I was working with a program development team leader heading up a significant upgrade to one of the company’s most popular and profitable products. And he was failing. The leader was intelligent, hardworking, very clear with setting goals and direction, tracking team actions, and always available to his team—but still failing. Why?
One of his team meetings clearly exposed the reason. He set the meeting’s agenda, led most of the discussion, and asked for feedback, but the employee feedback voiced often garnered his criticism. Only the brave provided any feedback when it was essential to prevent a major problem from occurring. Festering issues weren’t raised because of the fear of being exposed to more criticism.
After I attended a few of his meetings and gathered feedback from his peers, internal customers, and the team, and reviewed the personnel files and background and degrees of his team to assess their competence, I had simple feedback for him. I told him: You will get much better results and have a more successful team if you stop criticizing them so frequently and provide them positive recognition.
(I will cover the research supporting this feedback below.)
The discussion on criticism we had together occurred over several meetings before he began to accept it. I asked him why he believed providing so much ongoing criticism was necessary. It took him a while to think through and provide an answer: He didn’t want to fail personally or have his team fail.
He was raised by demanding parents who wanted their beloved son to succeed. Their way of assuring his success was always to check that he did his homework, did it correctly, excelled at school, never missed a day at school, played sports, and, in general, excelled at everything. They did not set a model of recognition for him, nor did they encourage him to develop lasting relationships.
He followed their teaching to the cliff of failure because his learned behavior was ruining his career.
Part of his breakthrough was coming to understand that the passion and focus of the nine team members (and support staff) is greater than that passion and focus of one person. If everyone on the team wanted excellence, success, and to contribute to human welfare as much as he did, the team would be much more likely to succeed. Such group commitment does not come from only the leader’s compliance and criticism. It comes from the group effort of nine people working together.
I asked him if he could change his leadership style, what changes would he make? His suggestion was straight on: Provide his team with positive feedback at the team meetings and individually.
I also asked him what he would not want to change about his leadership style. His answer was the drive for excellence. We then discussed how he could maintain the drive for excellence without killing morale and initiative.
I had additional suggestions for him.
- Ask the team for their feedback on milestones, good or bad. Then, ask what else went well? Listen and give praise. What could have been done better (without blame seeking)? Listen and give praise. Then, provide feedback in a kind tone, perhaps with a story to illustrate the point.
- When providing updates to his own leaders, include praise for individual and team activities overcoming milestones and success, and what they learned. (Learning is essential in product development and leads to success).
- Find ways to involve the team in sharing leadership responsibilities, which can lead to stronger buy-in of the team’s mission. One way to do this is to rotate who sets and leads the team’s agenda and let that team member lead the meeting.
- During one-on-one meetings, use a feedback model asking for a range of answers. How are things going? What is going well? What isn’t going well? What help do you need from me or an expert, or lab resource, if anything? Then the team leader can say, “Now, I would like to make some observations and provide a suggestion or two.” I call this the bottom of the teacup feedback model.
After a month of changes like this, the team’s interactions transformed. The percentage of speaking among the team went from him completely dominating the time, to about two-thirds of the time with the team speaking. They began to catch up on their missed milestones and the team started to raise the festering issues that might become big problems if they weren’t addressed early enough.
Research supports the importance of providing recognition and building trust among teams.
In 2022, Workhuman and Gallup partnered to learn the correlation between employee recognition and company growth and success.
They conducted a large-scale study of more than 12,000 employees across 12 countries. Workhuman and Gallup found that recognition is one of the most effective and affordable ways to improve wellbeing, sparking cultural transformation and helping workplaces achieve exceptional performance. They observe that few leaders realize the power they wield to amplify wellbeing at work and beyond.
Workhuman and Gallup observe that when organizations create an environment where employees consistently receive high-quality recognition, they see tangible benefits – increased engagement, reduced levels of burnout, and improved company loyalty – translating into clear ROI. In fact, the study shows recognition can help mitigate the $322 billion cost of global turnover and lost productivity, as organizations can experience an opportunity loss of $20 million for every 10,000 workers due to low wellbeing, poor attendance, and its drain on performance.
At InnovationOne®, LLC, we learned that organizations who score in the top quartile on the InnovationOne Culture Index© business database have cultures where employees feel valued by their fellow employees and leaders, are listened to and considered an equal among their peers, and experience trust and mutual respect, among other traits as shown at right. These organizations reported higher financial-performance than bottom quartile performers by as much as 22 percent.
According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, positive feedback, especially at a 5 to 1 ratio over negative feedback, is a hallmark of high performing teams. The authors note that playing to strengths is always a great strategy, but some weaknesses can’t be ignored. And that is part of the point. Don’t provide negative feedback with “the little things.” Save negative or constructive feedback for the significant issues that get in the way of success. If the employee’s behavior or skills do not improve with their significant issue, a performance improvement plan may need to be initiated.
The end goal with positive feedback is to build a culture and teams that have mutual respect and trust. Trust (which researchers sometimes call psychological safety) is the number one characteristic of high-performing teams—even higher than the intelligence of team members, the number of extroverts, the meaning and societal impact of the work, dependability, and understanding team norms.
Unfortunately, many employees do not feel valued enough, as reported by many surveys and the Workhuman and Gallup research above.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Organizations can build cultures that include recognition, employee well-being and excellence. Those who do will benefit from reduced turnover and absenteeism and higher productivity and innovation.
Learn more at InnovationOne, LLC.
Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting and Managing Partner of InnovationOne, LLC. He works with organizations to transform HR and recruiting, implement remote work, and develop extraordinary leaders, teams, and innovation cultures. He is the author of the highly acclaimed book, Hack Recruiting: The Best of Empirical Research, Method and Process, and Digitization. He is quoted in business journals such as The Wall Street Journal, Workforce Management, and CEO Magazine. Victor has partnered with The Conference Board on innovation research. Subscribe to his weekly blogs at http://www.VictorHRConsultant.com