Storytime: The Surprise Review (No Surprise Feedback)

You’re about to meet the VP for your semi-annual review. The team you lead has done well over the last few months. Deadlines met, goals reached, the vibe on the team feels good. You can’t help but feel optimistic about the review ahead…

The VP hops on the call and wastes no time.

“The things I’m hearing from your team aren’t very good…”

Your heart drops to the pit of your stomach. She explains that Joe wasn’t happy with the support he got during his 1:1s. Steve wants more autonomy. Alex is craving to be put on more challenging projects. On top of all that, everyone feels like team meetings are a waste of time.

You try to stay present for the rest of the review, but your mind is racing:

“...WHAT?! Where’s this coming from?? Nobody’s said a thing about our meetings! I didn’t think Joe wanted to be smothered! If Steve wants more autonomy he needs to meet a friggin deadline! Alex CHOSE her last project herself! WTF?!...”

You’re defensive. You’re hurt. More than anything, you’re surprised. 

This scenario shows the kind of complete feedback breakdown that plagues all sorts of teams. For some reason or another, feedback gets bottled up and saved, only to be delivered at a time when it’s too late to take action. When the lines of communication are jammed up like this, it’s hard for a team to achieve their goals. 

In this scenario, the team wasn’t giving their lead any timely feedback. Instead they waited until the VP prompted them in a semi-annual review. By that point, how much frustration had mounted? How much time had been wasted? How much better could this team have performed?

So how does this lead course correct and bounce back from this poor and surprising review? By committing to No Surprise Feedback

No Surprise Feedback is simple, but it’s not always easy. It’s a commitment to:

  • Candor over perfection.
  • Collaboration in service of reaching goals. 
  • Cadence over convenience. 

No Surprise Feedback is a framework that helps teams help each other by opening the lines of communication. It creates frequent touch points for feedback conversations. It’s a strategy that helps teams avoid the “surprise” that occurs when feedback is held back for too long. 

By modeling and inviting candor over perfection, the lead would demonstrate that just getting the challenges out in the open allows everyone to start working on a solution. 

By collaborating in service of reaching goals, the lead shows how invested they are in developing each person on the team. 

By establishing a regular cadence to have a conversation about performance, the lead is showing that performance conversations aren’t something reserved for a formal review. 

Each of these small things eliminates barriers that hold people back from sharing valuable feedback. It goes far beyond asking the team “Let me know if you have any feedback, my door’s always open!” It’s modeling the kind of openness that everyone on the team should feel like they can participate in.  

Had the team in our scenario committed to No Surprise Feedback, the team could have talked about how to make their meetings more effective. Joe would have gotten the support he’s craving and improved his performance. Alex could have been pushed to choose more challenging projects when she had the option. Steve could’ve recognized why he’s not being given the autonomy he wants. Ultimately the lead would have created an environment where communication is open and there are plenty of opportunities to take action based on valuable feedback. 

Feedback is often cited as one of the things that leaders struggle with most, yet actually giving feedback is only part of it. Great leads remove the barriers that prevent feedback from flowing in all directions. They create an environment where consistent feedback is the norm. When feedback, both constructive and positive, is part of a team’s culture - leads, individuals, and teams thrive. 


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