Most of the companies I have worked with have, at some point, stuck the word “one” in front of their company name and heralded it as a great new era. “We are now One Acme!” [Cue the trumpets and unfurl the banners.] To be fair, these efforts were in reaction to ever-deepening trenches between teams, departments, and business units. That is a cause worth fighting.  If only one word could change everything.

It didn’t. And the primary reason why it didn’t was reinforced for me in a session last week. Craig and I were facilitating a leader forum on building a high performance organization. At one point, we were teaching them how to give effective feedback. After getting comfortable with the essentials, one of the leaders asked whether or not it was appropriate to give feedback to someone who doesn’t report to her.

The response was spirited. As they played around with the notion of giving feedback to one another’s direct reports, it was clear that this would be completely counter-cultural. But we had every leader in the organization in the room and therefore the power to proclaim that feedback across boundaries would heretofore be acceptable. By the end of the day, they were all committed to providing and reinforcing feedback across boundaries. It was an important moment in their transformation to a high performance organization.

To get to that agreement, we had to set some ground rules for how it would work (as with any treaty, the hard work is in the fine print). I thought they might be of value to you.

Guidelines for Giving Feedback Across Boundaries

Before you give feedback to someone who doesn’t report to you, make sure you’re doing the following:

  1. Give feedback as an ally. I’ve talked about this idea before, but when you’re giving feedback to someone who doesn’t report to you, it’s especially important that they feel like it’s coming from someone who supports them and is helping them succeed. If you’re still frothing over an incident, postpone your feedback. Failing to do so is too risky. You’re likely to create a rift that will take considerable effort to mend. (Perhaps even inviting retaliation on your own team.)
  2. Give feedback effectively. When you are extending beyond your official authority, you’d better be darned sure that you’re doing it well. This is no place for clumsy, judgmental feedback. Stick to carefully thought out, objective observations. The minute you start judging, your motives will be perceived as “us” versus “them” and you’ll be facing defensiveness and resistance in return.
  3. Seek context, where required. In situations where you don’t have the full story, you’re wise to seek context from the person’s manager before giving feedback. If the issue is a particular decision the person made, you might learn that it wasn’t her decision. If the concern centers around behavior, you might learn that the person was under undue stress and he should be cut some slack. A quick chat with the person’s manager will shed light on these factors and allow you to hit the mark with your feedback.
  4. Keep the manager in the loop. Even if you don’t touch base with the person’s manager in advance, always let the person know. There are a few reasons for this. First, it provides an opportunity for you to share the feedback in your own words. That way, if the person goes to her manager to complain, the manager has both perspectives. Second, you give the manager valuable examples to use in coaching and supporting the person. Third, capitalizing on informal opportunities to discuss people’s performance leads to better talent conversations in the formal talent review process. If you’ve mentioned specific concerns throughout the year, you won’t be accused of “throwing them under the bus” when you raise the issues in the talent review.

Guidelines for the Receiving Manager

If another manager gives feedback to your direct report, do the following:

  1. Thank them. Regardless of what they tell you, it’s important to reinforce the idea that you are one team and that you’re grateful your colleague took an interest in the success of your direct report. “Thank you” is what it says on the sign post for the high road.
  2. Get their perspective on the situation. Be sure to supress any defensiveness or any primal urge to defend your tribe. Instead, get as much color as possible on the situation. “Tell me a little more about what led up to this moment.” “How did everyone else react?” “What might have triggered that reaction?”
  3. Provide balance in the discussion. If you believe, or even if you could imagine, that there was a side to the story your colleague isn’t seeing, bring it into the conversation. Particularly if you are accountable for any aspect of the person’s behavior that is being criticized. Try a statement such as “I need to take responsibility for that. It was my decision, not Charlie’s.” Alternatively, ask a question to test a hypothesis, “I’ve seen Charlie get quiet when he is challenged aggressively, was someone going at him before he shut down?”
  4. Tell them what you will do with the feedback. Finally, end your conversation by sharing how you’ll close the loop. “Ok, I’m going to speak with Priya about this in our one-on-one on Thursday,” or “I don’t think I need to do anything else with this at the moment. Let me know if it happens again.”
  5. Support the other manager. When you discuss the feedback with your direct report, validate the appropriateness of the other manager giving feedback—even if you don’t agree with it. If your direct report resists, be calm and firm, “I take this feedback seriously. I haven’t seen that behavior from you, so I’m trying to understand what caused her to see it that way. Do you have any insight?’

There’s no point in pretending that you have a “One ACME” culture if you aren’t allowed to give feedback across boundaries. Remember that with this openness comes responsibility. If you’re giving feedback to someone who doesn’t report to you, it needs to be quality feedback delivered skilfully.

Further Reading

How to Deliver Feedback

Unconventional Wisdom on Constructive Feedback

How Honest Should I Be on 360 Feedback?