Providing Feedback: “Getting Flat” in a Post-Pandemic World

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I was first introduced to the concept of “getting flat” 15 years ago from my first manager at Mars, a New Zealander.  I wasn’t sure if the term was unique to the region, but it’s one that has stuck with me as a more vivid and less abused version of the leadership practice “getting aligned”.  The concept is all about knowing where you stand relative to somebody else outside your chain of command on a key issue–as in, “the CTO and the CFO are not seeing eye to eye—they need to get flat with one another”.  It’s a critical ingredient to driving accountability horizontally in an organization because it is more than just the ability to give feedback.  It is equally about the ability to make requests to those who are not beholden to you through title. As a I reflect on the coaching and team performance work we have done over the last year, it is also a leadership practice that has been put to the test in a post-pandemic world.

As companies continue to debate over returning to the office, going hybrid or staying virtual I have noticed that “getting flat” has become an increasingly difficult task over the last 18 months.  When soliciting feedback from key stakeholders as part of ongoing coaching engagements, I detect a growing trend where these stakeholders struggle to share meaningful insights on their peers because of their diminished exposure and interactions. These blind spots are most apparent when reflecting on others’ team development capabilities and levels of self-awareness and adaptability. This trend is particularly problematic for new executives who have onboarded over the last year and need that relevant and timely feedback to ensure a successful integration.

“Getting flat”, or providing mutual, specific, future-focused feedback represents the cornerstone of high-performing teams. These teams thrive off mutual respect, trust, and reliability, built around the confidence of knowing where you stand with your key stakeholders. Operating virtually does not change how we can do this effectively, rather, it reinforces the criticality of doing it with more intention. Below are a few suggestions to ensure this important “muscle” does not atrophy as our rapidly evolving work dynamic comes into better focus.

  1. “Getting flat” through email doesn’t work. As one of the most abused communication vehicles out there, there seem to be fewer and fewer effective uses of email, and providing feedback is not one of them. There is important nuance to the two-step approach of giving feedback and making requests that email simply can’t accommodate.  Unfortunately, in a remote workplace we do not have the luxury of waiting for the “right time” (i.e., face-to-face) to provide feedback and leaders must become more comfortable having these relationship-defining conversations virtually. We have all gotten more accustomed to video calls and have found it can be effective when face-to-face meetings are not possible.
  1. Commit to the 48-hour rule. One of my favorite operating norms that I see high performing teams embrace is the 48-hour rule: the commitment that if you have an issue with someone you must discuss it with them (and ideally resolve it) within 48 hours. Otherwise, you can safely assume that there are no problems lurking in the dark corners. Enforcing this rule in a virtual or hybrid work environment has become more challenging and requires increased planning. Leaders must make the commitment to provide timely feedback based on relevant and current data in order to create a culture of positive intent and certainty that is needed now more than ever.
  2. Design “getting flat” into existing protocols and agendas. For some leaders, a regular cadence of “one-on-ones” with key stakeholders is essential, for others, if feels overly engineered and rigid. In light of the increasingly fluid nature of work, I believe their importance has only increased. While many times these sessions are focused on talking through updates and problem solving, it is critical that there is formally allocated time for mutual feedback to ensure things do not fester. Regardless of what you want to call it, take stock of your most critical stakeholders outside your team and make sure you have some regular mechanism to check-in.
  3. Invite the conversation. So often in our new work reality, we simply launch into a topic without having a desired outcome of the discussion. That approach rarely works, and even more rarely ends well for either party. When the conversation objective is “getting flat” it requires more forethought on how to best deliver the sensitive message. For one executive I know, who has worked virtually for over 15 years, her greatest learning is to make sure you are intentional in inviting the conversation. For example, “I am struggling with an issue and feel like we are not as connected as we need to be, is now a good time to talk?” By framing the discussion, you create choice and establish a unique space of openness where you can discuss the problem.

While none of these tactics are particularly innovative, they are certainly more relevant in a post-pandemic work environment. Companies are now deciding who and how employees will return to work which will once again change the fabric around how leaders at all levels engage their teams and peers.  It is important that we adjust accordingly and apply these practices to our new work reality. As the economy continues to rev higher, coupled with unprecedented levels of burnout, low engagement and a hyper-competitive talent war, these foundational building blocks of trust and performance are table stakes that cannot be ignored. Ask yourself, what are you doing differently to ensure you are “getting flat” with the stakeholders that matter most?