Leadership, Feedback, and Ego

Retro Office Space With Books, Furniture And Sun Flare

Working at Automattic has a lot of advantages: working remotely, amazing coworkers, and the chance to make a real difference in the future of the internet (I really believe that!)

Being a Team Lead in this environment, leading one of our many Happiness Teams focused on the WordPress.com customer base, is unlike any job I’ve ever had, and for me, one piece that I really value above all else, is the opportunity to experiment – not just on the work itself, but also on the meta-work, on the work of the work. The larger structure, the larger idea. Being able to question and adjust and iterate is both amazing and a little scary.

I wrote not long about about the way my team handles feedback – you can check it out here – and I wanted to speak in more depth about what we call Leadback Surveys, why they’re important, and why I think everyone in a leadership position should consider adopting them.

Full disclosure before we get started, this idea is stolen pretty much wholesale from Laszlo Bock’s Work Rules!, a book about the human side of operations at Google, which is another software company you may have heard of.

When I was considering how my new team would handle feedback, it was important to me that the mechanisms reflected all aspects of the Work, and came from all appropriate stakeholders. In my view, it’s intensely important for someone in a leadership position (especially if you ascribe to the idea of servant leadership) to not only be open to feedback from the people they lead, but to seek it out.

There are a ton of books out there about leadership, about leading books and entrepreneurship. This sphere is huge and has a lovely spread of quality and competence – but there is no book or blog post written about your team. You’ll only get to know them, and the best way to serve them, if you ask.

One way that I ask is via an anonymous survey, conducted using the excellent Google Forms. We have an in-house anonymous feedback tool, but I prefer Google Forms for its inclusion of things like Likert scales (1-5, 1 being not so great and 5 being outstanding, you know the ones) and outputting histograms of the results automatically.

There are lots of reasons to be skeptical of this approach: how can I be sure my team will be honest? Am I asking the right questions? Are the outputs really actionable?

Of course, you’ll never know the answers to this kind of objection – but information you gain from this approach is more than you had before, right? When it comes to things like honesty, I give folks the benefit of the doubt until they’ve given me a reason not to, and it’s served me pretty well so far.

We’ve done two of these Leadback surveys so far, and I’ve really learned a lot, about myself and my leadership style, as well as about what’s important to the folks who are on my team. I was compiling an internal post this morning, recapping the November survey, and I felt a knot of anxiety deep in my gut – and I’ve spent some time today thinking about that anxiety, and where it comes from.

It’s ego, I think. Creating a mechanism like the Leadback survey, especially when it is not something that’s an institutional mandate but just a one-team give-it-a-try situation, it feels dangerous. It feels very vulnerable.

What part of me feels vulnerable at this sense of exposure, though? Whatever surfaces in this type of survey isn’t a new problem – it’s an existing problem that is there whether it’s visible to me or not. Like many parts of the Team Lead job, the Leadback survey is all about making the invisible visible, and using its visibility to make things a little better than they were.

It was my ego that was driving that anxiety – a nervous sense that I might be doing it all wrong, that I’d somehow gone off the rails and lead my team astray, and I was within a needle’s prick of the whole hot air balloon coming crashing down.

A deep breath and a day’s reflection helped. It’s not about me. It’s about getting better, about leading my team the way that they need. Some of the scores went down. Some went up. Some stayed the same.

If you put something like this together, I recommend a combination of Likert scales and open-ended text replies, on similar topics. “My team lead provides me clear feedback: 1 – 5” and then “Additional thoughts on how we do feedback currently?” – I find the Likert questions are helpful for getting a big picture, but the text inputs are more helpful for actionable, get-better-today work.

Give it a try. You’ll only get better.

7 thoughts on “Leadership, Feedback, and Ego

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