Building a feedback culture in 8 steps

Podcast transcript:

Please don’t miss the ‘culture’ part of feedback culture

In my experience, most organisations seeking to promote feedback and to build a feedback culture within their organisation will go tactical and tool-based, first, next and last.  But this is missing the point. Creating a feedback culture that focuses only on the feedback part, that is training people in best practice feedback techniques, providing them with online platforms to share feedback, etc. misses the ‘culture’ part of ‘feedback culture’.  My advice: don’t start with the feedback, start with the culture. You can try all the tactics and tools you like, but if the culture ain’t right, it’s going to chew up and spit out your feedback plans. Today’s episode is about building a feedback culture by focusing on culture first.  So here is my 8 step guide on how to get feedback flowing in your organisation.

  1. Start with the why – why do you want more feedback anyway?

First of all start with your why.  Why are you looking to create a feedback culture anyway?  What strategic goal does it help achieve? Is it about increasing transparency, for example? Holding people accountable for delivering on their objectives? Or creating more of a learning-focused organisation that demonstrates growth mindset? Whatever your reason, get clear on it so that anyone being asked the question ‘Why is feedback so important here?’ has a clear unambiguous answer.

  1. Look at your current culture and establish what is creating feedback anxiety

Second, take a long, hard look at your current culture and decide what it is in your organisation that is really driving people’s behaviour…and creating feedback anxiety. What are the mental models that people are operating to about why they do what they do? If you want people to be receptive to feedback and be prepared to give it, look under the surface if that’s not what’s happening right now. If there’s feedback anxiety in your organisation, find out why.

Is it that, for example, your organisation is all about minimising and mitigating risk (therefore creating anxiety about not admitting mistakes or that you are not perfect?). If that’s the case, you will have work to do culturally before people will be willing to risk having honest conversations with each other about where improvements can be made.

If you’re working somewhere where nobody wants to hurt each other’s feelings because they fear conflict, tension or that they will be seen as a bad person, you have a different kind of challenge on your hands.

Be clear on what’s stopping people from giving and receiving feedback and you are on the journey.  Then you can start to seed language around the mental model that you want people to internalise if a feedback culture is truly to take root.  Let me explain what I mean by mental model: if I see my role as a ‘customer champion’ (that’s not my job title in this example, is my model of how I contribute value) then I’m more likely to receive customer feedback positively than if I see my role as an ‘account administrator’.

  1. Look at the history of feedback to get clear on the work that needs to be done

If you’re trying to embed a feedback culture, make sure you establish any relevant history. In your organisational past (or present), has feedback typically been stored up as ammunition for an entire year before a full bombardment is unleashed at the annual performance appraisal? Have there been instances of people ‘speaking truth to power’ and then being disappeared shortly after? You need to understand any shared cultural trauma before you can understand what needs rewiring or challenging. Otherwise those old cultural stories about how things really work round here will sit below the surface still driving behaviour but you won’t know why.

  1. Look at leader behaviour and start at the top

Next, bear in mind that leaders cast long shadows. If you want feedback to become part of your organisation’s lived experience, your leaders need to role model effective feedback giving, when they see something that runs contrary to the strategy, the company values or agreed ways of working, rather than just ‘letting it go’ or turning away. And they need to role model effective feedback receiving: not getting defensive, or trying to explain away the feedback they’re hearing or ignoring what they’ve been told. And that means actively and explicitly taking feedback on board, doing something with it and then explaining to the feedback provider (and ideally as many people as possible) what they have done as a result of the very helpful feedback they received from X (if X is happy to be identified, that is). Leader behaviour is a very very important way of creating greater psychological safety around feedback.

  1. Make feedback the norm from very early on in someone’s experience of the organisation

If from week one of you entering the organisation, you’re being asked for your feedback and you’re being given feedback from others, chances are you’re going to pick up that this is the way things work around here (that is, this is the culture), in this way, normalising feedback.  This is easily done actually – on your first meeting with someone you can ask them what they think, what they see, how they’re experiencing the role/team/office/organisation and really listen to what they say. And you can also point out things that you really appreciate about them, as well as being honest if you see them do or say something that doesn’t sit right with you. The earlier a new joiner has these experiences, the sooner feedback will become their norm.

  1. When you’re ready, look at mechanisms for providing feedback, including training

So this is the point at which many organisations start their journey into creating a feedback culture, rather than exploring the ‘culture’ part sufficiently.  You shouldn’t ignore the options here, but there’s risk in getting into the tactics and the tools too soon.  Ask yourself (and others) which tools will work best in your organisation: online 360 feedback tools, providing feedback using an existing HR system, encouraging face to face feedback, setting up ‘accountability buddies’ who can provide each other with peer feedback on an ongoing basis? There are so many alternatives, too many to go into here.  Training is also important to consider here – what do people need to know if they are going to be able to give and receive feedback well? I have some advice on this at Season 14, episode 10 – How to give feedback well – 7 top tips and also Season 13, episode 7 – How to ask for feedback well, 5 top tips. Go check those out if you need more info or inspo.

  1. Prompt and nudge so that this becomes normalised and habituated

For any new approach to become habit, people need to keep seeing it and need to be continually encouraged to keep doing it.  So construct your nudge plan as to how to keep feedback flowing. Will this come through a daily or weekly reminder? Could it become part of team meetings? All meetings? Think about the touch points where feedback can be prompted in your organisation and use those channels to keep reinforcing the behaviour.

  1. Strengths-based feedback gives an easy ‘in’

We’ve found from experience that strengths-based feedback – that is feedback based on someone’s energy and where they seem naturally to truly stand out and excel – is a powerful method for introducing and reinforcing feedback.  We’ve found that people will readily accept feedback about where their strengths have contributed value – often because they’re unaware of their strengths and simply take them for granted. And when it comes to constructive or negative feedback, basing this around ‘strengths in overdrive’ often lands more effectively than highlighting someone’s weaknesses or shortcomings. The outcome may be similar but a strength in overdrive is still a strength, it just needs to be used in the right amount, with the right people in the right context to get a result. So this kind of feedback lands better and feels more empowering than pointing out where someone has just got it wrong.

In conclusion, go forth and be radically candid

So there is my 8 step guide to creating a feedback culture which will take root, grow and last. Finally, for inspiration, I want to say a few words about Kim Scott – author of Radical Candor. Her fabulous sub 10 minute, and radical, introduction to feedback can be found here

In short, to be effective in giving feedback, Kim says: be brief, be honest, be kind. Till next time, go forth, be radically candid, and build that feedback culture.