Effective Exchange of Feedback To Enhance Working Relationships – Part 1

Abstract
In a professional setting, we deal with feedback every day. Sometimes we play the role of a giver, sometimes that of a receiver, and at other times we are observers. This is the first part of a 2-part essay, where I explore the use of the OK corral as a tool to understand the intent of a feedback. In Part 2, I will delve into how we can use strokes and the stroke economy to effectively exchange feedback in a professional environment.

At the time of writing this essay, I’ve been working as an agile coach for close to 2 years, helping teams and managers adopt and sustain agile ways of working (Agile Manifesto, 2001). In this journey, I have experienced many challenging situations and used transactional analysis, both implicitly and explicitly, to bring about a transformation in the working environment. One such experience I recently had was with a group of 10 colleagues (including the manager of the group). The context of the work was to “Build projects around motivated individuals.” (Twelve Principles of Agile Software, 2001). One of the significant factors that appeared to influence the motivation of the individuals in this group was the working relationship among the members, which was of 2 kinds: peer relationships and subordinate-superior relationships. And the chief instrument that impacted these relationships was feedback. Conversations about their daily interactions and the interpersonal issues witnessed in the group revealed three significant areas of concern with respect to feedback:

1. The team had a perception that management readily gives negative feedback, but doesn’t appreciate the positives. This lowers the team’s morale.
2. The manager reported that feedback shared as an area of improvement is not taken positively by team members. Instead, the manager’s intention and fairness is questioned, creating an environment where the team gangs up against the manager.
3. The whole group felt that feedback is misinterpreted regularly, causing confusion and rift among the members of the group.

Having collected this information, I proposed to facilitate a session for the entire group on “Giving and receiving feedback effectively”. Everyone agreed it can help improve the working relationships among the group members and hence help them stay motivated. As I began my preparations, I revisited a coaching module on motivation for managers that I had facilitated using the concept of strokes (Berne, 1971) and knew that I could reuse it here. However, though I saw strokes providing a solid platform to understand how to go about giving and receiving feedback, I felt there was something missing. I had heard of the “sandwich method for giving feedback” (Daniels, 2009), so I read about the pros and cons of the same. I also brainstormed with my transactional analysis OD training group on the feedback techniques that worked for them and the pitfalls to be aware of. This exploration opened up a pivotal aspect of feedback for me: “Irrespective of the content of the feedback, if it doesn’t come from a space of OK-ness (Berne, 1961), it is likely to be ineffective in delivering the intended result of the feedback.” I could now see the entire “feedback exchange process” from a new perspective, with 2 distinct components:

Figure: Components of Feedback
Figure: Components of Feedback

Intent (Why?): The purpose of the feedback – What is the desired outcome after the feedback has been exchanged? For e.g., if I am the manager of a team and one of my team members comes late to team meetings regularly, my “intent” of giving her a feedback about this behaviour could be: “I want my team member to come on time to team meetings.” I found the OK Corral (Ernst, 1971) to be a useful tool in understanding the “intent” of a feedback.

OK Corral (Ernst, 1971)
Figure: OK Corral (Ernst, 1971)

I illustrate this with an example from my work-life. At the start of my career, I was responsible for the maintenance and support of software applications for a bank and in one of my late-night shifts (at around 1 a.m.), I fixed an issue in the billing systems. The next day, I entered the office at the usual start-time of my shift, and as I was about to sit down in my cubicle, my manager came up to me and the following exchange happened:

Manager (furious, and shouting): How can you make a change in the billing system without asking me? (I’m OK, You’re Not OK)

Me (embarrassed, indignant): I’ve just come in and the first thing you do is to shout at me in front of everyone? (I’m OK, You’re Not OK)

Manager (angry, still shouting): You should’ve taken my permission before making the change. What if something goes wrong? (I’m OK, You’re Not OK)

Me (indignant): It was 1 a.m., and I was sure of the fix. That’s why I didn’t call you. (I’m OK, You’re Not OK)

Manager (still angry, not shouting): No, what you did was wrong! You should’ve called me. (I’m OK, You’re Not OK)

At this point, my temper rises enough to make my ears red and I feel my heart pounding in my chest. I mumble “This is stupid!” and storm out of the scene, banging the door on my way out (I’m Not OK, You’re Not OK), while my manager stands her ground.

When I analyze this exchange using the OK corral, the following observations come to light:

1. Throughout the interaction, my manager was operating from the I’m OK, You’re Not OK quadrant. She started the exchange with a furious accusation and ended in the same state, albeit a little less furious.

2. I, on the other hand, started operating from the I’m OK, You’re Not OK quadrant, as is evident from my indignant justifications to her accusation, and my amplified emotional state (embarrassed, angry, red ears, pounding heart). When I found she wasn’t yielding, I closed the transaction by moving to the hopeless I’m Not OK, You’re Not OK state, by storming off from the situation, concluding in my head that she’s stupid and I’m incapable of making her understand my point of view.

The intent of my manager in this example (I learnt this later on when both of us had calmed down), was to bring to my notice the potential financial impact of things going wrong while directly fixing an issue in the billing system. However, this intent got clouded by her anger at not being informed beforehand about the fix, and her fear that if anything goes wrong, she’ll be answerable. Now, if she were to operate from the I’m OK, You’re OK quadrant, she could have done a few things differently to effectively convey her intent:

1. Wait till I settle down, and not accost me the moment I arrived in office.

2. Call me in for a 1-on-1 discussion in a meeting room to avoid a showdown in front of everyone.

3. Begin by thanking me for having stretched beyond my shift late at night to identify the fix for the issue.

4. Explain the impact of things going wrong while fixing the issue directly in the system, and outline the process for protecting the system and team from such mishaps.

On the other hand, if I was operating from the I’m OK, You’re OK quadrant, I could have done a few things differently, to understand her intent:

1. Acknowledge her anger and take care of my embarrassment by proposing a 1-on-1 discussion. E.g.: “I see you’re quite upset, can we go into a meeting room to discuss further?”

2. Ask clarifying questions to understand the reasons for her anger and possibly her fear as well. E.g.: “What are you upset about?”, “Are you OK to receive calls late at night?”, “What happens to you if things go wrong?”

3. Brainstorm with her on strategies to minimize the potential negative impact for customers in case things go wrong with the fix I introduced. Co-create a process to address such situations in the future.

In the session on “Giving and Receiving Feedback Effectively”, I used this example to help the group I was coaching understand how they can identify which quadrant in the OK corral they are operating from, and how they can effectively give and receive the intent of a feedback by operating from the I’m OK, You’re OK quadrant. I also helped the participants draw their own Corralograms (Ernst, 1982) to reflect on which quadrant they mostly find themselves in and correlate that to the kind of interactions they experience. We concluded this part by becoming aware of the importance of thinking through the “intent” of a feedback and by looking at options to operate from the winning (I’m OK, You’re OK) quadrant.

In Part 2, I will analyze the Content (What? & How?) of a feedback using strokes and explore how awareness of the stroke economy and our need for strokes can help us structure the content of a feedback in order to communicate the intent effectively.

References:

Daniels, A. C. Oops! 13 management practices that waste time and money (and what to do instead). Atlanta, GA: Performance Management Publications, 2009.

Eric Berne, Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy, Grove Press, New York, NY, 1961.

Franklin H. Ernst, Jr., The OK Corral: The Grid for Get-on-With, Transactional Analysis Journal, October 1971; vol. 1, 4: pp. 33-42

Kent Beck et al, Manifesto for Agile Software Development & Twelve Principles of Agile Software, 2001 (http://agilemanifesto.org/).

This article was first published in the SAATA Journal Volume 2, Number 2: August, 2016.

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