What we miss when we avoid candid feedback in our work

In teams and organizations that lack ways to provide each other with careful candid feedback, this leads to mistrust and political scheming. In this blog we discuss tips and handles to achieve a candid culture. So that feedback helps us to gain a more realistic self-image and to do our teamwork with more success and job satisfaction.

Our incomplete self-image

There are many reasons to work on good teamwork. Powerful(r) teams provide better results, in less time. Strong teams are more innovative and they challenge us to learn faster and perform better. For the vast majority of us, good teamwork leads to more job satisfaction.

There is another reason to work on good teamwork: it gives us better insight into ourselves and our actions: into the way we interact with others. We can use that extra insight. According to behavioral scientist Tasha Eurich, almost everyone thinks they have a good self-image, while that is actually true for only 10% to 15% of us.

Feedback can help us achieve that more realistic self-image. We tend to associate receiving (and giving) feedback with work, with the interaction we have there and then with others and – in many cases – with something that takes place during a periodic conversation with our supervisor. Whether or not on the basis of a so-called 360-degree evaluation.

However, feedback is something we use continuously. By developing a very strong antenna for environmental signals as a human species, we were able to evolve into the dominant life form on the planet. We have also developed the sensitivity that enables us to develop social connections and to function successfully as human beings. But giving, receiving and interpreting feedback in such a way in a team – and elsewhere – is complicated.

The influence of unconscious decisions

In the standard work ‘Ons Feilbare Brain’, Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman makes it clear – sometimes painfully – that our brain has taken a few radical turns in the development of that antenna.

One of these is that we make about 95% of the countless decisions we make in a day, unconsciously. With what Kahneman calls System 1. While that System 1 usually works fine for us, it’s also pretty sloppy. For example, it combines pieces of information in our brain into a plausible whole for us. That does not necessarily mean that it also corresponds with reality. If we are faced with an issue that is too complicated, we tend to reconstruct it into a problem that is manageable for us.

In addition to System 1, we have System 2: our consciously thinking brain. We use that to solve complex problems. We prefer to stay with System 1. Kahneman calls System 2 ‘lazy’ because, even when we consciously think about something, we take the dataset that System 1 presents to us as a starting point. The first impression we get of a situation or, rather, our unconscious interpretation of it, is therefore extremely important for the choices we make and the behavior we associate with them.

The lazy part of our brain

The System 2 part of our brain is pre-programmed to be used sparingly. Because addressing them is a mental effort that costs us a lot of energy. Forcing yourself to self-control is a System 2 activity. If you are tired after a hard day’s work, you are more likely to give in to that piece of pie, because that is what you decide with System 1. But it doesn’t stop there. People who, according to Kahneman, are ‘cognitively occupied’ are also more likely to make selfish choices in social intercourse, use sexist language and make superficial judgments in social situations.

It is therefore important when giving, receiving and interpreting feedback to know how you are ‘being there’ and how the other person is ‘being there’. It’s not for nothing that giving each other feedback on everyone’s contribution after an afternoon of vigorous meetings is usually a lackluster display or a moment when people can freak out in an – in retrospect incomprehensible – way.

The impact of negative feedback

If the human brain has become evolutionarily good at anything, it is at signaling ‘threats’. Even if they are of a purely symbolic nature. Emotionally charged words and bad words (war, crime) attract attention faster than good words (peace, love). According to Kahneman, we only need a fraction of a second to signal a ‘threat’ and increase our heart rate.

Words can represent a ‘threat’, but also non-verbal signals such as a raised eyebrow or a cynical smile are more than enough to make us hyperalert. And that while negative feedback has a much greater impact on us than positive feedback. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are created more quickly and are more difficult to disprove than good ones, concludes Kahneman.

According to researcher John Gotman, the long-term success of a relationship depends much more on avoiding the negative than pursuing the positive. He estimates that a stable relationship requires five times as many positive interactions as bad ones. One glitch can destroy years of friendship and fine collegiate relationships in one fell swoop and literally make people sick.

This is also the price we pay for forms of ‘feedback’ such as gossip and backbiting, suggestive apps and sarcastic remarks that are subsequently excused as a joke.

Saboteurs and Loyalists

Giving each other feedback in a (working) relationship that will benefit you and your colleagues is therefore not easy. But forgoing it completely is not an option either, because then feedback is given, picked up and processed in other ways. Moreover, as mentioned, we need feedback from others for our self-image and to perform as a team and to improve as a collective.

According to top advisor Audrey Epstein Harvard Business Review (8/18), the best teams are not only willing to give each other candid feedback, they see it as an obligation.

Based on her own years of research into teams, Epstein distinguishes four categories: from the worst, the “saboteur teams” to the best “loyalist teams.” While the ‘saboteurs’ suffer from mistrust, politics, infighting and gossip, ‘loyalist’ teams enjoy more trust, fairness, shared goals and shared responsibility.

In ‘loyalistic’ teams, team members often talk openly and honestly about each other’s qualities and limitations. In these teams it is ‘normal’ to do that. The team members develop skills in recognizing and putting this into words. Provided from ‘outside’ or invented themselves, they develop a common language for this. Spicy feedback is more easily accepted and experienced as less ‘threatening’ because team members know that they trust each other’s intentions. The team tries to switch between System 1 and System 2 and takes their time to do so.

Towards a candid culture

According to Epstein, a ‘culture’ in which (honest) feedback is relatively easily given is not created simply by paying attention to it as a ‘separate item’. She points out that “loyalist” teams with a candid culture are much more likely than others to:

  • Take time for discussions, discuss problems and make your own decisions
  • Address unacceptable behavior in the team immediately
  • Giving each other solid feedback

Such teams also have far fewer issues that are not discussed because they are ‘undiscussable’. They are less bothered by ‘elephants in the room’.

Bite through the sour apple

Some organizations are afraid to open the floodgates to feedback, but the risks of not integrating honest feedback into everyday work are much greater. So, how can we take advantage of feedback without compromising harmony in the team ?

1. Talk to your teammates, not about them

You don’t solve problems with gossip. Blowing off steam without a positive sequel only leads to cliques and rifts in the team. It takes courage, but talking to each other directly and with respect when something goes wrong can prevent many misunderstandings and ‘drama’ and ensure that people who actually have nothing to do with the problem are not drawn into this.

2. Use the Belbin team roles

Belbin and the Belbin team roles are based on a person’s behavior and combine a team member’s self-image with the feedback from others in the team, in order to arrive at a complete picture of a person’s strengths. The Belbin reports also focus on latent talents that a team member can use to grow personally and professionally.

3. Don’t make it personal

By focusing on each of the nine Belbin team roles on its strengths and characteristics, Belbin helps break down barriers and defuse the kinds of conflicts that can arise from harsh criticism. Because you all use the Belbin language, you keep just enough distance from each other.

4. Keep criticism constructive

Give your teammates the benefit of the doubt. Assume they are giving you feedback, not to judge you, but to make you better. The Belbin process balances feedback, identifies areas of consensus among teammates, and ensures that one person doesn’t unnecessarily influence the results – for better or for worse.

5. Assume a positive intention

This is where confidence comes in, Epstein says. Team members should foster a culture in which others feel supported. In this way, they assume that others have their best interests in mind when giving feedback. Ask for feedback from others before giving it to them.

6. Pay attention to each other’s successes

Show interest in your teammates’ successes. Ask them about their concerns and their ambitions. Make sure you know what makes them tick. Help your teammates where you can. Show that you can listen to them well.

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