/07/the-fukushima-meltdown-that-didnt-happen
  7. https://www.mindtheproduct.com/2018/05/how-to-improve-your-teams-conflict-competence-by-julia-whitney/
  8. https://marcabraham.com/2018/03/12/book-review-the-no-asshole-rule/

Book review: “Overcoming The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”

You might have come across “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”. Patrick Lencioni, a consultant and speaker, wrote this seminal business book back in 2002. In this book, Lencioni identified the common root causes behind teams and companies underperforming:

Dysfunction #1: Absence of Trust:

The fear of being vulnerable with team members prevents the building of trust within the team.

Dysfunction #2: Fear of Conflict:

The desire to preserve artificial harmony stifles the occurrence of productive ideological conflict.

Dysfunction #3: Lack of Commitment:

The lack of clarity or buy-in prevents team members from making decisions they will stick to.

Dysfunction #4: Avoidance of Accountability:

The need to avoid interpersonal discomfort prevents team members from holding one another accountable.

Dysfunction #5: Inattention to Results:

The pursuit of individual goals and personal status erodes the focus on collective success.

Fig. 1 – Patrick Lencioni’s “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” – Taken from: https://www.tablegroup.com/books/dysfunctions

 

I recently read Lencioni’s followup book to “The Five Dysfunctions”;  “Overcoming The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” is all about how to best solve common team dysfunctions. There a number of things one can do to overcome the different team dysfunctions that Lencioni identified all those years ago:

1. Building trust

Lencioni stresses the importance of trust: “no quality or characteristic is more important than trust.” Trust and vulnerability are closely interlinked, as Lencioni explains. Vulnerability-based trust comes from people not being afraid to admit the truth about themselves.

People being open and honest with themselves and each other, instead of wasting time and energy on politics. Building up this level of trust is by no means an easy feat or one off exercise. In contrast, it’s best to start small – with The Personal Histories Exercise, for example and continue maintaining trust.

Fig. 2 –  Patrick Lencioni’s “The Personal Histories Exercise” – Taken from: https://www.tablegroup.com/imo/media/doc/AdvantagePersonal_Histories_Excercise(4).pdf

2. Mastering conflict

Mastering conflict comes back to vulnerability-base trust, according to Lencioni. He explains that “When people who don’t trust one another engage in debate, they’re trying to win the argument.” In contrast, when vulnerability-based trust exist, team members say everything to each other that needs to be said and things don’t need to be discussed further behind closed doors.

Let’s make no mistake about it; conflict is supposed to feel a bit uncomfortable. Lencioni explains that if team members “never pushing one another outside of their emotional comfort zones during discussions, then it’s extremely likely that they’re not making the best decisions for the organization.”

Conflict Profiling is a great way to understand where you and your colleagues sit on the Conflict Continuum (see Fig. 3 below). What’s your appetite for healthy conflict? How does your appetite compare to Joe or Kathy’s on the team? Once you’ve figured out the different conflict profiles on the team and understand the differences, the best thing is to just talk about it within the team.

For example, what to me might feel like a good discussion, might to you feel like we’re butting heads … Once we understand our individual conflict profiles, we’re in a much better position to talk about how we best have a constructive discussion. One could, for example, agree that when we ask what might sound like difficult questions, these questions aren’t meant as personal attacks. Instead, these questions are only being asked because we want the best for the team, the business or the product.

Fig. 3 – Patrick Lencioni’s “Conflict Continuum” – Taken from: http://www.corporategames.com/whats-new/leadership-training/good-leaders-can-use-conflict-build-great-team/

3. Achieving commitment

The next dysfunction to overcome is the lack of commitment by team members. Lencioni makes the point that “commitment is not consensus.” There seems to be this misconception that everybody needs to agree intellectually on a decision, and that you’re bound for failure if you don’t … Lencioni argues the opposite: “Waiting for everyone on a team to agree intellectually on a decision is a good recipe for mediocrity, delay, and frustration.”

 

 

I totally agree with Lencioni’s points about most meetings being boring due to a lack of conflict. As counterintuitive as this may sound, I think we can all think of at least one regular meeting where we all just turn up and go through the mentions. However, meetings don’t have to be dull and unproductive.

In the words of Lencioni: “Team members can indeed become engaged in a meeting, but only when there is something at stake, a conflict worth caring about.” There is an important role for team leaders here, since they’re in great position to give team members a reason to care at the beginning of a discussion or a meeting.

In contrast, commitment is about “Buy-In”, defying a lack of consensus. It’s about getting a group of individuals to buy into a decision especially when they don’t naturally agree. Lencioni identifies two critical steps to achieve buy-in for a decision:

  1. Extract and explore team ideas – Good leaders drive team commitment by first extracting every possible, idea, opinion and perspective from the team. This is why I believe that good product leaders and managers need to be able to facilitate these open ended conversations or brainstorming sessions, especially since product people need to be able to influence without authority.
  2. Stick your neck out and decide – Once you’re comfortable that all options and perspectives have been explored, then the team leader needs to step up and make a decision. I know from experience that this is easier said than done, because our instinct is to try and get everybody to be happy about your decision. However, it’s unlikely that you’ll please everyone with your decision and that’s fine, as long as you explain the decision and why you made it – especially to those people with an opposite view. Lencioni refers to this process as “disagree and commit” and suggests the “Commitment Clarification” exercise to ensure that everyone in the team is clear about what exactly has been decided in the meeting or conversation (see Fig. 4 below).

Fig. 4 – Patrick Lencioni’s “Commitment Clarification” – Taken from: https://www.tablegroup.com/imo/media/doc/Commitment%20Clarification%20Exercise.pdf

4. Embracing accountability

Are you prepared to “enter the danger”? It’s the key question that comes out of Lencioni’s chapter about embracing accountability. Lencioni defines accountability as “the willingness of team members to remind one another when they aren’t living up to the performance standards of the group.” In an ideal world, this kind of accountability should be peer-to-peer and require the team leader to hold people accountable.

In reality though, and for peer to peer accountability to become the norm, the team leader needs to be prepared to call an individual on their behaviour or performance, and thus “enter the danger”. I totally agree with Lencioni where he observes that most leaders he knows “have a far easier time holding people accountable for their results than they do for behavioural issues.” This can be problematic because behavioural problems almost always precede results.

As daunting as it may seem at first, it is possible to have a constructive conversation about their behaviour. In my experience, the key is to be very specific about the behavioural issues that you’ve observed and describe the impact that these issues have caused (I highly recommend reading “Radical Candor” by Kim Scott if you’re keen to learn more about this topic).

The next step would be to run what Lencioni call a “Team Effectiveness Exercise”:

Fig. 5 – Patrick Lencioni’s “Team Effectiveness Exercise” – Taken from: https://www.tablegroup.com/imo/media/doc/AdvantageTeamEffectiveness_Exercise(8).pdf

 

5. Focusing on results

Lencioni raises the questions about what makes it so hard to stay focused on results? He answers the questions by talking about self-interest and self-preservation. To avoid these human pitfalls, Lencioni suggest the team picking one goal the whole team can focus on:

“On strong teams, no one is happy until everyone is succeeding, because that’s the only way to achieve the collective results of the group. Of course, this implies that individual egos are less important than team achievements.”

In this scenario, the team will know that it’s being successful when it accomplishes the results it sets out to achieve. This requires team members to prioritise team results over their individual or departmental needs. To stay focused, teams must publicly clarify their desired results and keep them visible.

Main learning point: “Overcoming The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” is a valuable resource for anyone interested in creating or being part of effective teams. In addition to studying the factors of successful teams, the book  offers a number of helpful exercises to overcome these dysfunctions.

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.tablegroup.com/books/dysfunctions
  2. https://www.tablegroup.com/books/overcoming-the-five-dysfunctions-a-field-guide
  3. https://www.tablegroup.com/imo/media/doc/AdvantagePersonal_Histories_Excercise(4).pdf
  4. http://www.corporategames.com/whats-new/leadership-training/good-leaders-can-use-conflict-build-great-team/
  5. https://www.truity.com/blog/personality-type-conflict-style
  6. https://www.tablegroup.com/imo/media/doc/Commitment%20Clarification%20Exercise.pdf
  7. https://www.tablegroup.com/imo/media/doc/AdvantageCascading_Communication_Exercise(6).pdf

My product management toolkit (30): giving and receiving feedback

I’ve got many, many flaws. Taking things personally is one of them … On one hand, I’m always going to ‘expose’ myself to feedback by trying, challenging and simply ‘doing’, expecting to be challenged and to receive feedback. On the other hand, however, every time that I do receive feedback – direct or indirect – I need to make sure I pause and listen carefully, taking the feedback in fully first.

i-dont-always-take-things-personally-oh-wait-yes-i-do.jpg

 

For example, the other day I found myself asking “why” a lot in a discussion about a customer problem and a colleague kept saying “let’s stop overcomplicating things, let’s just keep things simple.” Guess what I felt? I took it personally and wondered why she wasn’t as keen as I was to explore the problem in a bit more detail …

It made me realise again that feedback is crucial, and particularly for us as product managers:

  • We’re likely to give plenty of feedback.
  • And we’re likely to receive a whole lot of it too.

Giving feedback

As a product manager, I often find myself giving feedback to others, either about a behaviour or something that they’ve produced – for example:

  • A presentation, either in the making or delivered
  • A product thought, idea or prototype
  • One of my product managers failing to collaborate effectively with their product team members
  • Feeding back to colleagues in the senior leadership team about their ideas or decisions

When giving feedback, I believe it’s important to:

  • Have a think about what you’re going to say first – Many a time I’ve made the mistake where I’d just blurt out feedback in the moment. This can be ok when interacting with certain people, especially if you’re in a trusted relationship with them. However, the risk with this ‘in the moment’ approach is that your feedback might not be well thought through or constructive … Simply writing down a few bullet points can help to think through the essence of the feedback and how to best get that across.
  • It’s about the person’s behaviour, not about the person – Another common pitfall can be to focus your feedback on a person instead of their behaviour. Let’s, for instance, think of a scenario where you’ve observed a colleague being late a few times. Instead of saying “Ellen, why are you always so late?”, which makes it all about Ellen as a person, you could ask: “Ellen, I’ve noticed you being late for meetings over the last two weeks, do you mind if we have a chat about why that is?”
  • Be specific and timely when describing the behaviour – I strongly suggest avoiding sweeping statements or being very black and white when giving feedback. For example, compare these two examples: “Paul, your product ideas haven’t been clear” versus “Paul, when you suggested ideas for a new product feature last week, I missed detail about what the feature would entail and the assumed customer value the feature would bring.” In the latter example, the feedback provided is specific and offers a good starting point for conversation. Asking for permission in the form of “May I give you feedback?” can also be a friendly way to start the conversation.
  • Describe the (emotional) impact the behaviour had on you – When making your feedback specific, it helps to describe the impact the person’s behaviour has had on you. I think it’s important to steer clear of statements like “Richard, your lack of decision making in the last prioritisation conversation was frustrating for lots of people in the team” – which feels very broad brush and not fair on the recipient of your feedback since he/she won’t be able to clarify with the people you claim to be speaking on behalf of. Instead, I suggest saying something along the lines of “Richard,  your lack of decision making in the last prioritisation conversation made me feel directionless, as I don’t know how to best proceed from here.”
  • Consider the “S-B-I” framework – In essence, I strongly recommend looking at the “Situation, Behaviour, Impact” (‘S-B-I’) framework, as it offers a nice way of framing the feedback that you’re giving (see Fig. 1 below).

Fig. 1 – Situation, Behaviour, Impact framework – Taken from: https://www.ccl.org/articles/leading-effectively-articles/hr-pipeline-a-quick-win-to-improve-your-talent-development-process/

Receiving feedback

Going back to my earlier admission about take things personally, the way in which I receive feedback is critical for me. I’ve found that it can be easy to feel completely floored by the feedback received, instead of treating the feedback as an opportunity to learn and improve. Without saying that I find receiving feedback easy, I’ve learned to (pro) actively ask for feedback and guidance.

When receiving feedback, I believe it’s important to:

  • Listen with the intent to understand, not to respond – If you’re anything like me, i.e. not super comfortable with asking people for feedback, your initial response might well be to act defensively and respond to the criticism. In the great book “Radical Candor”, author Kim Scott urges us not to do that; don’t start criticising the criticism! Instead, she suggests saying something like “So what I hear you saying is …”
  • Ask for specifics – Try to understand when you displayed certain behaviours, what you could have done or said differently and why. To me, the whole point of asking for feedback is that you’ll be able to learn from the feedback received. When you receive and digest the feedback, you can decide to either to not act on it or to put your learnings into practice. Either way, it’s imperative that the feedback is specific, so that you can make a well informed decision on whether to act on it.
  • Express appreciation for the feedback and give yourself time to process – If you did get feedback, the next important thing is to follow up and show that you really welcomed the feedback. You don’t even need to respond straight away and mention the things that you’re going to do to implement the feedback. It’s perfectly fine to say “Thank you so much for your feedback. Let me take it away and reflect on it.” If you agree with what was said, you should make a change as soon as possible. If the necessary change will take time, do something visible to show you’re trying.

Main learning point: Giving or receiving feedback isn’t easy, and there’s no silver bullet available to make it any easier. However, tools like the “Situation, Behaviour, Impact” framework can help us to better frame the feedback that we’re giving. And when it comes to receiving feedback, I’ve found “listening” to be the most powerful tool of all.

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://marcabraham.com/2017/08/17/book-review-radical-candor/
  2. https://marcabraham.com/2018/02/18/my-product-management-toolkit-26-pause-and-listen/
  3. https://getlighthouse.com/blog/give-constructive-feedback-motivate-improve/
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-oRKr5xA9N0
  5. https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/situation-behavior-impact-feedback.htm
  6. https://www.fastcompany.com/3019036/simple-direct-honest-personal-and-blunt-how-the-5-word-performance-review-works-wonde
  7. https://www.inc.com/the-muse/how-to-give-constructive-criticism-employees-managers-useful-feedback.html