Building a Feedback Culture to Drive Development

As individuals and organisations, we’re often looking to develop ourselves in some way. Whether we’re an individual learning a new skill, or an organisation building a new product, feedback is invaluable for ensuring we develop as effectively and efficiently as possible. The data we derive from feedback provides a sense of how we’re currently performing and, often, ideas for how we might adjust to perform better. The more quality feedback we have, the less time and effort we spend on going in the wrong direction, and the faster we reach where we want to go.

The more quality feedback we have, the smaller the overall deviance from the goal (shown in grey shading).

In my work with organisations, I’ve seen huge variation in ‘feedback maturity’ – the ability and habit of exchanging valuable feedback across the organisation. The spread of Agile methodology and Design Thinking has helped – both involve testing ideas and prototypes early, to ensure minimal wastage of time and effort building the wrong thing. These methods have helped develop a culture of feedback in many organisations.

But even in organisations who have successfully adopted these methods, the feedback culture seems to be suddenly stifled when it comes to giving feedback on people and their behaviours. Whether it’s fear of hurting someone’s feelings with constructive feedback, of condescending someone with praise, or of the consequences of speaking out of turn, people are often very wary of sharing honest feedback about how others are performing.

For example, when I’ve helped teams adopt Agile methodologies, we often set up weekly retrospectives, in which the team review what’s worked well, and not so well. A common ground rule we use to start with is ‘nothing personal’.

This is a great way to help teams who don’t typically share and discuss feedback to start having these honest conversations, because it creates a sense of psychological safety. People know they themselves won’t be reviewed – they’re just reviewing the team’s collective output.

But, if we’re honest, we intuitively know that this isn’t enough. We can probably all think of examples where actually the problem with the team’s output was personal. For example, maybe someone wasn’t clear about their capacity. Perhaps someone procrastinated because they were intimidated by the task, and the team was late in delivering. Perhaps the output was fine, but a team member was unpleasant to work with, which, over time, could impact the team’s wellbeing and productivity.

By avoiding giving personal feedback, we’re depriving each other of the opportunity to develop. But it’s not easy, and feedback done poorly can damage performance rather than develop it. That’s why I’ve put together some thoughts on how to build a healthy feedback culture, based on my experience of working in and with a variety of organisations.

1) Know what you want to be developing, and make sure everyone else does too

Successful organisations need to define what success means for them, and understand how they’re going to make it happen. No matter how you define success, it will depend on people right across your organisation. Which means your competency model is a crucial part of your organisation’s strategy – it spells out how your people and their talent will help you get where you want to go.

Great competency models are so clear, relevant and meaningful, that employees know sections off by heart. They’re clear on why their performance matters, how performance ratings translate to day-to-day behaviours, and what they need to do to reach the next level. Conversations about development goals and promotion readiness become much easier, because they use a shared language that makes sense in the real world of the job being performed.

This clarity over what’s expected also supports self-feedback. Regular, bite-size self-reflections on performance against specific competencies or development goals really helps to build self-awareness and accelerate development.

2) Align feedback with development goals

The world’s best football coaches don’t give their players feedback on their golf swing. It doesn’t support the team’s collective goals, and it’s not aligned with what the players understand is expected of them. Not only is it a waste of time and energy, it can also be deeply demotivating.

Alignment could be as simple as ensuring all feedback relates back to your competency model. This uses the shared language you’ve established to support employees in performing and progressing. Alternatively, employees can use the competency model to set their own tailored development goals. Feedback aligned with these is instantly more valuable to the employee.

Feedback tools can help drive alignment, by asking users to specify the competency or development goal their feedback relates to. This challenges providers to check their feedback is relevant, and avoids moving the goalposts.

3) Develop the skills to get the best out of feedback

The ability to give valuable feedback, and the ability to receive and act on feedback, generally don’t come naturally. Our brains are hard-wired to see any chance for criticism as a threat, and these conversations can be challenging. Giving and receiving feedback should therefore be seen as a skill to be developed by everyone in the organisation. Providing simple guidance on what great feedback looks like can be really helpful, for example:

  • Balance positive and negative. Traditional workplace feedback tends to be negative. There’s evidence that positive feedback promotes self-development more effectively, so ensure there is a balance. When providing negative feedback, ensure you suggest an alternative positive behaviour which would have been more successful, and explain why. In all scenarios, keep feedback honest.
  • Keep it relevant. As well as using competency models or development goals, ask people to use real-life examples of behaviour. For the recipient, this helps prevent feedback feeling like a character attack, and makes it much easier to relate to. I’ve previously used the STAR-AR model, in which the feedback describes the situation, task at hand, action taken and result, with a suggested alternative action and the alternative result if needed.
4) Make feedback part of ‘the norm’

For feedback to successfully drive development and innovation, it must be embedded as an organic part of your organisational culture. So, whilst you might use training or workshops to launch a fresh way of using feedback in your company, the act of giving and receiving feedback must also become part of day-to-day life – usual, typical, expected.

If people only associate feedback with performance reviews or, worse, with something having gone wrong, help them to associate it with their everyday activities – at the end of a meeting, during a tea break, or even on the commute. The more flexible your feedback tools, the more they can be embedded into daily working life. Feedback immediately becomes less scary when it’s usual, typical and expected.

Whilst building a feedback culture, you can keep it present in people’s minds by having dedicated time for feedback. Embedding simple rituals like ‘Feedback Fridays’ can help employees stop, think and feedback.

Many employees are uncomfortable providing their seniors with feedback, so leaders and managers must play their part in making this feel normal – they must be seen asking for feedback and acting on it.

5) Make feedback fresh again with fresh tools

Having seen the value added by change management programmes sitting alongside technical change, we’ve habitually come to think that culture change enables integration of new tools. However, the converse is also true – integration of new tools can open the door for culture change. Hands-on experience using practical tools, and seeing others using them, can embed newly learned behaviours. This turns theoretical training into tangible change.

The benefit is seen when people are curious and excited to use their new tools. Whether it’s a shiny new app or a wall of colourful post-its, it should be simple, engaging and accessible.

6) Make it ok to say ‘no thank you’

Once a feedback culture becomes established, people may feel they have to accept all feedback at all times. Feedback providers should always ask recipients whether they’d like feedback. And recipients should feel able to postpone feedback discussions until they are ready to have them.

It’s also key to remember that feedback from other people will always be subjective. An early manager of mine told me to think of feedback as a gift delivered to my front door. I can open the door, unwrap the gift, understand what’s in it, and choose what parts of it I want to bring inside my home. In a healthy feedback culture, employees are trusted to filter feedback to decide what’s useful for them, and decide whether a particular feedback point is anomalous or is part of a pattern which needs exploration.

7) Nurture the ability to discuss emotion

Many employees avoid discussing emotions in the workplace, and as a result this skill hasn’t been honed organically over the years. But it’s a crucial ingredient for any organisation wanting to harness feedback to drive development. Challenging feedback scenarios often involve emotion, for both the giver and receiver. Both should be equipped to manage and discuss emotion to harness the value of feedback.

8) Use feedback data to drive development

Feedback is information on an individual’s or team’s performance. This data is valuable. Not only does it inform an individual’s development efforts, it can also be used to drive insights on broader talent development programmes. I’ve seen companies use feedback data to identify high potential employees, who are then hand-picked to attend focused development centres. Conversely, it identifies problem areas for individuals, or performance trends across team locations or functions. And of course, you can gather feedback on your talent development programmes themselves, so they can continuously improve.

I created some of the early content for this article when working with North Highland, as we launched their real-time, 360° feedback app, Culr. You can find out more about the app here.

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