I love working on teams. Actually, that’s not true. I love working on highly effective teams. It is incredible to co-create with a group of people who are highly capable, motivated and collaborative with the same goals. I can remember multiple times when I have been on teams like this: a mission trip with Royal Servants to Europe when I was 18, our Revolution (626) team curating a forum for the creative arts, our Theologia team prepping a theology camp for High School students, chairing our ordaining board for the Free Methodist’s in Oregon. There are more. But just as easily, I can remember being on many teams that did not function well. In each of those teams there are a variety of reasons for disfunction such as multiple or unclear vision, autocratic control by the leader, or member unwillingness to stick to the agreed upon plan of action. But one element that nearly always breaks down a team is lack of communication, particularly the lack of quality feedback.
Before writing this post, I took a few moments to think of those particular teams I have participated in that have had some major breakdowns. Of course, they will not be mentioned but thinking through each of these reminds me of the absolute necessity of choosing team members who can and will communicate feedback with one another well, especially when the topics are uncomfortable.
Communicating feedback is one of the most basic and difficult aspects of leading. This is why Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston’s book Simple Habits for Complex Times begins with methodology on feedback loops. They draw from Bill Torbert’s expertise on high-performing teams. Torbert says that, “in study after study, one thing was more clear than anything else: a team’s excellence rested on its ability to give and receive very high-quality feedback, constantly.” Torbert is essentially saying that for a team to be excellent that they needed not just feedback but great feedback, and not just sometimes but all the time.
Feedback is often not what most teams or individuals want. Really, most would rather have encouragement and validation. In truth phrases like, “good job” are often more an encouragement than assessment of the job done. The meager praise or counter of half hopeful responses such as, “better luck next time” are vague and unhelpful for continued growth. To truly help a team be successful Berger and Johnston “strongly believe that in a complex and uncertain context, creating a feedback-rich, safe-to learn organization is the first thing for a team to get right (which is why we start with it here).
Research shows time and again, across cultures and organizations that the problem lies in the fact that giving and receiving feedback does not come naturally to people. Those who do embrace feedback do so from learned skillsets and mindsets. As the authors of Simple Habits assess, “you have to have skills for offering the feedback, skills for listening to others, and the mindset that holds those skills together.”
For those who have not read Simple Habits for Complex Times yet (it is a quality, well researched text), here is a quick reference guide for growing the feedback loop. I thought it helpful to include for my own reference as well as those teams we work with, since we are all needing this basic framework in our teams.
Giving feedback with the mindset of a learner makes all the difference. Understanding that we do not hold all knowledge about the other person and we have something to glean from them in the feedback process makes people less problems to be solved. Leaders should continually ask the question, “what do I have to learn here?”
Offering Feedback Skills:
Rather than trying to draw out information and expect to be the answer holder for those we are working with, it is more valuable to gain information toward the real feedback content. To offer feedback, ask questions centered around three areas, specifically, data, feelings, and impact.
Data —What actually happened in this situation? What evidence do you have? What are the facts everyone would agree upon?
Feeling —How are you feeling about this? What is the strength of the emotion you’re feeling?
Impact —What is the impact of this behavior on the workplace? How do you know this?
Being able to have a mindset of a learner enables us to hold questions around the intent of the speaker’s message. Instead of asking “What does this message mean to me?” the hearer maintains the perspective of “What does this message mean to him?” This question alone creates a better listening and learning environment to shape feedback in optimal ways.
If I were to add anything else to this list, it would be to include Friendman’s work on being a well-differentiated self so that we are a non-anxious presence when approaching others with feedback.
Overall, Simple Habits for Complex Times offers an entire set of excellent methods for “asking different questions, identifying system relationships, drawing boundaries, enabling fail-safe experiments, and helping followers cope with change.” The entirety of the work is based around complex systems theory, which explicates that while machines are merely a sum of their parts systems are much more than the sum of their parts and “cannot be easily managed because their behavior is often highly unpredictable.” The attached youtube video is a beautiful and simple introduction to complex systems theory for novices such as myself.
The reality is that the systems we are part of, whether in the church, business or family are continuing to grow more complex and we need tools for understanding and untangling them. As I have written this, I realize there are greater complexities in my own doctoral project and I need to glean more feedback from those I hope to help with regard to empowering women and people of color in the Wesleyan Tradition. I need to listen to and learn from both those in current positions of power and those who are the future of those leadership roles.
 Berger, Jennifer Garvey, and Keith Johnston. 2016. Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders. Stanford: Stanford Business Books. 78.
 Berger, 61.
 Ibid., 63.
 Ibid., 71.
 Ibid., 75.
 Gillespie, T R. “Simple habits for complex times: powerful practices for leaders, by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston.” Choice; Middletown Vol. 52, Iss. 12, (Aug 2015): 2061.