How to Promote a Culture of Healthy Feedback

Feedback is a must to ensure projects stay on topic and teams work well together. An organization that isn’t good at giving feedback to employees often will have people or departments working at cross purposes. A culture of feedback enables organizations to work together more effectively.

For most companies, the change doesn’t happen overnight, says Chris Collins, director of Cornell University’s Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies and associate professor of the ILR School’s HR studies department. “People underestimate how long it takes managers to become good at giving feedback, and how long it takes people to understand that it’s now part of the culture. It can be years, not weeks or months. But once you’ve got leaders giving feedback regularly and effectively, and as people who have gotten feedback become managers and leaders, it becomes a part of the culture.”

This white paper will offer some steps organizations should follow to build a culture of healthy feedback.

Commit to Authenticity

Many organizations try to instill a feedback culture through a brownbag session or two, and then wonder why it fails, says Brad Lande, CEO of Live in the Grey, a company that works with businesses to develop and nurture workplace culture. “People want a deeper knowing and understanding about the people they work with,” Lande says. “They don’t just want to check in and check out; they want something out of their job and to make an impact.”

To meet that need, organizations need to be willing to talk about the shared experiences people have at work, how their roles fit into the company’s mission, and how different positions and departments can work together, he says. When those lines are clear, then feedback can move in all directions. “When you get to know someone, you know their motivations and who they are holistically. Then you’re a lot more willing to hear feedback nondefensively.”

Set Expectations

Before you start giving feedback, employees need to have something to measure. This may include goals to reach, standards to maintain or personal achievements to work for, all aligned with the company’s overall mission. “When organizations are operating from a growth mindset, feedback is the fuel that helps them continually strive and achieve new things,” says Shani Harmon, co-founder of business consultancy Stop Meeting Like This. Having something objective to measure can take a lot of the emotion out of giving feedback, making it easier for managers to do so.

Kendall Wayland, vice president of operations at Uproar PR, says her organization sets expectations with new employees during their initial training period to ensure they understand what they need to be doing. After six months, employees get an informal review to see how they’re doing, and then an annual review a year after they start. “But that’s not enough,” she says. “We do employee engagement surveys several times a year, as well, to find out what employees are thinking.” In addition, teams are encouraged to do “pre-reviews” or catch-up sessions to encourage feedback among peers and from direct reports to managers. Finally, the company also holds one-on-one sessions between executives and employees to talk about the company’s performance, plans for the coming year and other feedback topics.

Make It Frequent

Annual reviews just don’t cut it in today’s business world. Whether you’re providing feedback for one person, a department or a company, frequent check-ins can help you manage performance more effectively. “You can never overdo feedback, particularly with millennials,” Collins says. Quarterly feedback sessions have become the new normal for performance assessments.

But if something can be improved or the employee is not delivering, that shouldn’t wait for a quarterly report, Collins says. “If you want to reinforce something, positive or negative, and you wait around, you’ve missed the moment,” he says. “The best leaders I’ve seen just give feedback all the time. They’re not waiting until it’s ‘official’ to do something.”

Harmon says she’s a strong advocate of quarterly milestone meetings, but her team also checks in with each other twice a week to provide updates and feedback. “We talk on Monday about what we’re doing and we set weekly milestones about what we want to achieve that week,” she says. “At the end of the week, we meet again to see how we did.” Doing so helps the team stay connected and aligned with the company’s purpose toward growth.

Give in All Directions

Feedback shouldn’t only be top-down. Encourage open and constructive feedback to move in all directions — among peers, from front-line employees to company leaders, between departments — to foster communication and ensure everyone is on the same page. “More companies are doing things like having town halls and other events where people can ask questions of senior leaders,” Collins says. “We’re seeing more companies encourage peer input on performance, if not 360-degree input. It provides companies a more well-rounded picture on how leaders are doing.”

And while this takes effort, employees appreciate it. Wayland says her organization’s latest employee engagement survey found that employees are happy to have the opportunity to give honest feedback to company leaders, knowing that they will take it seriously. “And they notice that leaders are giving feedback continuously, not just once a year,” she says. “It shows we’re always wanting to grow and make culture a top priority.”

Encourage Positive Feedback

Constructive feedback that comes in a culture of generous positive feedback can make it easier for employees to take it less personally, experts say. A culture of feedback that tells people they’re doing a good job will help foster a sense of purpose when they want to do better.

“It’s a continual process,” Harmon says about giving positive feedback. Some examples include:

  • I loved that email you sent; it was clear and effective.
  • I just heard that you’ve volunteered to help that team figure out a problem — I really appreciate it, as it helps me manage my load.
  • I learned a lot from your presentation; you really clarified what the issue is this quarter.

“‘Do more’ is more helpful than ‘don’t do,’” Harmon says. “When you say ‘don’t do,’ offer an alternative about what to do.”

Act on It

Much of the effort in building a culture of feedback doesn’t necessarily come from setting up a system to give and receive feedback. Instead, it comes from dedicating time and resources to putting that feedback into action. And if you don’t do that, your effort to change the culture is likely to fail, says Chris Powell, CEO of BlackbookHR.

“Think about how you feel when you give feedback to an employee and nothing changes,” Powell says. “If it doesn’t change, you want to know why. Maybe the employee doesn’t understand the task, or maybe they don’t have the resources to do it properly. No matter the case, you’re going to be annoyed if you provide feedback and they don’t change at all.”

The same thing happens when a company encourages feedback among all employees but does nothing with the information, Powell says. So if you’re committing to an authentic culture that encourages feedback from all directions, you have to be ready to make changes to fuel business growth, or to be open and honest about why some changes can’t happen.

There may be some things you just can’t budge on, Wayland says, and that’s fine. “Just don’t dismiss what they’ve said. All feedback is important. There are times where you have a policy that prevents a change, and maybe employees aren’t knowledgeable about it. No matter the case, employees need to know the thought process behind it.”

Train Your Managers

Building a culture of feedback requires that your managers know how to model giving and receiving effective feedback. Invest the time and energy in teaching managers about how to have difficult conversations, Collins says, as well as how to deliver positive feedback frequently and authentically.

“While there are classes around the basics, giving good feedback comes from practice and getting feedback itself,” Collins says. “Consider it on-the-job training. You can teach the principles, but that just builds the skill, not the will. It’s like a muscle people need to use regularly to get better.”

Effective feedback cultures require a lot from managers, Harmon says. “They have to take the job really seriously. In addition, I see a lot of organizations where all people are rewarded for is timeliness of their formal submittable evaluations. That has nothing to do with feedback. You should reward people for the growth over the team over the past six months, because that’s what shows the impact of a feedback culture.”

Conclusion

Building a strong culture of healthy feedback takes time and effort, but it’s worth it. A feedback culture can help your organization get better performance more quickly, Collins says, as employees understand what’s expected of them and how they can make improvements over time. “Everyone wants to perform well at work, and useful feedback enhances motivation,” he says. Going through the steps of setting expectations, cultivating transparency in communicating feedback across all levels, and keeping employees informed of progress and changes will help establish a culture of feedback that can help your organization reach its business goals.

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