The open 360

I recently participated in a powerful, surprising, and very positive experience of open communication and feedback.  The idea was simple and a bit terrifying: bring a team together and have, one-by-one, an in-person, open 360-degree feedback conversation about each member of the team.

Meaning: sitting in a room with 5 of my colleagues, they went one-by-one describing how we work together, what it’s like to work for me, examples of my strengths and their wishes for how I could grow as a professional.  We then went on to the next person.

Going in, it felt scary.  Most people are nervous both giving and receiving feedback; doing so publicly feels (at first blush) either like a way to turn the intensity up to a breaking point OR to run the risk of having the whole experience be so watered-down as to not be of much value to anyone.

It had neither of these pitfalls.  A little skeptical going in, I found it motivating, supportive, constructive, and reinforcing of the team.  As one person in our group said, describing the experience, “We all wear who we are on our foreheads, but we never create a space to really talk about this with each other.”  Indeed, in nearly all cases the feedback about each person was honest, clear, and very consistent.

Having done this once, my guess is that this needs to be done in the right way to work.  Here are guidelines we used, which I found very effective:

  • The goal is to give clear supportive and constructive feedback to each member of the team
  • We picked one person at a time to whom to give feedback
  • Each of the five people giving feedback had four minutes in which to give feedback (we used a timer and allowed ourselves to go over a little but not a lot)
  • Feedback consisted of:
  • Context of one’s working relationship with the person
  • General assessment of the person’s working style and performance, with at least two positive statements and specific examples.
  • At least one piece of developmental advice, phrased as, “My wish for you is….”
  • Once the full group has given feedback, the person receiving feedback is invited to ask questions, comment, etc. and have a short (10 minutes or less) discussion

With our group of six, it took about a half hour to give feedback to each person, plus time for discussion.  So this is definitely a serious time commitment, and we broke it up into three sessions (with the most senior person in the team going first) so we’d have the emotional energy to get through the whole process.

The most surprising thing, to me, was the expression of a shared commitment to each others’ success.  Person after person describing your strengths and where you shine is incredibly affirming – and it’s something we do too rarely.  The “my wish for you” framing of developmental advice steered everyone clear of comments like “it’s bad when you do this because….” and created a sense of support and collective ownership of the wishes, while at the same time providing clarity about ways each of us could take steps to realize our full potential.  I also suspect that going through this process as a group cracked the door open to more open conversations that will happen much more naturally and will flow much more easily now that we’ve gotten this experience under our belts.

This process may not be for everyone and may not work in all groups.  You’d need a starting foundation of support and constructive conversation, and you’ll need, I suspect, at least one member of the group who is good at making these sorts of conversations successful and productive and who can model the kind of conversation you’re looking to have.

But if you’re even a little bit curious I’d encourage you to take the leap.  As I said, going in I had a lot of doubts and I found the experience to break through a lot of the junk that keeps us from real and open dialogue; and it was about 100 times more real than the much more formal, constrained process I’m used to seeing as part of typical year-end performance reviews.

Give it a go, and let us know how it went.

The gift economy and commerce

In biblical times, money was treated in radically different ways depending on whether you were dealing with someone inside or outside the tribe.  For example:

To a foreigner you may charge interest, but to your brother you shall not charge interest.

– Deuteronomy 23:19,20

Within the tribe, it was forbidden to make money on money you gave to someone (this is the genesis of usury laws).  It was known and understood that what mattered was the collective wealth and well-being of the tribe, and so there were established norms and expectations around the giving and receiving of gifts.  It was known that as a recipient of a gift it was your job to return what was given to you or its equivalent, whether to the person who gave to you or to the next person in the tribe who had a need.  This is how the needs of the members of the tribe were addressed. Gifts flowed in a circular fashion.

Outside the tribe, on the other hand, all bets were off.  You could lend, charge interest, even ask for a goat as collateral if this would help ensure payment.

I visualize it like this: within the circle, we have the gift economy; outside of the circle we have commerce.

Without judging what is good and bad here – indeed without commerce where would we be as a world? – it’s simple to observe that, year after year and century after century, the purview of commerce has gotten broader and the space for the gift economy has shrunken:

What was once the tribe became the extended family became, at least in the West today, the nuclear family.  Community ties weaken, religious ties weaken as many (but certainly not all) parts of the world become more secular, and the gift economy, the economy where generosity and helping first and asking questions later, gets whittled down so much that it’s just a speck in an ocean of commerce.

The irony of course is that, thanks to the amazing power of commerce, we’re wealthier than we’ve ever been.

Which means we have a choice.   Our first, most obvious option is to separate more and to insulate.  We can shop online and hide from the world; we can only associate with people who (socially, economically, politically) are just like us.  We can have Google and Facebook give us search results and friend feeds that systematically reinforce our beliefs.  Indeed there’s a great gravitational pull in this direction.

Our other option, the one that’s been nagging at us and sneaking up on us oh-so-quietly, is to recognize that what we desire most of all is to connect with others, to break down barriers and rip out the insulation, to experience the world and people and one another in a fuller, richer way, and to use our own wealth to heal the world.

The success of Generosity Day this year and, I’m hoping, in years to come is proof of the hunger for the second path, the one that leads to openness and connection, the one that allows us to take all our wealth and power and opportunity and build a different world, one in which we use our great capacity for change and for wealth creation to help one another.

In the end both paths will have to co-exist, but the false promise that’s being served up is that the first path alone will be enough.  It won’t.