HR Trends

Derek Deasy on vulnerability and trust in a feedback culture

Arne Van Damme

COO at intuo

Derek Deasy is an Affiliate Professor of Organisational Behaviour, INSEAD. We met during an event while doing the Grand Tour event in Brussels. The Grand Tour is an event that assembles speakers from the top business schools in Europe. Derek lead a session on leadership which triggered my interest multiple times.

So I checked if we could schedule an interview to talk about feedback culture and how trust and vulnerability come into play while establishing it.

Do you notice a difference in manager mentality since you first started teaching?

People used to have a real difficulty accepting that they may not be fully in charge of their own actions. In that sense that they had a hard time attributing a role to the unconscious in their business life. These days that seems more accepted.

So it’s acceptable to see psychology as a part of business.

Of course. I’d say it plays many roles. I’m particularly interested in the role of the unconscious in our decision making.

Is there a link with confidence? Do people sometimes become too confident to admit their own psychological flaws?

People who are overconfident perform worse because they are not as open to seeing mistakes, searching personal improvement and accepting the fact that they too have an unconscious influencing their actions & decisions.

What would be the best advice for new managers in this light?

Get to know each other as well as you can. Often, when people start, they want to prove their competence rather than developing their relationships. They should try to connect more on a curiosity level than a transactional level. Because in the end, informal authority comes through connection. There's a reason you got hired, so when the first thing you do is trying to prove your competence, you’re mostly proving it to yourself. Of course, people will notice incompetence, but if the relationship is not well-formed, then there’s even less room for error or self-improvement.

Does this have an implication for the hiring process as well?

Absolutely. The biggest question I asked when I was hiring was: “how would this person fit into the culture I’m trying to create”. Will they be an antagonist or an advocate? Both are useful, in the right ratio.

The culture is going to be more robust if there are people there to challenge it

But you did hire these antagonists?

Yes, because if you only hire people who are just like you, then you’re recreating a very monotone culture. The culture is going to be more robust if there are people there to challenge it. This way you have a constant evaluation of the culture in mind. Some friction in teams is good, as long as it doesn’t get confined to the same one or two people. An important hiring question is “how am I going to connect to this person”.

In my opinion, one of the most important things for building these great relationships (and a high-performance culture) is trust. How can you actively work on that?

Simply ask people “how do you want to be trusted”? But what you cannot forget is that trust is a two-way street. If you ever find yourself in a situation where trust is low. Ask: “what can I do to become more trustworthy or to start trusting you more?”. People (especially in the beginning) with whom you feel low trust usually have some sort of insecurity in their relationship with you, so find out what it is that makes that person feel this way.

What if trust in a company is hard to obtain because of generational differences? How can companies start working to bridge that gap?

When people start categorising in terms of difference, the opportunity for sameness is reduced. When in fact, age is just one category. Look for similarities, and try to create a sense of relatedness that way. Mix it up as much as possible along the age line. I think one of the first things to do is introduce some form of informal mentoring. Give opportunity to different types of connections and conversations. A great resource is the HBR article on working on similarities of my colleague Sujin Jang. Her take on the matter is more about the cultural differences existing in a company, but the solution is more or less the same.

We’ve been talking about building trust environments and high-performance cultures. Now as you mention in your lectures, feedback is a very important tool in building such environments. What happens if there is no feedback culture?

Not having a feedback culture, is feedback for your culture. Because not having a feedback culture sends the signal that you’re not interested in developing people or developing yourself.

And how can companies start creating them?

It’s an organisational cultural change issue. And it all starts with leadership. The number one reason people don’t give feedback is: they feel exposed. But in these cases, the fear of something possibly happening is greater than what is actually happening.

Is it really that bad, to be vulnerable as a leader?

Leaders have to walk the walk, not only talk the talk. In every opportunity, they should be able to give feedback in a way that they are exposed. It can help you build trust and informal kind of authority, how counter-intuitive it may feel. But getting over that fear needs structure, containment and purpose. If you have those three things, you’re already in a good place to start.

In that context, what are people generally more afraid of: Giving feedback or receiving feedback?

I think giving feedback is more difficult than receiving it. In both situations, you feel judged, and the feedback given says as much about the giver as it says about the receiver.

Not having a feedback culture,
is feedback for your culture

Because in general, feedback only leads to meaningful conversations if the sender lets his guard down first.

Yes. The task for leadership is to express curiosity instead of judgement. Declan Fitzsimons, a colleague in INSEAD, shared a wonderful quote from Tony Judt with me. It goes like this: “If we have learned nothing else from the twentieth century, we should at least have grasped that the more perfect the answer, the more terrifying its consequences”. Because when we stop looking, when we’re definite, we’re not open to personal growth, admitting mistakes and adaptation.

So does that have an implication on the innovative capabilities of a company?

Cultures that are over-prescribed and over-precise will innovate less than cultures that are open to change and mistakes. Because in the first culture only the right ideas are listened to. You’re going to miss a lot of the bad ideas, and you need those to get to the really good ones. Let me put it this way, if you come up with a creative idea and you share it, how do you feel?


I feel vulnerable.

Exactly. So, the biggest barrier towards innovation and creativity in a company is having supportive leadership that allows for these mistakes and (informally) rewards behaviour instead of just the outcome.

Let’s switch to the structural changes company leaders are applying to their companies to lift agility. Such as Frederic Lalou, Holocracy, Sociocracy… Do you feel like company leaders are right to prioritise organisational redesign?

You can’t structure behaviour. I’d advise working on the mindset first, and then see what organisational model you are changing into. Starting with a structure or even bringing too much agility can make you lose direction.

And people don’t like too much uncertainty. Do you think this kind of uncertainty leads to burn-outs?

A major cause of burn-outs is having a large gap between implicit and explicit expectations. What my organisation tells me I’m valued for and what my organisation actually values me for should be aligned. If not that puts a lot of political stress on a person.

So in true transparency, there are no burn-outs?

True transparency doesn’t exist anywhere. But that aside, what I meant is that it’s about respecting and applying your values, but if your values are flawed than even applying those consistently won’t help. There should be room for nurture and purpose in your culture.

So if you have a transparent culture where everyone lives by the same culture, but all authority is based on fear (for bad performance), you have to re-evaluate that first.

Yes, people do not perform at their best by being hit with a stick. Also, we’ve been talking about how burn-out can be avoided on an organisational level. But on a team level, the most important thing is making room for difficult or rather meaningful conversations.

I’ve heard people say that responsibility of burn-out lies entirely with leadership. What’s your take on that?

I think this goes back to my quote: “If we have learned nothing else from the twentieth century, we should at least have grasped that the more perfect the answer, the more terrifying its consequences”.

But people like simple models nonetheless.

Well, yeah, that’s how you sell books.

How about you, what are you writing at the moment?

I’m working on issues of resilience, organisational taboo and meaning making. I am really curious about the opportunities adversity offers us regarding growth, both personal and professional, and how to be ruthless about learning and growth whatever the circumstances, calm sea or storm.

Lovely topics! Curious to see what your conclusions are. Thanks for this conversation!