There are very few leaders in the world who like to hear feedback. But to create an effective feedback loop, there must be a balance of giving and receiving. Ben Baker’s guest today is Dr. Kelly Waltman, the founder and CEO of SLR Leadership Consulting. Dr. Kelly talks with Ben about cultivating a feedback culture that is vital to inspire and create positive change. Join in the conversation as Dr. Kelly gives practical tips on how you can cultivate an effective feedback loop in your workplace. Tune in, inspire, and change for the better!
Welcome back, my wonderful audience. Come join us on LinkedIn. You can find me @YourBrandMarketing or Podcast Host for Hire company page. I love to know your comments, what you think of past episodes, what you'd like to see, and what your thoughts are. I love having you along for the journey. I've got Dr. Kelly Waltman. We are going to talk about creating an effective feedback loop because she is amazing at doing this. Kelly, welcome to the show. Let's get into this.
Thank you. That's an introduction there. I don't know if I quite hold myself to the same high standards that you've set for me but I appreciate that compliment.
I love putting my guests on a pedestal when they deserve it. You and I have had lots of great conversations. I love what you do and it's an important thing. It's not just talking. It's about making sure that people are understood. That's an important thing that a lot of people miss in communication. Before we get into this, let's let people have a little bit more of an insight into who you are. Where did you come from? What brought you here? What's your PhD in so we could all be very impressed by you? Let's then get into the conversation.
I live in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I've lived in Pennsylvania, not in this area but I’ve been a Pennsylvanian my entire life. It's been an interesting journey for me over many years. I have had the opportunity to have this variety of experiences. A lot of my career was in the juvenile and criminal justice fields. I've worked in local and state governments. I've also been blessed to have one foot in academia for years. I like to use the term pracademic. I didn't come up with it but I love that term. I’ve been this practitioner, director and leader. I've also loved teaching in higher education and doing research.
I've had my foot in these two worlds for a long time and had this variety of experiences. It's been an interesting journey for me to work in these different environments. The one thing that has been consistent for me all along and where I am as a new manifestation of all of that is I've always been an educator at heart. I was in Future Teachers of America. I always wanted to be a teacher. I love training, teaching and educating. I've been passionate about leadership for a long time. I’ve been fortunate to be in different leadership roles and experienced both great leadership and not-so-great leadership.
When I decided to embark on this journey of founding SLR Leadership Consulting, it was for me this new manifestation of all these experiences coming together. It's an opportunity for me to be an educator but in a way that helps leaders and teams have better communication, work together more effectively, and have a better workplace culture and environment because it is such an important part of our daily lives and experiences.
I want to touch on one point that you said. You emphasized it and I talk about it all the time. How do you define the difference between a great leader, and then not so great leader? That is pivotal to the conversation we're about to have. People assume that they're great leaders. They sit there and go, “People love me. I'm a great leader.” When you ask people the same question, you may not get the same response. First of all, how do you define what a leader is? Second of all, what creates a great leader and a not-so-great leader?
Those are some big concepts. There's the more traditional view of being a leader. You are in a leadership “position.” You've been given this role. You maybe have some decision-making authority. You are tasked with shepherding a group of people on whatever mission that you have within your organization, but you can be a leader without being in a leadership role. You can help set the tone for that space in that environment. We talked about feedback. You can be somebody that helps set the tone for that type of dialogue and conversation. I have people ask me all the time, “Cultivating a feedback loop is great, but what do I do if my boss isn't on board? How do I do this?” I always tell people, “Operate within your sphere of influence.” Where you have some measure of control and influence, operate there. You can be a leader and demonstrate leadership qualities without being in a leadership role per se.
That is what being a leader is for me. It's about setting an example, operating with integrity, working to make the space around you better, and making people feel excited to work with you. When they leave your presence, they feel inspired, empowered, and ready to take on challenges. They feel better for having interacted with you. People who either aren't leaders or aren't great leaders, maybe they're in a leadership role but they're not great at it, you have that opposite feeling. Much of this is a feeling. It's hard to objectively define what makes a great leader or a not-so-great leader.
There are toxic examples of people who are outright toxic, threatening and harassing, but there's a spectrum there. People who are not great leaders, when you walk away, you don't feel inspired. You don't feel clarity. You don't feel like you know where you should go. You don't feel empowered. We could go into micromanaging, and all these other pieces of not-so-great leaders. I don't want to go too far down the rabbit hole from your question. Much of it is about the feeling you get, the energy that you received from somebody when you walk away, and how do you feel leaving that interaction. That is where it comes down to whether somebody is a great leader or not.
My point is, and this is how I always put it, leadership is an attitude, not a job title. It's the people that wake up every morning and say, “How do I make things, other people, and the situations better?” The people who can communicate more effectively and be able to not only show what needs to be done but also be able to communicate in ways that inspire are great leaders. You may not have a job title that says CEO, Vice President, Director or Manager for that matter. It's the people that sit there, step up and lead. Those are the leaders no matter what their title is. Let's get into that in terms of what does that mean for creating an effective feedback loop? First of all, define that and then let's get into the conversation.
One of the ways I like to describe an effective feedback loop for people is by cultivating a feedback culture. It is about this willingness to give and receive feedback. It's a type of conversation that happens routinely. It's not something you do once in a while. It's not something that's relegated to performance reviews. It is woven into the fabric of that conversation, the dialogue that happens within a team. They're regularly giving and receiving feedback, and they’re doing so at the peer level.
If you and I are coworkers, Ben, and we are peers, we can sit down after this conversation and you can say to me, "What went well? What could be better?" I could do the same for you as your guest, “What went well? What could I do better the next time I'm on a show?” We can have that conversation. If I were your boss, you could have that conversation with me. I could also ask you what I could do better. It is this willingness at and between all levels within the organization and the team to give and receive feedback, have that open dialogue, and having a balance too of positive and critical feedback.
You should give more positive than critical. Often people are good at or more comfortable with giving one type of feedback. Maybe they're great at giving lots of praise and positive feedback, but they get uncomfortable and struggle with giving some of that critical feedback. Some leaders are great at saying what should improve and they forget sometimes to talk about what went well, what they should keep doing. It's about having that balance and that consistent rhythm and dialogue of routinely giving and receiving feedback in a healthy manner.When somebody gives you feedback, listen to it and acknowledge it. Give yourself time and space to process it. Click To Tweet
The thing that's missing is receiving that feedback. A lot of people are great at giving feedback to say, “By the way, you did this right or you did this wrong. I like this or I didn't like that.” There are very few leaders and very few people that like to hear what they've done wrong, and take it not only as a critical judgment but as a way to improve. A lot of it comes down to it's not what you say but how you say it. That's where I want to explore. How do we enable people, whether it's a leader, team environment, inter-team environment, a VP talking to the C-Suite to be able to create forms of communication and feedback that not only is listened to but resonates, and is going to inspire and create change?
There are a couple of different thoughts that come to mind when you ask that question. First, I want to share with people that it's normal to have an uncomfortable response to receiving critical feedback. That's a normal reaction. Thanks to our ancestors and the millennia of hardwiring that our survival instinct kicks in. That's a normal response because there were millennia of times where our survival depended upon our standing in our tribe. When we hear critical feedback, that part of our brain kicks in and thinks, “My standing in the tribe is threatened.” I like to let people know it's normal to be uncomfortable with that. Once you realize that, it’s like, “This is just my brain kicking in.”
The other thing I like to tell people when it comes to receiving feedback more effectively is because it's a normal reaction to being a little bit uncomfortable. Even if somebody gives you feedback in an effective way, it can still sting a little bit. Allow yourself the space to sit with that. When somebody is giving you feedback, particularly critical feedback, taking the time to listen and acknowledge it, but then give yourself some time and space to process it. Resist that urge to jump in right away with justifications and clarifications if you don't understand. Receive the feedback, thank them for coming to you with that information and say, “Is it okay if we circle back in a day or so? I respect you coming to me but I'd like some time to process that feedback.”
That gives you some space to feel feelings. They're okay. Take some time to genuinely process it and be objective about it, even if you don't agree with it. There are times when people might come to us with feedback that we genuinely don't agree with, but there's often some kernel of truth in there. There's some way that we can see it from their perspective. Taking the time and the space to process that and finding it can be helpful and valuable. One big thing I'd like to tell people when it comes to receiving feedback is to know that it's normal. Give yourself that space, process it objectively, and then circle back after you've had some time to process.
The key piece is making sure that people are giving feedback effectively. A lot of people think they're great at giving feedback but maybe they're not. There are some key elements that need to be there. The first is having a safe space for that dialogue. If you don't have that psychological safety or if you haven't cultivated a relationship where that type of exchange can be given in a healthy way, then that's going to be difficult. It’s almost impossible to either give or receive feedback effectively.
Timing is important too. If we wait for way too long like 2 to 3 weeks to give somebody feedback, we've diluted our message. It's not as meaningful. We also need to make sure that it's objective. It is, “I'm coming to you from my perspective. This is what I perceived.” Maybe there's an objective behavior that somebody is consistently responding to emails after ten days instead of two. You want to make it about that objective behavior.
It's not a value judgment of the person. It's not an opinion-based statement. Don't call them lazy. I've heard that, not about me, but I've heard people say that. Don't make it a value-based judgment and be specific. Target something objective about the behavior that's being demonstrated. Don't just give vague feedback like, “You're late all the time.” What does that mean? Let's be more specific. When those elements are there, you're able to give feedback more effectively, and then it helps you also to receive it. If people are meeting those components, it still might be uncomfortable but you can receive it more effectively.
I want to touch on a couple of things. The first thing being is timeliness. In my opinion, the annual review should be dead. You write down all this information. You put it in a file, and then once a year, you sit down with this person. You let them have everything, the good, the bad, the ugly, and what's going on for the last year. There is no way for people to go back and fix things. First of all, take it objectively. Learn from it and be able to fix things that happened nine months ago. I love the fact that you talked about doing things in a timely manner. We can't fix what we don't know. If you expected me to return emails in 24 hours and I thought I was supposed to have 40 hours to reply, then you don't tell me and it keeps festering, the problem gets worse.
I'm unaware of the issue that I'm not meeting expectations, and so you're frustrated. Oftentimes, if there's a behavior like that that's occurring, other people in the team might be aware that somebody is not meeting expectations. They're getting frustrated, “Why is this person not meeting expectations and I'm doing my job? Why isn't that changing?” Often those behaviors aren't happening in a vacuum. A lot of times other team members are aware of what's going on and they're getting frustrated. It's this ripple effect that occurs when you fail to have those feedback conversations.
You used the term expectations. That is extremely important, having accountability and expectations. I don't think you can have one without the other. How do you go about setting up effective expectations in order to be able to have accountability? That conversation is going to lead to hybrid work environments and everything that goes with it.
Certain expectations are likely going to be spelled out in either policy or job descriptions. There are certain things like if it's company policy, except for extreme circumstances, that emails should be responded to within 24 hours or at least an acknowledgment email. That's a pretty clear expectation as long as it's been communicated. There are other times though that there might be something that's a position or person-specific, but you need to make sure no matter what that they're clearly communicated.
The heart of what you're getting at is that expectations need to be clearly defined and communicated. You shouldn't be frustrated with somebody for not meeting expectations if they've never been defined. I've been in work environments like that. I've seen that happen where managers are frustrated because somebody is not meeting a deadline but the person didn't know that was a deadline, or other things are happening and it's not been clearly communicated.
You're right. If you're not clearly defining what the expectations are, especially if you're in a hybrid or a fully remote environment, and you have not communicated to your team members exactly what the expectations are for how their workday will look. Maybe in your mind, you're thinking they're going to be sitting at their computer and log in from 8:00 to 4:30 every day, but in their mind, they're thinking, "I work remotely. I can work whenever throughout the day. I can log on at 9:00 if I want. As long as I get my work done and put my time in, I can work whenever." If you've never had that conversation, you can't be upset with them for taking a more flexible approach. We could say that it's also on the employee to have that conversation with their supervisor. It's not just a one-way street.
It has to go both ways. There have to be expectations of leaders, of the people that they lead, and also of the people that are being led of the leadership. Sometimes you need that leader to be available, to do things for you or to be a champion of a cause. If those expectations aren't being met, maybe those things will never happen.Cultivate a safe space for dialogue. Click To Tweet
That’s where being able to have that dialogue is so important. If you didn't have that conversation upfront, for whatever reason, there was a lapse in communication, and now you're realizing that your team member is doing this other work schedule, how you approach that conversation is so critical and important. Being able to sit down with them, have that conversation and say, “There was some miscommunication and misunderstanding here. Let's talk through what your expectations were for this work setup, let’s talk through what’s my or the company's expectations are." Maybe there needs to be some flexibility or that conversation upfront.
Being able to approach that in a healthy way from both the team member and the leader is a critical piece. If you've been able to cultivate that type of dialogue all along, those conversations are going to be a lot easier to have, and a lot more comfortable than if you haven't facilitated that type of dialogue leading up to any point where you have some type of big change, crisis or major deadline. That's when you see how things have been up until that point are accentuated when you reach times of crisis or some type of emergency.
Let's take this from theoretical to practical. I'll use myself as an example. I'm starting a brand new program that's coming out. It's called Communicate Your Why Podcast Network. We're going to have podcast hosts that are going to interview people within series of podcasts across North America, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, the Caribbean, etc. I've got a workforce that is almost worldwide. What I'm doing is I'm bringing these people together for a one-hour meeting to be able to set expectations.
Realistically, because of time zones, not everybody's going to be able to make it. What we're going to do is we're going to record it. We’re going to go through best practices, ideas, be able to generate, and have all that information go out to everybody. We’ll then get a feedback loop from everybody afterward. Am I doing this the right way or is there a better way? When you're having an initial meeting, you have this diversified workforce, and you're trying to get the best information out to people to bring everybody in the best team, is this a logical way of doing this or is there a better way to handle this situation?
What you're doing is a great way to handle that situation. Anytime you can use what you have to facilitate live conversation and understanding that some people may have to catch the replay later, but having it as an actual conversation dialogue is fantastic to anybody who’s able to attend. I love that you mentioned in there that you're going to engage those people in the dialogue about setting the expectations. It's not just you coming in.
I'm sure you're coming into this conversation with some expectations of your own as you should, but it's not just you coming in and saying, “These are the expectations. This is how it's going to be.” It’s, “We're going to talk and have a dialogue about expectations for how this can work the most effectively and efficiently for everyone.” I would encourage you to get their expectations first. You should come to the table with your own, but I would encourage you to open it up for theirs first. They might say exactly what you wanted to say. If you want to reveal what you had, you can reiterate but it's great to let other people bring their suggestions first.
You’re sending that out, getting feedback from those who couldn't attend, and/or maybe people who didn't feel comfortable speaking up at the time or maybe needed some more time to process. Not everybody can jump in right away. Giving them the space also to process that information and then come back with feedback is fantastic. You're doing a good job with allowing all of those forms of comfort level, accessibility and availability to come to the proverbial table, be a part of that dialogue, and that expectation setting. That's great.
Would you suggest not only a team meeting but also if people have concerns or questions, making it available for them to have a one-on-one conversation at a later date?
That's great, certainly depending on the size of an organization.
We're talking 12 to 14 people. It's manageable. It's not 5,000, 10,000 or 100,000. The challenges would be different based on those situations.
If there are things that people want to talk about and they would like to have that conversation with you one-on-one, offering that invitation is a great idea. Some people are more comfortable in that format. They might want to give some more context. It’s great to offer up discussion boards, email messaging or other ways to give written feedback. Some people would rather have a dialogue, give some more context, nuance, and tone that you can't get through written communication. That's a great idea and suggestion.
As teams get larger and larger, you need to think about who could be that person for that one-on-one conversation. That's still a valuable component and worth having that. It just then depends on who that person would be. When I was doing research for the book, one of the gentlemen I spoke with during my qualitative interviews uses this term that I love so much. He called it the Delegation of Nurturing.
In the very beginning, if you are a small business owner entrepreneur and you're growing your team, you can do all of that nurturing and be the person to do that. As it continues to grow, you need to delegate that nurturing to your other people, your other leaders, and to team members to do that for one another. I loved that concept in that quote. As this continues to grow for you and it reaches more and more people, that's something that you could do.
It's enabling me to build champions for them to build champions within the organization. That's a great way for organizations to grow and to maintain the culture, the purpose and the brand story. Let's talk about diversified workforces and as they grow. You're right. If it's a team of 5, 6, 10 people, there are challenges, but the challenges are not that difficult in terms of communication, setting expectations and meeting one-on-one. It’s doable, but as the teams get larger and all of a sudden, you have teams in 32 states in 15 different countries and in 12 different time zones, how do you create an effective feedback loop to be able to allow people to make sure that they are listened to, understood and valued?You need to be intentional about asking for feedback. Click To Tweet
One of the first things that popped into my mind when you were asking that was being very intentional. I like the word intention and being intentional. That is at the heart of everything we're talking about. As a leader, you need to be intentional about asking for feedback. Your people may not always feel comfortable coming to you so being intentional about asking for feedback, in addition to giving feedback. You need to be intentional about the messaging. You continue to cultivate this feedback culture, but also the messaging with the leaders as you grow.
One of the people I spoke with talked about being the guardian of the culture. I love that as well. This idea is that you're not losing sight of the culture that you started from the very beginning and you are working with your leaders to continue to cultivate that. Some CEOs of very large corporations still maintain this open-door policy that anybody can come to them. That's not realistic for everyone. Maybe periodically once a year, or at some capacity, you can hear from everyone, or you've worked to have that funnel of communication from the line-level workers to their managers and up through. As long as each person is continuing to work on cultivating that feedback culture, that's going to help.
One of the things that I was thinking when you post this question was I encourage leaders and teams, and I go through this exercise with clients, to have a leadership philosophy. Many companies have a customer service philosophy. They have a set expectation, policy or philosophy for how all customers should be treated. When a customer comes into a business or maybe they call customer service, each employee is going to bring their own personality to the interaction. You're going to have somewhat of a unique experience based upon the employee you engage with.
The overall experience and the expectation that the quality of your experience would be the same no matter which employee you interact with, most companies have that. What you don't see often is that companies have a leadership philosophy or a set philosophy expectation for how all employees should be treated. Often it ends up being that depending on which supervisor you happen to be assigned to, your experience can be drastically different.
If you're assigned to Johnny, he might be a great listener, gives great feedback, and receives feedback. If you happen to be assigned to somebody else and they micromanage, they are never around and are not accessible, your experience with that employer is going to be vastly different simply because of the supervisor you're assigned to.
I work with leaders and teams on leaders and small business owners having a leadership philosophy, a set expectation of how all employees should be treated. What are your non-negotiables? How are you going to celebrate the wins? What does that open dialogue look like for you? What are your channels for communication? It’s understanding that each supervisor is going to bring their personality to the table.
There's going to be room for you to be your own person there, but each employee can expect their quality of experience in working with that organization is going to be the same. That becomes especially important as companies grow. It's important even to a small company but as companies grow, having that unified leadership philosophy, ensuring that you are training your leaders to understand that philosophy and live it out, and that as managers, you are living that example and setting that example. That is huge.
I've got two questions and I'm going to let you go. There's so much we could talk about and we could talk about this forever, but we got to start bringing this thing down for landing. The first question is if you could give leaders one piece of advice on how to create an effective feedback loop, is there one tip, trick or tool that you would give every single person you talk to that says, “Here's one thing to try before you try anything else?”
Ask for feedback. I give leaders the list of questions that I call gateway questions. If they haven't had that type of conversation or they haven't asked for feedback before, it can be very difficult for them to receive it effectively. It's important if you're going to ask for it that you receive it effectively. Understand that it can be tricky to receive it if you're not used to hearing that from people. It can also be uncomfortable for others. If you've never asked for feedback before, they might think, “What's going on?”
“What’s the hidden agenda? Why are they bringing this now?”
I provide leaders with a list of questions that can be helpful that can set the tone to start to receive that feedback, but in a non-threatening way for both parties. I encourage them to give people these questions in advance if they can, so it gives people time to think about it. What are you getting from me that you find helpful? What aren't you getting from me that would help you be more successful? What is something that I could do for you to help you with your professional growth? Asking those types of questions can be helpful. You're setting the tone that you are willing to receive feedback and you're going to receive it in an effective way. It lets people know that it is safe to come to you.
If you’re asking questions like, “What could our team get from me that could help them be more successful? What am I doing that is making your jobs easier?” If you're asking questions in that kind of tone, people generally can answer that. If you say, “What could I do better?” People aren't going to answer that. Start with you. Start by asking for feedback in an effective way and non-threatening way. Receive it effectively and then start to give feedback as well. It helps to start by being willing to receive it.
What's the best way people can get in touch with you, Kelly?Let people know that it’s safe to come to you. Click To Tweet
Here's the one question I ask everybody as I let them go out the door. When you leave a meeting and you get in your car and drive away, what's the one thing you want people to think about you when you're not in the room?
That they feel better for having engaged with me and that I was a positive presence in their day. I left them feeling good about themselves and feeling better about having been in my company.
I want to thank you for the masterclass you provided. You made my life and the life of my audience better. Thank you for giving some real practical tips that are going to hopefully help people create an effective feedback loop.
Thank you. I appreciate it. I had a great time.
Dr. Kelly Waltman is the Founder and CEO of SLR Leadership Consulting, LLC. She has over 20 years of professional development and public speaking experience. From the classroom to the board room, she has designed and delivered content for groups of all sizes and in a variety of settings. Kelly also brings over a decade of managerial and leadership experience to her work - holding director-level positions with previous employers and serving as a board member for local non-profit organizations.
Her consulting work focuses on business communication and workplace culture, with an emphasis on cultivating a feedback culture within an organization. Kelly's forthcoming book, Elevate Connection: Cultivate an Engaged, Inspired, Productive, and Profitable Team Culture, debuted as a #1 bestseller in 3 countries!
In addition to writing and her work with SLR Leadership Consulting, Kelly serves as an adjunct faculty member for Shippensburg University.
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