adidas employees chatting around a table working collaboratively.

Why a Strong Culture of Feedback and Listening Helps Teams Work with Integrity

adidas’ Chief Digital Officer, Scott Zalaznik, explores how a culture of listening and continuous feedback is critical to develop team integrity and success.

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The adidas Values Series

In any elite competition, the top teams have a collective understanding and collective accountability. Often, they won’t have the best stars of the era, but they play as a unit where each player helps their teammates keep standards high. They are vocal about what’s working and what’s not, and make the time to listen to both leaders and peers to ensure everyone stays at the top of their game. In both sport and business, this builds a strong culture where teams work with integrity and accountability.

As the leader of the adidas Digital business – as well as the site lead for our organization in Amsterdam – I put a lot of emphasis on these behaviors and values. It’s a priority for me to build a strong group fabric that’s woven together with integrity.

It’s easy to think of integrity as a binary quality that you and I surely have, but I believe we are all on a continuum, and that our personal baseline of integrity can be impacted by our environment.

What does personal integrity look like?

Overall, integrity comes down to doing the right thing. But when it comes to professional integrity, I recognize that as we push our game to the limit, sometimes it’s easier said than done. The drive to succeed might at times collide with the need to play by the rules.

adidas employee working on a shoe mock-up on an iPad.
We hold each other accountable to do the right thing, which ultimately drives success.

When a child wants to finish their schoolwork so they can get outside and play, they might be tempted to cut corners. Or when they feel intense pressure to get a good grade, they could be tempted to cheat. We’ve seen it in sports too, where people have cheated in order to win gold, backed by the belief they did it for the right reason.

That’s why as a parent, a teacher, or a coach, we need to continually focus on integrity. Without it, all you have are empty calories. In business, the same is true, especially in an environment where there is a strong will to win.

What does company integrity look like?

In a company, integrity has many dimensions. First, we need to set high standards that apply to everyone. We can recruit people whose values and ethics align with ours, but even then, we still need to train and educate ourselves so that we improve our cultural awareness, our personal conduct in relationships and our understanding of the different levels of ethical conduct.

In teams that work with high levels of integrity, people have a stronger sense of worth and purpose. There’s a greater level of trust, less attrition and more frequent internal promotion. For me, integrity is also a team game and I see it in its strongest form when we talk about dealing with adversity.

How do we work with integrity when we’re on a team that’s losing, or in a game that’s not going the way we planned or trained for? If the pressure’s on, do we look for a shortcut? In those situations, it’s the culture and people around us that help us win fairly.

So, where I feel I can make a difference in building personal and company integrity, is by driving a culture of feedback and listening.

Working with integrity enables a strong culture filled with meaningful wins.

How to create a culture of continuous feedback

Having a shared vision, a shared way of working and trust within your team are the most important components of working with integrity.

As we get into playing right on the edges of the game, there will be times when we may need to say, “that’s not what we do here, that’s not who we are.” That kind of team integrity is only possible if you have a culture of continuous feedback, and without it, I probably wouldn’t be in this role today.

When I was in my twenties, I didn’t realize that what drove me up the ladder would also hold me back in my thirties. I was a good individual contributor, but I didn’t see that I was running with the ball and pushing through others to get to where I wanted to be. It was the people around me that helped me understand that, and how to work with more integrity.

During a leadership development program, I was given a thick 30-page document of 360 feedback that included comments like “Sometimes I wish he would stop and ask me what I needed” and “I wish I could get my agenda on Scott’s agenda”.

That moment had a big impact on me, and now when I’m coaching people, I often say “Be aware that what got you here may not get you there”. Assertiveness, courage and entrepreneurialism can be effective, but at some point, they can also be destructive.

I believe humans generally seek feedback, but it can be hard to hear, especially if it’s not done well. If this is the first time somebody is going to hear your honest critique of them, you’ve already failed, because what should be a positive experience has become something punitive. However, if it’s something you’ve been discussing all year, most people will respond positively the next time you bring it up.

Five adidas employees chatting around a coffee table.
Allow your team to open up and share their point of view.

There’s one skill that makes it all possible

Continuous feedback, from above and from your peers, is just one of the techniques we can use to support a culture of accountability and build integrity across any company or team. But there’s another one I have found that is more important for both accountability and integrity in business, and that is to be present.

When we are present – fully focused and engaged with one thing – we are accessible and can establish a level of trust and visibility where feedback is natural. When we focus on someone, either during feedback or just by giving them facetime, we help them feel valued and part of a community they trust.

Once you have a group of people who are all present, that’s when the magic happens. We are able to speak our minds, self-govern and self-regulate the most important elements of our culture. Of all the techniques and skills I have come across, nothing has had a bigger impact on my ability to keep people on the team.

Presence is a daily task, and it is not easy. As my wife and kids will tell you, I am a work in progress. I’m lucky to have a great partner and we rarely argue. When we do, it’s often because I said I would be present, and I was not. It’s the same at work too. When I am not my best self, usually it is because I am not present.

adidas employees working together around a coffee table.
Be accessible for your team and remember communication is a two-way street.

Listening is an important part of being present, and to conducting yourself with integrity. One of the messages from that 30-page feedback document was that I needed to listen more. There are two kinds of listeners, those who listen to learn and those who listen for their chance to speak. It takes skill to be the first type, and one hack I was taught back then, which I still use today, is to take notes while I listen. Because if I’m writing, I am not interjecting!

Whether it’s being present, listening better or talking strategies with your team, it doesn’t really matter what techniques you choose, as long as the goal is a place where you can work with integrity and hold each other accountable to our standards, even when the going gets tough.

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