October 26, 2020

Are You Holding Back Your Feedback on Zoom? Cut it Out!

Candid feedback is a key element of Conscious Leadership. Even on Zoom. Especially on Zoom.

I was facilitating a Conscious Leadership Forum recently over Zoom. Forums are groups of 8-10 people that meet regularly for a year, or years. The group members know each other very well, and one benefit of being in a forum is the chance to get authentic, challenging feedback from your forum mates. This is especially valuable for senior leaders, as, in most cases, the person in charge often gets less frank feedback from within their own organization.

If you’re reading this, you probably know I talk about the free flow of feedback often. Here is a good primer on giving and getting feedback. Here is another piece on amping up your feedback levels across an organization.

Back to our story. One member of the forum gave some very direct feedback to another member. The feedback was offered with a positive intent. This group is committed to using feedback as a key tool for personal and professional growth. The recipient of the feedback listened, took it in, and said “thank you.” Perfect.

A few minutes later, the provider of the feedback spoke up to say she felt nervous. She said that in a “normal” forum, when we were in person, she would have approached the other person in a break and checked in to see if he was doing okay after hearing the feedback. She said, in Zoom, she will sometimes send a private chat to say “I hope you’re okay with that” or something, but in this case, she chose to stay with her discomfort and allow the feedback to stand on its own.

This felt brave. All of it. The feedback and the realization around how she typically avoids the discomfort of giving feedback with these “check-in” behaviors. This example highlights how often we stay “safe” around feedback in any type of setting, but this instance helped me realize that people are likely holding back all manner of feedback over Zoom, and it’s making our meetings less interesting. It’s also depriving us of the chance to be more connected with each other at a time we most need it. Finally, the dearth of feedback is ripping us off from the personal and professional growth feedback provides. I’m reading No Rules Rules, and one thing the authors Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer point out about Netflix is that the company saw a substantial upgrade in talent simply by increasing the flow of candid feedback. No new hires. No raises. No free lunches. Just feedback.

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

I’ve written a bit about how to make video meetings more engaging, but this feedback point is new to me. In addition to lacking the breaks and the affirming physical cues an in-person setting can provide, video meetings also have the (seemingly obligatory) mute button and the impediments to clear back-and-forth dialogue of a mono-microphone platform. Moreover, I’ve found that people are packing more into video meeting agendas without being intentional about providing flexible time for jokes, personal connection, or the give-and-take that creates openings for feedback.

Conscious leaders will endeavor to overcome these hurdles and stay with their commitment to feedback. We need to welcome the feeling of discomfort that may feel heightened in a remote setting in order to make better relationships, better meetings, and better decisions. The stakes are high.

In order to ensure the free flow of candid feedback, people must be willing to give and get this type of input. If people aren’t willing, learn why. An open discussion around the stories about honest feedback will help get to the bottom of a dynamic where people are gossiping instead of speaking directly.

The “container” or setting also must feel like a trusted one.If people are committed to a culture of candid feedback, then take pains to create a safe container. Make and keep clear agreements about confidentiality. Establish a shared understanding about what type of feedback is and isn’t welcome (including whether it’s welcome in a “public” meeting setting or not).

If you are the highest-paid person on a team, demonstrate your commitment to feedback by requesting it again and again. Demonstrate your openness by expressing gratitude and taking action around feedback you receive. If you showcase willingness, you’ll find those who report to you not only more willing to be candid with you; they will also be more willing to receive feedback themselves.

If this is all playing out on a video platform, here are a few ideas that work especially well:

  • Invite people who are in a quiet setting to come off mute for the meeting when they can. That allows for a freer flow of all information and commentary, including feedback.
  • Engineer feedback sessions intentionally. One I like is to invite each person on a call to request one piece of feedback from one specific person. This creates a responsibility to give and get feedback in a way that works well in this more structured setting.
  • Use chat intentionally when feedback would be helpful in a scalable way. Someone gives a presentation. You take a few comments, but you’d like people to work their feedback muscles. Invite every person on a call to share one sentence of feedback in chat in a form like this: “I would have found your presentation even more powerful/clear/inspiring/actionable if you ________.”
  • Be exceedingly present. If you are facilitating a meeting, turn off your “self-view” and watch faces and gestures of attendees. Feedback often shows up in subtle cues. If you’re paying attention and you see this, take a pause and say something like: “Sarah, it looks like you had a reaction to that. I’d love to hear the thought behind that expression if there is one.”

I’ve had one more realization on this point lately. I know that when I get clear feedback from someone I trust and value -- even when I anticipate that I’m about to get clear feedback -- I feel a weight in my stomach and a dread in my heart. If you are a leader at any level in an organization and you don’t know what I am talking about, ask yourself whether you are truly receiving honest feedback. Odds are, you are not. If you’re not getting this type of input, you’re likely showing up as unavailable for it. So your next tasks are to (a) dive into your potential unwillingness and look at that; (b) if you find willingness, look at how you react when you get clear feedback and make some changes; and (c) ask your direct reports, your peers, and your board (if you’re the CEO) to increase their feedback ASAP. You’ll know you’ve made a change when you do feel that dread or whatever feeling shows up when you are momentarily reminded that, hard as you try, you are imperfect.

Sue Heilbronner

Sue Heilbronner is an executive coach, Conscious Leadership facilitator, and catalyst for change.

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