Surfacing defects in leader behavior: the feedback constraint in leadership

How do we surface defects in our behavior as leaders? How do you know whether you’re doing it wrong? Or less provocatively, how do you know whether you’re doing it as well as you could? For most of us, most of the time, the answer is “I don’t know.”

Few leaders bring all of the habits, skills, and knowledge they need to a new role. Even if they were successful in a previous role, the differences in the level, the function, the product, the team, etc. pose new challenges. These can be easy to identify in broad generalities: for example, “I’ve never played the general manager role before,” or “this is my first time leading a product launch,” or “I’m learning how we work at XYZ Corp.” The specific gaps in habits, skills, or knowledge, however, are harder to surface and address. We do not know what we do not know.

Some gaps in knowledge can be closed just by being in the role. For the first few weeks, every conversation surfaces bits of new information that, in retrospect, were unknown unknowns: for example, the who’s who and what’s what surrounding the customers, the team, the process, and so forth. After a few months, managers can flip from knowing less than many team members to knowing more than them, simply by  virtue of how their perch allows them to see the traffic at the intersection of a particular set of priorities, processes, problems, projects, and people. (This makes it increasingly difficult to hold them accountable, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

Many gaps in knowledge are hard to surface and address. It is once we think we know what is going on that we can get ourselves into trouble. We arrive at certain assumptions about how our corner of the world works: for example, what’s causing problems in a particular area, how best to spend our time, or what behaviors will be rewarded and recognized. Often times, we arrive at these assumptions on the fly, not through deliberate inquiry or analysis. And most of the time, these assumptions are invisible to ourselves and others. Suppose the team is willing and able to spot the faulty assumption and deliver upward feedback. The first gift is making the assumption explicit. The second gift could be changing our thinking for the better. If they are not, however, then we are largely on our own. And that’s not good.

It is hard to get feedback on our habits and skills as leaders. Habits (e.g., surgeon washing his hands before and after surgery) and skills (e.g., basketball player hitting his free throws) are typically harder to master than to understand. Mastery requires cycles of practice and feedback, refinement and reinforcement. We can make the same pattern of errors day after day without any awareness of that fact. We may spend too little time clarifying purpose and priorities for the team, show too little respect for expertise on the team, spend too much time in our office, spend too little time with individual team members, give too many instructions, ask too few open-ended questions, berate the bearers of bad news, and so forth.

These are not errors that will surface readily in a quarterly review conversation. But they would be immediately apparent to a teacher or coach who was there to see them. Unfortunately, the work of a leader is mostly done unobserved by a teacher or coach, in the form of a capable peer or supervisor. This can starve of us of the feedback we need to get better.

An analogy to surfacing defects at the frontline can be illuminating. What is the risk of doing “quality control” at the end of the line? That an error that begins to be made upstream will not be rapidly surfaced and addressed. That the same error will be made over dozens, hundreds, or thousands of cases before it is first caught. And that tracing it back to its origin will be quite difficult. The notion of building in quality at the source is to surface defects as soon as possible – which means right there and then where the work done – rather than to let them pass through and pile up.*

Most organizations do not build quality leaders at the source in this sense. Most organizations create few opportunities for people to do the work of a leader in front of a teacher.

How often do you practice leadership in front of a teacher? Try this answer on, and see how yours would be different:

“Nominally, about ~20% of my time is spent with supervisors, either my own or more senior leaders. I am in a meeting with my supervisor an hour or two each day. We get half-day visits from more senior leaders every few weeks. About ~65% of my time is spent with team members, and ~10% is spent alone. My team is not aware of what behaviors I am trying to master. Few of my team members are willing and able to deliver upward feedback.

“Only 25% of the time spent with supervisors is spent doing the work of a leader in front of them. In conversations with my supervisor or a more senior leader, they typically set the agenda and do more talking than listening or observing. Moreover, my supervisor rarely observes me interacting with my team.

“Even when they see me doing the work of the leader, it results in constructive feedback or coaching less than 10% of the time. I would guess that less than a third of my supervisors over the years see themselves as teachers or coaches of leadership practices, and, of those, only a third seem to have developed their craft as teachers and coaches. Useful feedback is rarely sought or given.

“So here’s the tally:

20% of time is with supervisor(s) present

x   25% of that is doing the work while observed by supervisor(s)

x   10% of those occasions result in constructive feedback

= 1/200 of each week 

“Overall, I practice leadership in front of a motivated and effective teacher less than 1% of my week.

The feedback constraint keeps leaders from realizing their potential to help others. This makes teams less effective. It takes leaders and their teams alike more time and effort to get the things done, which leads to stress and burn-out. It means that people do not grow and develop over time, which leads to dissatisfaction and attrition. And it means that organizations cannot tap the full capabilities of their people.

Again, this is only one of the challenges that constrains a leader’s effectiveness.

More to come.

*The idea of building quality at the source comes from Toyota. Before Toyota applied this notion to making cars, Sakichi Toyoda applied it to the design of his power loom in 1897:

In power looms, if the weft or the warp thread breaks and the machine is not stopped immediately, faults can occur, such as the warp continuing to be incorporated into the fabric without the weft, or the broken warp thread being left out, leading to the output of damaged fabric. Sakichi Toyoda researched systems to prevent such faults.

This led to the notion of jidoka, or “automation with a human touch.” The more general insight is that work should stop when a problem occurs to identify and address the causes of the problem. More here.


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