Feedback is a part of every workplace and a common tool for individual improvement. Applying constructive methods to improve existing and develop new skills is crucial to any performing culture, or individual, seeking advantages. Yet through this tried, long standing interaction, we overlook how to enhance the ways we give feedback. The constant change among workplaces demands new, emerging, interpersonal strategies that challenge the status quo of feedback and how to develop the individual.
Enter Dr. Marshall Goldsmith, the Thinkers50 Hall of Fame #1 Executive Coach in the world, and my mentor and good friend of 20+ years. His work continues to accomplish leadership and workplace development through the newest coaching concept of “feed-forward”. Feed-forward is a constructive communication style that delivers individual growth by focusing on what’s ahead and collaboratively preparing the individual for future success.
Feedback, which many falls back on, is rooted in the negative by looking back on mistakes and attempting to develop from there. If mishandled, this can lead to lower individual motivation to change and, in group settings like meetings, innovation and dialogue can be suppressed. Feed-forward changes the conversation by looking ahead. It positively influences the dialogue and encourages individuals to grow. Here are 5 actionable ways you can begin applying it:
1. Start with the Question
Arguably any leader’s greatest strength is in the questions they ask. Powerful inquiry opens the doorway for reflection, conversation and development to begin. As a leader, applying the feed-forward approach, each question must be constructed with a focus on the future, and it should include ideas related to what the individual can do and how they can develop. What can I do better next time? What is the best way to achieve this in the future?
2. Forward Influenced Conversation
As leaders, if we engage with others to think about the future and what can be done to prepare for it, then our conversation must also reflect this philosophy as well. Put simply, the dialogue between leaders and others should consistently integrate future thinking. Rather than stating “Here’s what you did…”, the message can be phrased as “Next time, you can…” A simple tweak in how the message is communicated can make all difference between dwelling in the past or looking towards the future.
3. Dialogue and Co-Create Rather than Sell and Tell
There’s a fundamental difference in dictating and dialoguing in an interaction, and the difference is easy to recognize. Feeling patronized is experienced when we are being talked at; the conversation is a one-way trip with little room for questions. Dialoguing differs by framing the conversation as a two-way conversation; the other side can participate, ask questions and speak. By creating equality in the conversation with equal airtime, feed-forward further encourages the spark for the individual to change. Using this approach may phrase questions as “Help me understand…” Or “Would you mind…”
4. Active Listening
How we organize our messages and communicate them is just as powerful as how we listen. At the core, feed-forward is about weaving the developing individual’s mind, thoughts, and focus on what they can do. As dialogue is formed, active listening is critical here (pun intended). It presents an opportunity for the individual coaching to confirm that they are engaged with the other side. If needed, it also works as a method to clarify and adjust the conversation; ensuring all parties are on the same page. Where hearing occurs when one regurgitates verbatim what was said, active listening plays back what was said through the individual’s authentic style. Phrases that support these situations can be “What I’m hearing you say is…”, “Thank you sharing that, my understanding is that…” or “Would you clarify…”
5. Use “And” Rather Than “But”
And… after actively listening and mirroring back your understanding be sure to use the words “and” rather than “but.” Saying the word, “but” negates your last statement. Imagine you were just told you are a great physician, BUT you need to think about the bigger picture. Change that to “You are a really great physician AND I invite you to think about the future of your work.” Sounds different, right? Now you can be both a great physician AND consider other ways of thinking.
6. Reflect on your Feed-Forward Skills
Providing actionable, productive feed-forward communication is a skill and just like throwing a baseball or playing an instrument, it needs practice to become natural. The same goes here for applying feed-forward into your life and daily interactions. After a session or session has concluded, take a few minutes to debrief and think over how well it worked. Perhaps it’s better to write your thoughts in a journal, record a video or connect with another coach.
Feed-forward asks us to breakaway from what we know and what we’ve experienced through feedback. Feedback can crush motivation and sour relationships by focusing on what people did wrong. By integrating these steps and frequently applying them, the channels of positivity and motivation to change openly. The goal of any coach should be to add value in every conversation and the feed-forward approach weaves this idea together.
Change happens in a clear process: 1. form, 2. storm, 3. norm and 4. perform. Some storming processes are more brutal than others and some can be done with humor and even grace. The best change happens with humor and invitation to dialogue to come to a better conclusion and way of being. Chris Rock is no exception. He is taking the stage tonight with his monologue at the Oscars #OscarsSoWhite.
There seems to be two methods of storming that have two very distinct outcomes.
1. Crowd/Group Riots: Some of the worst riots in history have led to the death of 100s of individuals, police officers, resignations, job loss, and unconscionable emotional upset. Such examples include the 1992 Rodney King Race Riot, 1967 nationwide riots in most major US cities that led to over 100 deaths, and the 1968 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr which were as widespread and deadly.
2. Dialogue. On April 4, 1968, on the eve of Martin Luther King assassination, despite concerns for his safety, Robert F. Kennedy gave an impassioned speech to call for dialogue instead of violence to a rally at 17th and Broadway in the heart of Indianapolis’s African-American ghetto. RFK invited compassion instead of violence, eloquently communicating the pain he felt when his brother, too, was killed by a white man.
WE CAN MOVE IN THAT DIRECTION AS A COUNTRY, IN GREATER POLARIZATION — BLACK PEOPLE AMONGST BLACKS, AND WHITE AMONGST WHITES, FILLED WITH HATRED TOWARD ONE ANOTHER. OR WE CAN MAKE AN EFFORT, AS MARTIN LUTHER KING DID, TO UNDERSTAND, AND TO COMPREHEND, AND REPLACE THAT VIOLENCE, THAT STAIN OF BLOODSHED THAT HAS SPREAD ACROSS OUR LAND, WITH AN EFFORT TO UNDERSTAND, COMPASSION, AND LOVE.
Senator George Mitchell spent several days in Ireland during the Peace Accords, working through the grueling emotional pain of those from North and South Ireland. I spoke with Senator Mitchell back in 1998, and he told me that being with the people, and truly empathizing with their pain and working through the details of the pain is what brought the Ireland Peace Accords to consensus.
There are common denominators to requests for help in the area of diversity based on any factor, be it sexual orientation, race, color, or gender. The common denominator is emotional pain. It doesn’t feel good to be excluded, to be hurt, to be talked down to, to be discarded, to be disrespected.
This kind of behavior dates back in our memories to the schoolyard bully and back in history to the stone aged man dragging “his woman” by the hair. It is not to be tolerated, however, it must not be fought with any other weapon but dialogue, consensus building, empathy, caring, and moving toward a better and more understanding human right. The human right to be seen equal in the eyes of all.
A merger-acquisition is such a delicate process, a majority of businesses don’t do it effectively. According to several studies, a staggering percentage of merger-acquisitions fail to meet their goals. One KPMG study reported that mergers fail 83 percent of the time, and a study by the Harvard Business Review showed the figure could be up to 90 percent. There can be many factors that play into this, but many times failure is due to culture incompatibility—which should be examined and evaluated beforehand and proactively managed and developed post-merger—and poor leadership execution.
This high failure rate was on the minds of KeyBank Chairman and CEO Beth Mooney, President Chris Gorman, who was charged with leading the overall merger-integration process, the entire executive team, and the Board of Directors of Key from the moment they contemplated its merger-acquisition of First Niagara Financial Group in 2015. Very early on they asked Brian Fishel, Senior Vice President and Chief Talent Officer of KeyBank in Cleveland, Ohio, to lay out a plan for bringing the cultures and leadership of the two companies together most efficiently and effectively. Right away, Fishel knew he needed to address his 4 E’s of success in leading individuals and teams: explicit, engrained, energizing, and enduring.
Not long after they posed the question, Fishel, with input from many of Key’s top executives, developed a robust game plan that complimented already planned line of business and market- specific integration, onboarding and training activities with an enterprise-driven series of education sessions for leaders from both organizations to attend so they could learn how to quickly and effectively work together. With support from Beth Mooney and senior leadership, the sessions were well attended and well received and paved the way for success.
Here are the key elements as to how it happened and what can be learned from their experience:
1. Assess Current Culture of Each Organization
The idea here is that elegance is in simplicity. Assess where the employees of each organization are currently, and then use that information as a jumping off point for culture and integration training. Ask simple questions of both sides and then ask them to rate how everyone is doing. This is when you see what has been engrained in each side, so that you can see what leadership has carried through. This can help you lead going forward.
Right after the merger, Fishel and his team conducted interviews of 50 executives from First Niagara and KeyBank. They asked First Niagara executives to describe its company culture. How does work get done? What are the written and unwritten rules? How do decisions get made? What is your perception of KeyBank people and their company’s culture? Then, the same was asked of KeyBank executives about Key and First Niagara. This produced responses Fishel and his team could learn from. Then, the team used those same 50 people and a handful of additional leaders and conducted an organizational assessment survey asking them to rate their company and the other company on several dimensions, including: how is information shared? Is information held more at the top or is it dispersed? Is info shared freely?
The good news in what Fishel learned is that the two companies shared a lot of the same foundational elements or “enterprise DNA” — which, research would suggest, is rarely the case in merger-acquisitions. These core elements, most specifically included the two company’s core values, are hard-wired and hard to change. With this strong base of similarities shared between First Niagara and KeyBank, they had the confidence that they could deliver as a group and be successful as one entity.
2. Offer Multiple Open-ended Education Sessions
The next step is to take that information from the assessment and create education forums/workshops that help everyone be on the same page and succeed in the new company going forward. One critical element is to not mandate participation in education workshops, but to allow people to attend by choice, a critical early step in helping individuals self assess and truly determine whether they wanted to be part of something new and be committed to helping the new company come together. This may seem counter-intuitive, but offering the freedom to choose will actually energize your people.
They come because they want to, and that creates an excitement they would otherwise not posses. Another component is to make the meetings easily accessible—rather than hold them at company headquarters, bring the meetings to field offices or local regions.
Typically in times of a merger-acquisition, employees’ emotions are all over the map. Some embrace the change very early on, others are hopeful but unsure, and others are flat-out skeptical and resistant. Many are usually a mixture of hope and skepticism. So it’s important to meet people where they are and allow them freedom of choice and to move through their skepticism at their own pace. You can’t push it or force it, especially if your own company’s values encompass respect. You have to model that by respecting the employees’ freedom of choice.
It’s also important that senior leadership believes in the sessions and what the talent management team is trying to accomplish, and then in turn that the employees believe their leader has their best interest at heart.
Fishel didn’t want to force people to attend a session who didn’t want to be there. So he offered 10 sessions and people from both companies were invited to sign up for one of them that would best work their schedules. He believed that word of mouth would ultimately become the best marketing—and in fact, those who attended the first sessions told others how much they learned and how valuable they found the experience to be; that got others interested fast. By the final sessions, attendance had grown quite a bit. In the end, Fishel and his team had invited 600 key members of KeyBank and First Niagara to attend one of the sessions, and 500 total had attended over a period of four weeks.
Rather than the traditional approach of holding the meetings at headquarters, they did things a little differently. Organizers purposely delivered the sessions in the field in markets where there were significant overlap in businesses of First Niagra and Key. This made attendance more convenient for participants, but it also helped raise confidence. Having the sessions delivered in markets at the local level and having execs who were part of faculty travel to the participants sends a message that senior leadership is focused on the value of individuals and teams.
3. Equal Representation
Attendees need to be able to trust who is offering the information within the education session. That’s why companies involved in merger-acquisitions must offer instruction in a strategic way. They must utilize an equal number of leadership from each legacy company.
When Fishel and his team set up the education sessions, they made sure that there were about half KeyBank and half First Niagra in each session and there was strong representation of leaders from both companies serving as speakers and “faculty.” This helped attendees feel comfortable and have confidence in the content they were learning. It also made the point that this is a joint effort and that there is no winner or loser.
4. Keep the Sessions Short and Personal
Key to the attendance success is structure and content of the education session. Many organizations go with the two full days (or more) rule, but it’s better to keep it short and focused. Another component is to not just offer speeches to attendees, but offer a chance for them to interact on a personal level. They will leave with more connections and a deeper sense of where they fit into the company as a whole.
This is what is meant by being explicit. You don’t cover everything—you cover exactly what they need to hear and learn in a clear and direct way. Fishel was dead-set on conducting a full education session in just 10 hours. This kept things focused and also made it easier for participants to attend and stay fully engaged and attentive in the discussions and activities. So the schedule launched at noon on day one, ran through dinner with a “fireside chat” in the evening with the CEO or one of her direct reports, and then ran from 8 a.m. to noon the next day.
The result was a tremendous amount of employee interaction and connection, solving issues in the moment, together, and a lot of real content being covered and leadership development.
5. Showcase Accountability and Problem Solving
It’s important for executives and managers to feel a sense of responsibility in the merger-acquisition process. During an education session, this can be showcased in break-out role playing sessions so managers get a chance to put their newfound strategies into practice.
This allows what is being taught to be enduring long after the session is complete. One focus of the new KeyBank-First Niagra entity was not to tell employees what to do and what not to do. Fishel made teaching tools and problem solving skills an integral part of the education sessions. To gain buy-in and accountability for change, he brought leaders together and helped them figure out how to go to market and deliver to the client, and how best and most practically they will bring their teammates along with them on the journey.
Teach and reinforce in managers that if they are not accountable, then the people they manage won’t be, and how that translates to customer experience.
In the end, there is no cookie cutter answer for what protocol to follow. You can’t tell your employees to do this and expect the merger-acquisition to go perfectly. Your job is to assess where your employees are currently, then teach them the skills to be accountable and take ownership of the new company and its culture; and help guide them with you on the journey.
Employees who feel deeply connected their work tend to perform at a higher level (see Meyer & Allen, 1991; Schaufeli & Bakker, 2004). Similarly, organizations that employ a large percentage of employees who feel a sense of connection with their companies perform at a higher level (see Angle & Perry, 1981; Saks, 2006). This makes inherent sense to the average person – of course employees who are committed to their organizations will work harder and better, and of course these organizations will receive the benefits of dedicated employees. However, there still exists a need to determine the organizational qualities that create employees who feel a profound sense of connection with the companies they work for. To fill this need and to develop both empirical and practical understanding of the relationship between employees and the companies they work for, Best Practice Institute (BPI) conducted research to answer the following questions:
What do we mean when we say employees love their workplaces?
How do Most Loved Workplaces ensure organizations perform at a higher level?
How can companies foster employees who love their companies?
The following describes these questions and our progress in more detail:
What do we mean when we say employees love their workplaces?
We made powerful gains in identifying and describing engaged employees with its Most Loved Workplace measure. The research focused on the strongest possible connection between employees and their jobs – it measured the degree to which employees love their job. Think of the co-worker who shows up early, who always has the answers, who feels committed towards their work and their teams. This person loves their job, and a primary goal of best-practice organizations is to employ as many of these individuals as possible.
How do Most Loved Workplaces ensure organizations perform at a higher level?
To answer the second question, we surveyed over 150 employees from Fortune 1000 companies. Employees who work in a most loved environment reported themselves as being 94% more likely to perform at a higher level, with 59% saying they are four times more likely to submit superior performance. Employees in Most Loved Workplaces also reported stronger group cohesion, reduced turnover intentions, and 41% reported a willingness to recommend their company to a friend.
How can companies foster employees who love their companies?
We used qualitative analysis techniques to identify aspects of organizations where employees felt especially connected to their work and their company, interviewing members of high-functioning organizations about the aspects of their organizations that made them feel connected. Then, we coded the text of the employees’ responses to identify the most-critical aspects of a Most Loved Organization®. Six prominent themes emerged:
- Honesty and Integrity
Companies that are considered a Most Loved Workplace ® exemplify these themes, which have all been shown to strongly predict both employee and organizational performance in empirical literature (e.g. Frazier et al. 2017; Lee & Ashton, 2004; Lee & Choi, 2003; Steven & Campion, 1994). The current work expands upon scientific understanding to identify these six qualities as the most critical components of a high-functioning organization. Companies that are performing at high levels are composed of employees who can communicate with one another in order to work together and accomplish group goals. They employ individuals with personalities predisposed to working hard and maintaining their integrity. Further, these companies create environments in which employees feel respected by those around them, and trust that their voice will be heard. In the current work these themes emerged as more powerful predictors of optimal organizational outcomes than did pay, or scheduling flexibility, or upwards mobility. In other words, they are prerequisites for employees who Love their Workplaces.
Angle, H. L., & Perry, J. L. (1981). An empirical assessment of organizational commitment and organizational effectiveness. Administrative science quarterly, 1-14.
Frazier, M. L., Fainshmidt, S., Klinger, R. L., Pezeshkan, A., & Vracheva, V. (2016). \ Psychological Safety: A Meta‐Analytic Review and Extension. Personnel Psychology.
Lee, K., & Ashton, M. C. (2004). Psychometric properties of the HEXACO personality inventory. Multivariate behavioral research, 39(2), 329-358.
Lee, H., & Choi, B. (2003). Knowledge management enablers, processes, and organizational performance: An integrative view and empirical examination. Journal of management information systems, 20(1), 179-228.
Meyer, J. P., & Allen, N. J. (1991). A three-component conceptualization of organizational commitment. Human resource management review, 1(1), 61-89.
Saks, A. M. (2006). Antecedents and consequences of employee engagement. Journal of managerial psychology, 21(7), 600-619.
Stevens, M. J., & Campion, M. A. (1994). The knowledge, skill, and ability requirements for teamwork: Implications for human resource management. Journal of management, 20(2), 503-530