Give it to Me Straight – Building a Feedback Culture

Whether it comes as a punch-in-the-gut or a standing ovation, feedback is one of the best ways for us to gauge how well we are doing. As organisations around the globe look to become more agile and customer-centric, HR risks being seen as an internal hurdle to high performance. This is unacceptable. HR is already well-positioned to be leading the charge to modernise, digitalise and deliver value at speed. To earn their spot at the leadership table of the future, HR must step forward to guide and establish a culture of feedback, and lead from the front by applying a new mindset to bring people operations into the 21st century.

Whether the information and comments are coming up, down, sideways, or from customers, feedback is incredibly valuable. It’s also strangely hard to come by. In a world where it seems everyone has an opinion and a willingness to share it, as soon as people get to work, they often become increasingly silent. They hesitate to tell the boss that the new project is doomed, or the less-than-stellar colleague the several ways he is making your life more difficult.

Most organisations attempt to solve this problem by teaching their managers how to deliver more effective feedback. The logic follows that if they have the skills, then they’ll go around giving all sorts of helpful feedback to readily receptive employees. Those newly enlightened employees will then use the information to improve and pay it forward in a never-ending positive spiral of development and enrichment. Sounds perfect! Except, it doesn’t actually work that way because this process is backward. We are effectively putting the cart before the horse.

“You can’t achieve excellence in life if you fear opinion.”
― Janna Cachola

4 Strategies to Enable Better Receiving

The most skilled communicator in the world will still have a miserable conversation with someone who doesn’t want feedback or doesn’t know how to receive it. Instead of simply focusing on giving feedback, you need to simultaneously ensure you are helping your employees to be more open to receiving and accept it as well. 

1. Trust and Safety

To give and receive truly candid feedback, people must feel a sense of safety and trust. When your team members feel supported and safe in their interpersonal relationships, they will share feedback more freely and from a place of seeking solutions rather than blame and frustration. Trust also fosters sharing celebratory feedback more frequently rather than only when there are challenges. To create safety and trust you need:

Authentic Connections: Get to know each other. Make an effort to understand your colleagues. This doesn’t require deep, personal disclosures. Simply take a moment to ask about someone’s weekend and occasionally share stories of your own. Conversations must be two-way, not just driven by the manager as they evaluate which capabilities employees need to be successful. ‘Capabilities’ doesn’t just mean skills; it means career interests and relationships too.

Talk About Emotions: The ability to discuss emotions is critical to sharing effective feedback. Feelings are at the heart of most difficult feedback and feedback inevitably generates difficult feelings. When we can talk about our embarrassment, disappointment, frustration, and even anger, the culture is sufficiently safe – and robust – to handle honest feedback.

Make it Okay to Say No: A risk in feedback cultures is that people feel obligated to say “Yes of course,” when asked if someone can give them feedback. The freedom to postpone conversations to a time when you are more receptive ensures that when they do take place, all participants are willing parties. Teach your team how to hear feedback and build enough self-worth to not get defensive as well as how to determine when it’s appropriate to provide feedback.

2. Balance and Equal Reciprocity

We often think that good feedback is an honest critque, but that’s only half the story. The other half is truly meaningful positive feedback, which is all too often absent in many organisations. You cannot have one without the other. However, there are so many obstacles that prevent us from offering and accepting positive feedback. We worry it will sound insincere. We worry it is insincere. We worry it will make us look like suck-ups. We worry it will make us seem weak. And, since we don’t do it very often, we’re not very good at it. Here’s the thing: positive feedback promotes self-development. Strong relationships depend on heartfelt positive feedback – both ways. So we absolutely need to practice. To better establish balance:

Offer Positive Feedback…and Stop: Too often we use positive feedback to cushion the blow before delivering criticism. The only problem with this strategy is that it inevitably degrades the value of our praise and renders it hollow. Empty words do not build strong relationships.

Start Small: We miss opportunities to provide everyday positive feedback because we tend to think that only big wins merit discussion. When we see any behaviour we want to encourage, we must acknowledge it and express some appreciation. 

Praise Effort, Not Ability:  Praising persistent efforts, even in failed attempts, helps to build resilience and determination. Whereas, praising talent and ability results in risk-aversion and heightened sensitivity to setbacks.

3. Business as Usual

Workshops tend to create space for people to be open to new ideas and experiment with new ways of communicating. However, the following day everyone goes back to the real world. To build a feedback culture, you must integrate the desired behaviours into your team’s daily routines. If feedback is something that only happens sporadically, it will never really be an organic part of the culture. It must show up in everyday life — on a walk down the hallway, at the end of a meeting, over a cup of coffee. To make feedback business as usual:

Don’t Wait for a Special Occasion: Rather than building a castle, put up a thousand tents. It is far more productive to encourage frequent, informal performance conversations. This will enable managers to provide more timely feedback and adjust expectations based on organisational changes or past performance.

Be Transparent: Some conversations are best-held one-on-one, but too often we treat all feedback as a potentially embarrassing process to be conducted under the cover of darkness. When sufficient safety, trust, and balance exist, even critical feedback can be provided in larger groups. This allows everyone present to learn from the issues under discussion. It also allows people to see how to give and receive feedback more effectively.

Be Consistent: Consistency is king when building trust, which means it’s important to set up a consistent feedback routine. Sporadic feedback will not establish a trusted feedback culture. 

4. Personal Accountability

To be an effective leader, you must walk the talk every minute of every day. Employees are more sensitive than leaders to gaps between an organisation’s espoused values and actual practices. Teams take their cues from us as to what is acceptable, and if we don’t take some risks in this area, they won’t either. Why should they? This doesn’t mean we’re going to get it right all the time. If we’re taking some meaningful risks, then of course we’ll make some mistakes. The key is to fail forward and view those mistakes as essential learning opportunities. Let those around you know that you are doing your best to improve at giving and receiving feedback, too. Ask for their input on how you are doing. To walk the talk:

Be Open: Everyone around you – colleagues, superiors, direct reports – must know that improving at giving and receiving feedback is an ongoing goal of yours.

Be Proactive: Leaders cannot simply sit back and wait for feedback to be offered. If you want feedback to be cultivated, you need to explicitly ask for it.

Be Responsive: Sustaining a positive feedback culture can happen when employees see real movement within the organisation with what they’ve shared. The organisation doesn’t have to agree with everything that is being suggested, but it is vital to recognise suggestions publicly to show they were heard.

“Don’t mistake activity with achievement.”
― John Wooden

The Crumbling Heirarchy's Days are Numbered

Ongoing employee feedback is the key to moving away from outdated performance reviews so we can truly develop people to their full potential. Aside from an agile approach to recruiting and hiring, we can make feedback and coaching much more iterative and incremental. Add in collaborative feedback, coaching, recognition, and appreciation, and it starts to look like an agile approach to “managing performance.” In the past, managers held all the power for feedback and coaching. Managers decided when to have one-on-ones. They decided what feedback to provide and when. And, managers decided if to coach, when to coach and what to coach about. That led to the possibility of spectacular failures:

  • Managers who met with team members once a quarter or worse, once a year.
  • Managers who provided actionable feedback only when it was time for a performance review, which means they missed untold opportunities for feedback on an ongoing basis.
  • Managers who imposed coaching because they wanted you to learn something you didn’t particularly want to learn.
  • Too often, managers were “too busy” micromanaging projects and moving people around from project to project to build a trusting relationship with “their” people.

“Feedback thrives in cultures where the goal is not “getting comfortable with hard conversations” but normalising discomfort.”
― Brené Brown

The Future of Feedback

Every business has guidelines about how feedback is handled. A strong feedback culture welcomes feedback and uses it to foster the growth of individuals, teams, and the organisation as a whole. Employee voices are valued. In this way, the organisation transitions from being an exploiter of talent to a feedback culture that is investing in talent. Managers can offer career guidance, impediment removal, and coaching if the person wants it. When agile managers define strategy, provide autonomy, purpose and create an environment for mastery, they are doing their job. Managers do not need to – and cannot be – the sole source of feedback and coaching for anyone. Ditch the annual employee suvey. It turns competitive managers into one-month cheerleaders to inflate scores. Consider employees as your most important clients. How do you check-in with top clients? How often do you touch base? What do you do with the data? Do the same for your employees. Replace old-school HR ideas with modern client experience thoughts.

The outdated HR approach of having a manager sit with a person (at any time) to tick a bunch of boxes, provide feedback and maybe even coaching is practically laughable. Annual conversations about past accomplishments are not sufficient to motivate performance. Effective performance feedback looks backward and forward, and is provided on an ongoing basis throughout the year. Gartner research shows that organisations that make performance reviews forward-looking, can expect to improve employee performance by as much as 13%. Those that provide ongoing, not sporadic, feedback could get a boost of as much as 12%. And the numbers are also in on peer feedback, which can enhance performance by as much as 14%. Here are some new ideas for feedback to better fit today’s fast-paced, innovation-driven business environment:

  • Train everyone to provide coaching, feedback, recognition, and appreciation. It’s possible to train in an agile way, with small, safe-to-fail experiments.
  • Regardless of where you are in the organisation, model the feedback, coaching, recognition and appreciation.
  • Consider adding some form of feedback and recognition to any of the frequent meetings a team might have – even a morning huddle would do. A team could even frame the feedback as small, safe-to-fail experiments.

“The only thing worse than not requesting feedback is not acting on it.”
― Frank Sonnenberg

A Better Fit for HR Leaders

So, where does HR fit into feedback, coaching, recognition and appreciation? They don’t fit directly. That’s because these are all private conversations that HR has no place in. To take a seat at the leadership table, HR must do exactly that – lead. In this way, HR can facilitate opportunities for more of these conversations by:

  • Arranging for feedback and coaching training. 
  • Modelling feedback, coaching, recognition and appreciation.
  • Asking managers to do continual career planning in one-on-ones so people take responsibility and learn to experiment and guide their own careers.

This is an entirely different set of skills than the old HR-driven “Have you completed your performance review and given annual feedback?” Instead of HR “driving” performance management, the new HR will enable it. People need feedback about their work and how they bring themselves to work. They might want coaching. Everyone needs recognition and appreciation for their efforts. We’re not talking about giving everyone a participation medal – you already get paid to show up. Let’s recognise and appreciate people for their excellent contributions. Building a culture of feedback happens when feedback is given in impromptu moments, not just formal performance review settings. HR can facilitate the entire process, not run it. Embrace the change.

“The culture the leader creates impacts the feedback a leader receives.”
― Ron Edmondson

Humanise the Digital Experience

In their eagerness to offer a bright, shiny and impressive digital experience for employees, HR sometimes eliminates important human interactions. It is important to determine when employees would prefer person-to-person contact. For example, when employees need to interact with HR due to a sudden event, such as a death in the family, severe weather or a minor injury at work, Gartner found that 42% of employees would rather personally speak with an HR specialist than use online self-service HR systems.

Organisations can strengthen performance management in three ways: Provide ongoing, non-sporadic performance feedback; make performance reviews forward-looking rather than only backward-looking; and include peer, not just manager, feedback in evaluating performance. As work becomes more interdependent and managers have less direct visibility into the day-to-day of their teams, high-quality peer input is becoming an essential part of effective performance feedback. For HR this necessitates a shift from:

  • Driving alignment and execution — To fostering expertise, collaboration, and decision-making.
  • Supporting managers as taskmasters — To training managers to become coaches.
  • Training employees for new roles — To creating a continuous learning environment for employees.
  • Implementing systems of record — To implementing systems of engagement.
  • Annual performance reviews — To continuous feedback throughout the year.
  • Measuring success by compliance and documentation — To measuring success in terms of retention, employee satisfaction, and innovation.

“In a world where money is no longer the primary motivating factor for employees, focusing on employee experience is the most promising competitive advantage that organisations can create.”

-Jacob Morgan

Co-creating the Employee Experience

Co-creation invites your people to experiment with you, and test what works and what doesn’t. It draws on techniques used in design thinking, such as personas, experience mapping and prototyping. There are lot of great frameworks available to use, all of which help you to put yourself in the shoes of your customer (the employee) and redesign the experience of work. The outcome is organisational change through collaboration. Instead of managing people through the change, they now co-create the change with you. In this way, the role of HR is transformed, as well as that of any organisational change project. This opens doors to a brave new world of process redesign, cultural initiatives, and system-wide implementations.

The power of co-creation links to the importance of discovery. You cannot assume to know the answer or what an employee values. Instead, you need to discover the answer through research, prototyping and most important of all – talking to people! This is worlds away from collecting people’s opinions through an engagement survey. It’s about putting something physical in their hands or creating an experience to assess their reactions and responses. Some teams use simulations while others run mini real-life experiments. It can even be as simple as walking the corridors and asking for feedback on a piece of communication before you hit ‘send’.   

“It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”
― Richard P. Feynman

Experimentation vs. Pilot

Experimentation and prototyping are vastly different from running a pilot. Too often a pilot in HR already represents a sizeable investment of time and money. Let’s say, for example, you are running a leadership development program. Often the tender process has been decided, your top leaders are in the room, and the supplier is then expected to deliver. Even if the pilot feedback is poor, the program isn’t always stopped. Instead, it is tweaked and repackaged so it can still be rolled out as scheduled. In the age of analytics, this kind of activity will not fly.

An agile approach would experiment with different learning experiences first or do some discovery work on what skills are needed and when. It’s time for HR to think like a scientist: to test assumptions and demonstrate through data why HR, let alone the whole organisation, should embark on workplace change. Here’s the thing: no-one can argue with evidence-based reasoning. The truth is the truth, all you need to do is uncover it. HR often talks about the need to have a seat at the table. In the past, we’ve lacked the data to inform our view and successfully contribute to the business discussion. Working with evidenced-based numbers dissolves this problem, along with the tendency to be overruled by the highest-paid person in the room.  

“Discretionary effort is the holy grail of employee engagement.

The “going above and beyond” drives business valuation.”

― Dave Bookbinder

Your Reservation Secured

Feedback is a gift. If you don’t use it and appreciate the gift, you might not get another one. Having a feedback culture means that you actually respond and act on feedback. Employees need to see that giving feedback is worth their time. Don’t underestimate the value of following up on what you do with feedback. The new HR has the potential to revolutionise organisations and help us co-create the future of work. It also equips everyone with the capability to meet the challenges of a volatile, uncertain, and complex business world. The starting point is your mindset and HR’s ability to define and articulate the value you deliver to your people. By embracing a test and learn approach, to incrementally develop solutions in partnership with your people, you can truly enrich their employee experience. In this way, you can deliver value continuously – which is exactly how HR reserves its seat at the table.

“Do not punish people for being honest and truthful. The day we will start punishing people for demonstrating honesty and truthfulness, will also be the day we will start surrounding ourselves with liars and dishonest people. Reward the behavior you want your people to demonstrate.”
― Sanjeev Himachali

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