Thursday, January 28, 2021

Why We Should Frame Feedback as Advice

Source: Pixabay

Jaewon Yoon, Hayley Blunden, Ariella Kristal and A.V. Whillans published a Harvard Business School working paper recently on the topic of seeking (and providing) constructive feedback.  They argue that we should request advice from colleagues and leaders, rather than asking for feedback.  Yoon and colleagues demonstrate through a series of experiments that, "People offer more critical and actionable input when they are asked to provide advice (versus feedback)—even when they are asked to provide comments on identical output."  

What's wrong with asking for feedback?  The scholars argue that feedback often is associated with evaluation in the workplace.  In other words, we almost always shift into evaluative mode, rather than developmental mode, when asked to provide feedback to someone else.  They point to past research showing that being in an "evaluative" mode tends to reduce the constructiveness of feedback.  When we are in evaluative mode, we tend to look backward, rather than focusing on suggestions for how to improve performance moving forward.  The scholars state that, "When focusing on an evaluation of past performance, input givers are less likely to consider how the recipient could perform better in the future."

Yoon and her colleagues summarize the findings from the experiments they conducted:  

Findings from four experiments suggest that asking for feedback may inadvertently prevent givers from delivering useful input. When asked to provide feedback across a variety of work-related tasks—whether they were asked to evaluate a stranger’s cover letter (Study 1A), a colleague’s work performance (Study 1B), or an instructor’s teaching (Study 2) — people provided less critical or actionable input than when they were asked to provide advice. Asking for feedback focused the givers’ attention on evaluation, which hindered constructive feedback delivery. In contrast, advice givers persisted in providing more constructive input even when they were prompted to focus on evaluating the recipient (Study 3). These results suggest that asking for advice could be a powerful way to solicit constructive comments, even in cases where evaluation must accompany input, such as during annual reviews that require performance-based ratings.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

What Would My Replacement Do Differently?

Source: Wikimedia

Jessica Stillman writes on this week about Dave Girouard, co-founder of Upstart and former president of Enterprise at Google.   Stillman decribes how Girouard protects himself against complacency and over-confidence. She quotes Girouard: ""While I'm doing some things okay, I can be lulled into a place of feeling good about myself when I'm probably not doing some other things very well."  Therefore, Girouard imagines that board has chosen to fire him and replace him with a truly spectacular chief executive.  "What would she do differently than what I'm doing?" he asks himself.  Then after identifying key actions that new CEO might undertake, he poses the question, "Why the hell aren't you doing those things?"  

Girouard's mental exercise reminds me of the famous story about Andy Grove and Gordon Moore pondering the future of Intel's DRAM memory chip business in the early 1980s.  In his terrific book, Only the Paranoid Survive, Grove wrote,

“I looked out the window at the Ferris wheel of the Great America amusement park revolving in the distance when I turned back to Gordon, and I asked, ‘If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?’ Gordon answered without hesitation, ‘He would get us out of memory chips.’ I stared at him, numb, then said, ‘Why shouldn’t you and I walk out the door, come back, and do it ourselves?'”

Friday, January 15, 2021

Standing in the Shoes of Front-Line Employees

How can leaders understand the challenges, frustrations, and obstacles faced by front-line employees as they set out to perform key tasks and serve customers?  Simply surveying them, or speaking with them from time to time, may not be sufficient.  Management by walking around is effective, but perhaps only provides a glimpse of the true nature of front-line work.  Moreover, word spreads quickly that the boss is walking around, and people may change their behavior if they know management is heading their way.  When I worked at Staples, I can recall Tom Stemberg, founder and former CEO, telling us that word would spread like wildfire once he popped into a store unexpectedly.  All the other stores in the region learned very quickly that he was in the area.  Shockingly, the stores looked immaculate by the time he arrived later that day.  

So, what else can leaders do to understand the needs and challenges of front-line employees?  How can they learn what daily work is really like for those associates? Here's a quick story about Chris Nassetta, CEO of Hilton Hotels, excerpted from my book, Unlocking Creativity.   Leaders should follow his example.  

Leaders across all types of organizations should consider how they can empathize genuinely with their employees. Great new ideas may emerge from these efforts. Chris Nassetta took over as CEO of Hilton Hotels in 2007. He had to engineer a turnaround at the struggling chain. Nassetta decided that his executives needed to connect more closely with the associates on the front lines – to understand their concerns, identify their frustrations, and hear their ideas. He worried that the top management team had lost touch with those doing the real work. Nassetta remembered learning a great deal in his first job in the hotel business, cleaning toilets as an eighteen year old at the Capitol Holiday Inn in Washington, D.C. He decided that it was time to return to his roots. 

Nassetta directed his top managers to spend one week per year working at one of the Hilton hotels around the world. He did the same, thereby modeling the behavior he expected from his team members. They took on housekeeping tasks, helped the facilities and grounds crew perform maintenance, and greeted guests at the front desk.[i] Nassetta notes, "Their job is harder than your job. You get in there, and you pay them the respect."[ii] The management team learns a great deal from this “immersion” process each year, and new ideas emerge from the many conversations that take place between executives and front-line workers. 

[i] I first learned about this initiative during a conversation with Kimo Kippen, former Chief Learning Officer of Hilton Hotels, at a meeting of the Human Resources Leadership Forum in Arlington, Virginia in December 2012.

[ii] Scott Mayerowitz, “How Hilton's CEO Led the Company's Massive Turnaround,” Inc., July 30, 2014. Accessed March 3, 2018.

Monday, January 11, 2021

"Know Your Book" - Ellen Kullman on Self-Awareness

Former DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman offered some terrific career advice in a recent interview with Kellogg Insight.   She explained that people build a "book" on you from day one in a company.  Good or bad, accurate or not, you need to know your book.  Understand the impression you have made, the track record you are establishing.  That type of self-awareness is crucial, she argues, as you advance in your career.  Here's an excerpt: 

Have a high “say-do ratio.” So if you say you’re going to do something, do it. And if you do it, do it well. I had a reputation for saying what I was going to do and getting it done. The other thing is, can people trust you? And it’s not, are you trustworthy or not? It’s, do they believe you are? Every company that you work for writes a book on you. And that book starts the day you walk through the door, and it doesn’t end when you leave. Know your book, right? Know what people say about you in the company.

And you’ll find there’ll be mentors, or sponsors, or people who will give you that kind of feedback. And you need to seek that out. Because the people that struggle the most are the ones that either didn’t know their book, or didn’t believe their book. And I think that comes down to self-awareness. Self-awareness is one of the traits that has helped me the most through my career: understanding the impact I have on people—good, bad, or indifferent.

Monday, January 04, 2021

Deliberately Foster Presence of Mind


Amy Murphy, a director with PwC US, and Columbia Business School Professor William Duggan have penned a good article for Strategy+Business about cultivating presence of mind. They argue that this approach helps foster creative thinking. Here's an excert: 

How do you improve your presence of mind? It helps to realize you don’t always need it. If you’re working on a familiar task, go ahead and keep working until you finish it, even if it takes until midnight. With familiar tasks, you already know what to do: You don’t need a new idea, you don’t need presence of mind. But if it’s a task where you need a creative answer, don’t work until midnight. Instead, carve out time to give your mind the space to wander. 

When you need a new idea, throughout the workday try to take in as many examples from history as possible that might relate to your problem. Don’t work late: Spend the evening on something that gives your mind a rest. Go to the gym, have dinner with friends, take a long shower, and above all get a good night’s sleep. This greatly increases your chances of a flash of insight to solve your problem.   You can practice this discipline in smaller bits too, by scheduling time in your day for short walks, or making coffee, or some other activity that enables you to clear your mind, if only for 15 minutes. 

Don’t confuse this type of relief from excessive focus with distraction. Creative relaxation is deliberate: something you choose to do. Distraction is reactive and almost involuntary. Your mind flits from one activity to another. Some call it multitasking, but in reality you cannot do many things at once. Your brain needs time to shift from one thing to the other. When you’re distracted by each new task, there’s not enough time for presence of mind.

I agree wholeheartedly.   In my work, I talk about the need to combine focus + unfocus to achieve creative breakthroughs.  Immerse yourself in a challenging problem, but punctuate that focus with some deliberate attempts to distance yourself from the problem.   Adopt this strategy deliberately.  However, I argue that it's more than about taking a break.  It's about finding specific ways to step back and achieve social, temporal, physical, and cultural distance from a perplexing problem.   For instance, Amazon's "working backwards" technique is a fantastic way to achieve temporal distance and gain fresh perspective.  Read more about "working backwards" here.