In which of these situations do you need feedback more:
Situation A: Business is “as usual,” predictability is high, and you follow a relatively well-worn path.
Situation B: Plans have been thrown out of the window, uncertainty reigns, and there is no rulebook to follow and no one immediately around to ask.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s return to this question later. Instead, let’s go back in time and consider our fundamental needs as humans. Evolutionary biology, ethnology, anthropology and psychology converge to suggest that we have three basic needs that we seek to satisfy. Psychologist Robert Hogan eloquently calls them finding meaning, getting ahead and getting along. And they haven’t changed in a million years of human history.
What do they have to do with our scenarios? Let’s take a look:
Finding meaning is about feeling in control, making sense of the world and understanding our place in the wider context. Our need to find meaning is the reason we read books, conduct scientific experiments and build places of worship. We crave context, prefer certainty and fear unpredictability.
Part of the role of any leader is to make sense for others and reduce uncertainty. Feedback is a powerful tool for doing so. Working virtually and under novel circumstances, team members are worrying about how they’re doing. They are also deprived of many of the visual cues we all rely on to tell us how we are doing: the boss’ frown, the friendly nod, the shared smile.
As a leader, you provide your team members with information on their performance. You focus their attention on what’s important, what works and what needs a different approach. In chaos, there is little information but much noise. Feedback cuts through the noise and highlights what’s most important.
Your feedback message should start with a statement around why it is important — why it is personally relevant. There is a lot of research on the power of “why.” Answering “why” can appeal to our need for what is rational and logical. It can also appeal to our less rational, but nevertheless important, need: that our perspective counts and that we are important. A famous Harvard experiment demonstrated that people are much more willing to help others when they are given an explanation for why to do so. It doesn’t always matter how good that explanation is; it is important that you try.
So, if life for your team looks a little more like situation B, use feedback to signal the importance of the work that your team members are doing. Explain how it connects to your organization’s purpose. In today’s context, so much of our work might seem unimportant. Our current reality is changing our perspective. It is even natural to question the importance of our contribution. If, during business-as-usual times, we focus on our goals and tactics, the current moment calls for leaders to help team members focus on purpose and vision. What your team needs right now is a dose of “tell me why it matters.”
This second human need pushes us toward accomplishments. It’s about progressing toward goals and driving to win. It’s about being the decision-maker. It’s our desire to lead others and achieve a higher position in the hierarchy. To varying degrees, we all crave status and fear powerlessness.
In scenario A, we understand how to get ahead. The path to success is clear, and winning is a good thing. Scenario B undermines this understanding of how to get ahead. We find that our regular strategies for driving forward may not work. Proven processes break down, and policies and practices are rendered obsolete.
It isn’t just our lack of experience that is exposed. Our typical behaviors, including the ones that typically work, may be found wanting. Further, the stress of uncertainty probably brings to the forefront the behaviors that, in scenario A, remained in the background.
In extreme times, like the ones we face today, the context may challenge even our belief that getting ahead is even the right thing to do — which is where feedback comes in. The best leaders remind their team members that no one is an expert in these times of uncertainty. We are all learners.
We can encourage experimentation and risk-taking and celebrate when our team members find new methods and solutions. We can signal our belief in a learner’s ability to find a way. We can show that we care about the work and its outcomes. And we can demonstrate, through our own behavior, that stepping up to leadership and finding a way to continue to deliver, despite the context, isn’t inappropriate. It is part of the solution. Yes, there is risk, but that’s OK. We’ll share the risk.
Finally, getting along is about attention, approval and our basic desire to belong. Solitary confinement is the cruelest form of punishment. As humans, we want to be part of a group. We crave connection and fear isolation.
Think about the appreciation that you will receive from your team for taking the time to give feedback. Time is a scarce resource, especially in a crisis. Taking a moment to share feedback on what goes right or wrong will go a long way. And do it with empathy. A recent study confirmed that even negative feedback, delivered with empathy, increases the quality of the employee-supervisor relationship.
In turbulent times, don’t forget about encouragement. Give feedback on what your employees are doing right. It may be more difficult in a virtual environment, so pay more attention to your team members.
The trending hashtag is #allinthistogether. There is no better time than now to use feedback to inspire trust and loyalty.
The Situation We’re in … And Beyond
In situation A, there is a lot of predictability. There are established routines, including for seeking and providing feedback. People are clear on the goals and expectations that you have set. They probably have proven skills, built through relevant experience and behaviors that support getting the work done.
In situation B, in a crisis mode, there is no playbook. Yet our needs — for meaning, for progress and for connection — don’t diminish. The wiring of a million years means that we turn to our leaders for feedback. Your feedback helps your team members make sense of what is going on (find meaning), are more effective in their tasks (get ahead), and enjoy your attention and validation (get along).
The best learning comes from experience. And the best learning experiences happen in extremis. All of us will build skills as we live through Scenario B. The opportunity? To use feedback to speak to the most fundamental needs that our team will have. The other opportunity? To build the skills we will need when the crisis is over.