03/23/2012 03:43 pm ET Updated May 23, 2012

About Leadership: Building Best Teams

I once went on a BP course called Building Best Teams. It was a group of about 15 of us from various parts of the company, working with two very skilled people, Roy Williams and Dick Balzer, both of whom knew the company (and most of us) very well.

And what was the essence of what we did for three days together in a nice country house hotel? We worked on giving and receiving feedback. Yes, we did a lot of other things, and learned a lot of other things, but the one thing that ran through all the exercises and presentations and learning that we had during that week was how to give and receive feedback.

Some years ago, I studied Japanese. Someone told me that you can only understand the Japanese by understanding their language, and that is very true. Because at the heart of this language is levels of respect, as it is in Japanese culture. Thus there are many verbs for giving and receiving in Japanese. If you give something to a pet you use a very different verb from giving to a child, or for giving to a servant, or to a peer, or to your boss -- likewise with receiving. Only if we can get the subtlety of the language -- deep in us, not memorized -- can we also be adept at integrating into the culture.

So in our Building Best Teams course, we all realized that we needed to learn, or re-learn, the language we used in talking to others in our team, in giving feedback to colleagues, and, when asked, to our boss. Right down to our pronouns; When to say "I," "and," "when," "we," for example); What should be done in the group, and what should be done in private; When to be gentle, when to be firm. So, how to give. I have been through several mergers and know now that work between teams that are integrating is a time when I need to be most sensitive on giving feedback, and I failed at it several times.

We we taught to understand when it is a time to sit and listen and learn from what is being said to you, and when it is a time to discuss and get more clarity, or even defend. How to be pleased to receive criticism rather than be hurt by it. Mostly, the first law of receiving feedback is to keep your ears open and your mouth shut.

These and lots of other things are not instinctive, and we don't learn how to do them really well as we grow up, when in school, or, for that matter, by being in the teams of others. I found that they helped me as a parent as well as at work. But how to give and receive feedback is either the essence, or close to the essence, of team building. And like other learned skills, it needs to be practiced and improved. Indeed, we need to get feedback on how well we do this.

About Leadership: About Leadership is a series of 52 columns on corporate leadership - essential skills, leading teams, managing your career, the strategic and business practices to make a company and its leader distinctive from competitors. These columns will be of interest to people leading small and medium sized companies today, many of whom have not had much formal training in management skills and techniques; for the many people in big companies who aspire to senior management; and for anyone who thinks: Give me a hint, how can I do this better?