I was working with one of my favorite teams last week. We were talking about productive conflict (surprise, surprise) and we stumbled onto a really interesting discussion about what to do when you’re leading a cross-functional project and someone who doesn’t report to you isn’t pulling their weight.
Think about it for a moment. What do you do in that situation?
And what should you do?
For many of us, I think those are two separate questions. The norms against giving feedback to someone who doesn’t report to you are quite strong.
The team leader on the call chimed in to ask his own team, “Are you comfortable giving feedback to someone who doesn’t report to you?”
The answers varied, but the one that was most interesting to me was, “I would prefer that you not give feedback to my people. I’m very protective of my people.”
So Many Questions
A flurry of questions whipped up in my head? At first, I was trying to understand where the choice of the word protective came from.
- What (or whom) are you protecting them from?
- What has happened in the past that made you feel you need to protect your people?
- Does protecting people mean sparing them feedback?
Quickly, I started to question the organizational implications of one leader protecting their people from others
- How does protecting your people from feedback come across to their peers in other departments who aren’t afforded the same protection?
- How does protecting your people diminish the quality of feedback that they get?
- Is getting feedback second-hand preferable or a shoddy substitute?
- Does protecting them mean that they aren’t held accountable?
- In shielding them from feedback from other members of the executive team, are you inadvertently creating resentment toward the very people you’re trying to protect?
I could go on and on.
Do You Need to Protect Your People?
I think, with a little time to reflect, that the person who felt compelled to protect his team was being candid about something many of us feel. He was reacting to the number of times his team of professionals has been chastised for doing their job (he runs a risk function). I agree with him that leaders who don’t like having constraints on their autonomy can overstep—and not always politely or professionally. Particularly if you’re a professional in a function where hobbyists are prone to dabbling (hello life in HR and Marketing!). I’m trying to empathize with the environment and behavior that might justify this leader’s desire to protect his people.
Should You Protect Your People
As with most issues in the area of productive conflict, where I land is that the question is not in the what, but in the when and the how. The question is not whether leaders should be at liberty (and maybe even obliged) to provide feedback to members of other teams—they should be. The question is which situations warrant feedback and how should it be delivered. Let me touch on each quickly.
The scenario we were discussing when the protection conversation erupted was a situation in which you are the leader of a project team and one of the members of the team (who does not report to you) is not pulling their weight. We defined “not pulling their weight” as one or more of the following:
- Not showing up or not contributing to the conversation
- Coming unprepared without compelling evidence to support their case
- Not yielding or adapting to other perspectives
- Advocating in a way that is inappropriately hurtful or personal
As the project owner, you’re responsible for getting the required contributions so you can make informed and balanced decisions. If one member of the team is detracting from your ability to be informed (by under-contributing) or to be balanced (by over-contributing), it’s completely appropriate, and I would argue necessary, for you to give that person feedback.
Giving feedback is a weighty responsibility regardless of who is on the receiving end. When the recipient of your feedback doesn’t report to you, it’s even more important that you do it well. That means
- Give feedback as an ally. If you’re 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.)
- Seek context from the manager before delivering feedback. I believe this step will make all the difference in reducing protective tendencies. If you share your concern with the person’s manager and understand the background, you’ll be in a much better position to give quality feedback.
- Keep the feedback 100% objective. No judgments. No adjectives. “When you came to the meeting on Friday without having read the primer document,” or “When you said that there was no way we could proceed with the project.”
- Talk about the impact on the project. You own the project and can legitimately talk about how their behavior is impacting your ability to move it forward. “I am not confident that we’ve got the legal aspects covered,” or “We are required to make headway on this, and we need creative ideas for how to make it work.”
- Follow-up with the person’s manager to let them know how it went. The manager will find valuable fodder for coaching and development in the way their direct report responded to your feedback.
In many organizations, there are dozens of important cross-functional projects going on at any given time. Success in these initiatives requires that team leaders actively manage the contributions of all team members, regardless of whether they have a formal reporting relationship, or not.
Encourage feedback across teams in your organization, just do so with a clear set of guiding principles for when and how to give cross-team feedback effectively.