The Staff 360, an instrument of pain and enlightenment


unicornsAbout once a quarter, the VFA staff conducts what we call a “Staff 360,” a time dedicated for team members to give each other feedback in 8-minute one-on-one meetings. It’s like speed dating, but instead of talking about how much you love Modern Family, you give and receive constructive feedback that will help improve team dynamics and, more importantly, prevent people from hogging the entire bag of Tim’s Cascade jalapeno-flavored potato chips, which are like salty morsels of happiness and are meant to be shared with everyone in the office, James.

We started doing this over a year ago, when we realized that as a team we spend more time each week with each other than with our own family members, and that inevitably leads to misunderstandings. These misunderstandings, I’ve learned, when not properly handled, usually lead to conflicts that I have to step in as the boss to resolve. I am a busy person, with important executive things to do such as attending meetings and scheduling meetings to attend. I do not have time to resolve petty, ridiculous complaints like “Tony keeps leaving his dishes unwashed for days” or “Thanh never replaces the toilet paper roll when it’s empty” or “Vu, did you take care of the payroll situation?! We haven’t been paid in three months!!” etc.

Staff are encouraged to give each other feedback directly as things come up, and I schedule regular one-on-one time with team members. However, having a focused period of time for all of us to be able to simultaneously give everyone else on the team feedback puts us all in the mindset of constant improvement, learning, and fear. And since each round is only eight minutes long, everyone has to get to the point very quickly. Last week, we had the winter Staff 360.

“All right,” I said, glancing at each of the seven faces staring at me around the conference table, “you know the three basic rules regarding feedback that we learned from our coach Colleen. First, discuss tangible behavior, not personality. Focus on what someone should keep doing, do more of, or do less of. Try to be specific, with examples.

“Second, assume the best intentions, both when you’re giving feedback, and when you’re receiving it. What’s the last rule?” They looked at each other. “Uh,” ventured one staff, “don’t stab people when they give you feedback?” “Yes,” I said, “we do not want a repeat of the 2010 annual dinner post-mortem.”

“Overall,” I continued, “we are not our feedback. Feedback is just how other people experience us. We don’t have to agree with anything anyone says. Unless I say it. Ha ha, just kidding. Kind of.”

We broke up into different corners of the office. One of the staff volunteered to be the timekeeper. I claimed the conference room and worked to cultivate an aura of the enlightened leader, one who is confident and decisive, yet also approachable and understanding. Being an enlightened leader, I had spent time the previous evening during commercial breaks of the Walking Dead writing up notes on each staff’s strengths and areas for improvement.

A staff walked in. “How’s it going, Kevin?” I said, using pseudonyms for this post, except for James, who needs to go easy on the jalapeno chips.

It is surprising how much information can be delivered in eight minutes when both parties are prepared. When we first started implementing this system, the staff were resistant. During the first few Staff 360’s, there would always be some excuses for skipping, such as bird flu or emergency amputation. However, as we do more and more of them, they started growing on us. When everyone is simultaneously giving and receiving feedback, it doesn’t seem as personal. It actually became sort of fun, like flossing. Plus, it’s not just giving constructive feedback, but also showing appreciation, which as a society we don’t do enough of.

“Under the category of ‘keep doing,’” I said, “I really appreciate the energy you bring to the office. Things are just more fun when you’re around, and it makes me look forward to work each day. I appreciate how thoughtful you are, especially with new team members, taking time to show them the ropes in addition to all your other work. I know you stayed at the office until 9pm last night preparing for today’s program. Thank you for all you do to make VFA great.”

“Sorry,” I said, turning away, “it’s my allergies; it makes my eyes water.” I went into feedback on what he could improve on, then it was Kevin’s turn to give me feedback. “Time’s up,” yelled the timekeeper after eight minutes, “switch!” Kevin left and a new staff, Thanh, entered. Thanh is not directly under my supervision, so I didn’t have much feedback to give her. This was a chance to check in to see how she’s doing, and maybe schedule a follow-up one-on-one.

We did seven rounds in about an hour and fifteen minutes. The staff are always very thoughtful with their feedback. One said, “You have to spend more time cultivating sponsors and donors. Less freaking out and micromanaging. Seriously, we can handle most things here while you’re gone. Just answer your emails faster. Also, have you tried Proactiv? It works for my cousin…”

Sometimes, I don’t agree with the feedback.

“You can’t keep using unicorns for all your jokes. Yesterday, you were like ‘I went to this law firm for a meeting, and it was ridiculously nice, I think their conference table is made out of unicorn horns.’ You use unicorns for everything.” Unicorns are always funny, I thought, slightly resentful of this criticism. But if it bothers him, I can reduce references to them.

After the final round, the whole team gathered for a quick, 15-minute discussion on simple things we can do to make the office better. The energy after the speed-feedback session is always great. Everyone feels both heard and appreciated. Someone suggested more plants in the office. Someone else recommended we pick a new restaurant each month and go as a team for lunch.

“We don’t get any sunlight in this office,” a staff said, “we should find a grant to build a skylight!” We all laughed.

“Yeah,” I said, “after we get a grant to buy a unicorn!”

Look, habits take a while to break.