Almost everyone would theoretically tell you that feedback is a critical element of high performance. We all “know” how important it is, when done right. So why do so many organizations still support cultures where feedback is withheld, mishandled, or even weaponized? Well - it’s complicated.
Feedback is a two-way street. It must be both well-delivered and well-received. This makes it highly complex. You’re dealing with a lot of human dynamics. Many leaders we work with are tempted to brush this issue to the side because it’s uncomfortable to think about and difficult to address. In addition, it can bring up painful vulnerabilities that they haven’t yet addressed (those should definitely be addressed, but that is a different article). However, addressing the feedback culture (or lack thereof) in your company is a huge “slow down to speed up” moment. It’s an accelerant to people doing their best work, and to energy flowing freely toward your mission and vision, instead of getting tied up in negative emotions and unclear expectations. Creating a culture where feedback can be frequently given and received comes down to gratitude, trust and communication.
Gratitude is the most important form of feedback. And, one that people with more power tend to express less. Unlike other forms of feedback, the costs are low. It’s not difficult to show appreciation - no one will feel bad when you express gratitude, it’s easy to communicate, and it is not stressful to give or receive.In addition to helping establish trust in your organization (see below), creating an organization-wide habit of gratitude is an overlooked motivational tool. It’s even more powerful than compensation for sustaining employee motivation, loyalty, and performance, believe it or not. This article has a great roundup of some of the studies that have been done to show the power of recognition, appreciation, and gratitude.
In a culture where feedback can be freely given and received, trust is critical. It starts long before any feedback is given. As a feedback giver, you’ll gain someone’s trust by demonstrating over and over that you are acting with the desire for this person to become the best version of themselves. In addition, it is important to reflect on the type of feedback you tend to give, and the motivation behind it. As a leader, you’re often operating under stress. And, you’re human. Ask yourself if you are truly giving feedback with good intentions toward someone, or simply because it is helping you regain a little bit of confidence or power on a bad day. There is no shame in either answer, but there is great benefit in reflecting before you speak.
As a recipient, it can still be hard to hear feedback even from someone you trust. What can help make it better is to say to yourself (as long as you actually believe it): This person is giving me feedback because they want to help me become the best version of myself. When you repeat this to yourself often enough, it becomes your mindset, and totally changes the way you receive feedback.
We’ve heard feedback referred to as feed-forward, and think this is an excellent way to frame it. It’s not about inducing guilt and shame over a mistake, but doing something better next time in order to ultimately create the highest performance a team is capable of delivering. In fact, simply framing feedback this way is an excellent gut check. If you are tempted to give feedback but find that it has no bearing on the future, it may be a good signal to withhold the feedback until you feel more clear.
It begins with clarity (for more on that topic, and its importance, see our blog post). Sometimes when we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, the result is that we are unclear. Sure, their feelings may not be hurt, but they also won’t have the information they need in order to learn and grow. As a feedback giver, be sure to let the person know exactly which circumstance you are giving feedback about, what action you observed them take, what the result was, and what your suggestion or requirement is for next time.
As a feedback recipient, it is important to seek clarity. If someone is trying to give you feedback and you are genuinely unsure of how to improve for the next time, ask questions to help you understand you know what they are asking you to do.If you find yourself too defensive to ask questions right away, ask the feedback giver for some time to sit with the feedback before you discuss it again. It would be ideal if all of us could accept feedback with immediate humility and grace, but we know that is not the case. And, our emotional state often has nothing to do with anyone’s behavior at work. So, ask for the time if you need it.
Now is the time to check in with yourself. What did you think while reading? Were you nodding your head, feeling conflicted, or facing a growing sense of overwhelm as you thought about how to turn the ship of your organization toward a healthier feedback culture? No matter what the result, you can always take action that will create results for your company. It begins with you. When you change the way you think about, deliver, and receive feedback, others will follow suit even without a formal initiative.
If you’re ready to take stronger action, we are always here to help. Contact us for a deeper conversation.