The Collaborator’s Guide to Giving Feedback

Collab is all the rage right now. And it should be. One of the things I miss most from our pre-COVID world is a whiteboard, my team and ordering in lunch. That combination is magic.

But collaboration has a dark side. And if you’re not careful, it will have you completely lost in the woods. The dark side grows darker every time we prioritize harmony over debate. Comfort over clarity. Conformity over curiosity. The magic runs out when we go along to get along.

Today’s modern management philosophy teaches us to “collaborate and communicate,” effectively replacing the “command and control” model of the 1980’s Jack Welch era. And the data would support its working. According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, of the 8.1M patents granted in the US over the last 60 years, almost 40% have been issued since 2010. Wow.

But going along to get along can have us collaborating and communicating our way in circles. If we want to get to where we want to go, we need a GPS. If Vision is the compass, and Strategy the map, then Feedback is the GPS.  

Giving feedback for a Collaborator can come in the form of a revolutionary idea. A catalytic question. A dumb question. Debating an assumption. An offline conversation to a multitasking teammate that’s distracting the team. The confidence to speak up and say, “this isn’t going well” or even better, “I don’t understand.”

No matter your role or your seniority, when you withhold your feedback, the collaboration magic wears off.  

Pause for a minute… Where are you currently withholding feedback to someone or something that could benefit from it? What is it costing you? What is it costing them?

For some, giving feedback is natural. I call them jerks. But for Collaborators like me, and maybe you, giving feedback is a muscle we routinely need to strength train.

So, why do you avoid/hesitate/waver in giving feedback?

I avoid giving feedback because I don’t want to offend. I avoid giving feedback because I might be wrong. I avoid giving feedback because I’m too busy responding to email. I avoid giving feedback because they probably won’t listen or change anyway. I mean “who am I right??”   But these are all excuses. I avoid giving feedback because it makes me uncomfortable.

But, when I embrace giving feedback I create trust and strengthen relationships. When I embrace giving feedback, we find creative solutions. When I embrace giving feedback, I help others grow. When I embrace giving feedback, I grow too.

Brene Brown calls the avoidance of giving feedback the definition of privilege, prioritizing our own self comfort over someone else’s growth. Brene says, “clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” I think Brene is right.

Recently I was leading a significant strategic initiative for my company. Within the span of 30 days, we funded a multi-million dollar project, assembled a cross function team of a dozen individuals, built and started executing a plan. We had a vision, we had a map, but we needed a GPS. Three months into a twelve month project, two of our key leaders had been prioritizing harmony over debate. They’d each been holding back in team meetings.  Tension was building and distracting the team. We were missing deadlines. Put simply, we got lost.

That tension boiled all over an unsuspecting status call on a Monday afternoon. “I don’t understand why your part of the plan keeps changing.” “You don’t see what I’m up against coordinating site launches with our vendors” and round and round it went while many of us on the sidelines listened. There was a lot of awkward cringing. Finally I cut it off and we ended the call. The Collaborator in me would have preferred to pretend everything was OK.

Instead, the following day I held an offline “this isn’t going well” conversation between the three of us. In that conversation, we learned we could still care about each other and the mission. We built trust. Simply put, we found the path.   

Encouragingly, there are whole companies that have figured this out. Amazon calls it “truth- seeking.” Bridgewater Associates calls it “meritocracy,” where the best ideas triumph no matter of professional rank. Google studied it, coining the phrase “psychological safety.” When we feel safe, we speak up, and teams perform better.

Collaboration is about leveraging the best ideas and perspectives within a diverse team. To collaborate then, we need to feel comfortable giving feedback which means we have to trust each other. It also means asking dumb questions, suggesting a divergent idea, calling out future pitfalls, calling out each other, encouraging others to participate in the discussion, and not being hurt when things don’t go our way. This is where the magic comes from.

So how do we do this?

There are many different “giving feedback” tactics you can Google, and many are great. But when you’re in the moment I like to keep it simple. Prioritize the person over the problem, lead with positive intent and jump into the deep end. That’s it. And for your Collaboration Guide, I suggest keeping that simple too. Mark Twain once said, “when you reach a fork in the road, take it.”

PLEASE feel free to comment and share your thoughts or experience. When you embrace giving feedback…

Published by brianhquinn

I write a weekly post to help you grow professionally, elevate your career and Become an "A" Player.

2 thoughts on “The Collaborator’s Guide to Giving Feedback

  1. I think you’re dead on – tough to take “self” out – in fact “self” can be what humanizes feedback and makes it effective. A balance for all leaders to navigate no doubt. Thanks for the feedback Celine!

  2. A collaboration is built on the trust that the goal is the primary focus and people will remain true to the mission. With this trust in the perceived goal as primary, it is easier to provide feedback (because it directly relates to the collaborative objective). Seems like the personal agenda got in the way, causing the creative flow to become secondary with regard to the collaborative energy. Sometimes, it is just hard to take the “self” out and adhere to the mission/goal. But, that is collaboration in the purest practice, and we should aspire to stay on track and hold the collaborative accountable, nonetheless.

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