Why feedback culture Why you need a feedback culture as you grow

A feedback culture is a workplace culture where it is normal for employees, managers and leaders to give and receive honest feedback, and where people are actively looking for ways to get better at what they do.

A review and development conversation

What we cover in this article:
  • Why is a feedback culture important?
  • Why people find it hard to give and receive feedback
  • Why feedback is good for your organisation
  • What you can do to build a good feedback culture

Why is a feedback culture important?
If you’ve ever started a small business or organisation you’ll know how easy it is to feel connected and coherent as a group, at the start. There's an intoxicating energy that comes from working in a team where everyone feels a strong sense of camaraderie and purpose, and everyone has to muck in, because it's the only way to get stuff done. 

As a small group you probably sit around the same table, and the ideas and conversations flow, you share the wins and the losses… it’s emotional and exciting, and then you grow. 

By the time you get to five or six people, suddenly communication isn't something you can take for granted, you've got to start working at it. Once you get to 10 people you've got a small organisation, and it's amazing how those extra people require you to communicate better.

When we consult with organisations of all shapes and sizes we usually find communication high up on the list of the things people would like to be improved because, well, it’s hard. 

It may be that people don't hear what you thought you said, or you write it down and people interpret it differently or they don't have time to read it (which is why there are simple tools out there like ThenSomehow’s Replay tool).

Throw into this mix the fact that human beings are conflict averse. We like to get along, and we don't choose conflict voluntarily - people often think that if they give someone some feedback, they might be offended. Or they might shout. Then you'll be in conflict, and you don't want that. 

So why risk giving the feedback in the first place?
In a workplace team you might find people play nice with each other, but the group will not go where it's emotionally dangerous, because they don't know how to handle it, and they haven't got depth to their relationships. 

The trouble is that if you don't get into conflict you never get past the storming phase in the stages of team development, which likely means a team will underperform because they’re not comfortable to challenge each other (in a healthy way). 

We see it a lot with clients - on the surface everyone in a team is getting on well, but they’re stuck and usually only because they’re not practised at healthy conflict. 

And if you're in an organisation where conflict is a bit scary, teams will feel limited in their autonomy, their ability to make decisions and their ability to deliver. 

How does a feedback culture help? 
If you were to create an environment where it is normal to ask for feedback and it is normal to give feedback, then it becomes like a trust muscle - as you stretch that muscle it becomes stronger, and you can then deal with real conflict when it happens because you're used to it.

In a feedback culture you might say, “Jon, may I give you some feedback on that?” And Jon is able to say “Yes, I'm ready for it.” And then you say to Jon, “I thought this was really good. And these things need improvement. I notice that this happened, that happened, and you might want to think about that.”

And Jon might say, “Thanks, I really appreciate you telling me.” And Jon can modify his behaviour and develop himself and his work.

The theory is that if you practise this kind of low level feedback, when things get tougher you’ll be able to cope because you trust each other: then when you’re given some difficult feedback you might think, “okay, that might be really hard to hear, but I trust you have my best interests at heart. So yes, let’s talk about it.”

Then you can get into a much more constructive form of conflict. 

If you're not used to giving feedback, then you're probably not going to get down to the nuts and bolts of what's really going on that's causing things to go wrong or people to not perform at their best. 

Having a feedback culture as a basis for this is really good. 

A feedback culture leads to better work 
Once you’re more practised and you learn how to give constructive positive feedback - it turns out this is important for creating better work. One study involving a design experiment showed that where one group was given negative feedback on their design and another group received positive feedback - in response the positive feedback group focused on their strengths and came up with a much better design, whereas the negative feedback group didn't advance their design, they just tweaked the negatives. 

If you can build a feedback culture where people are actively looking for ways to get better at what they do, then you’ll boost their levels of autonomy, responsibility and their ability to perform in their roles for your organisation. 

How to bake feedback into your culture as you grow
Here’s some ideas for how to embed a feedback culture into your workplace:

1. Pause at the end of each project to reflect with your team on the lessons learned and what could have been better. If you don’t do that you’ll continue to repeat the same mistakes. 

2. Learn from software teams who use an Agile approach - and at the end of each project or two-week period, practise talking with your team about the work, how you do the work, and how you feel about the work. It will take a few times doing this to build enough trust to enable your team to go deeper with this.

3. At the end of each piece of work, formally review not just the outputs, but the way you worked, and bake it in so that a project is not complete or signed off until you've ticked that review box.

4. Encourage your managers or meeting chairs to ask ‘how was this meeting?’ at the end of each one. You could all do a thumb rating on it and then discuss ‘how can we improve this meeting going forward?‘

5. For the individual, it's very hard to commit to an organisation if you're not sure how you're doing. If you're not getting feedback, then you might be confused about what's expected of you, and how you're performing against those expectations. So aim to build in these three questions into performance and development reviews:
  • What’s expected of you?
  • How are you doing?
  • Where you are heading?

6. As a manager you could regularly ask your team: How am I doing? Are you getting what you need from me? Are my expectations of you clear? By modelling feedback it’ll make it easier to create a structure for feedback in your review and development conversations, so people know they're going to get some feedback. 

7. Use 360 feedback reviews to invite a group to feedback on each other. Model that yourself first before you ask other people to do it. After a 360, thank people for participating and giving you the feedback and tell them what you've decided to take away from it, and what you will be doing as a result - so there is some accountability.

By introducing these mechanisms for giving feedback and clarifying and talking about how you’re all doing, your values will become established, people will become clearer and they'll get used to giving each other feedback, which will help you all as you grow.