Feedback cultures: 7 mistakes employers make

Published 25th July 2018 by Charlotte Smith

The world is changing fast, which means organisations must adapt quickly. Giving and receiving feedback, and making changes based on feedback, is a proven way to adapt. This is why organisations are implementing feedback cultures – to leverage feedback across all levels of the organisation. But getting this right isn’t always easy and those that try often make common mistakes. Here are seven of them.

 

Not allowing feedback to traverse hierarchical lines

 

In strong feedback cultures, feedback is given up and down hierarchical layers [PDF]. Yet organisations often use language – “we’re open to your views” – that suggests feedback is a one-way street from employees to management, particularly if they are trying to build a feedback culture in order to drive employee voice.

 

Leaders must give give and seek feedback with each other as well as give and seek feedback with employees if they want feedback to cross hierarchical lines. This should be done in public and should include positive feedback (see below) as well as constructive feedback.

 

Failing to embed the idea that feedback should be positive too

 

Human beings unfortunately equate feedback with negative feedback. This means they don’t instinctively realise that feedback can – and should – be positive too.

 

Feedback is, at its heart, information on cause-and-effect. Someone has done something, or not done something, and the effect of that is somewhere between entirely positive and entirely negative.

 

In strong feedback cultures, positive feedback reinforces desired behaviours and results and keeps performance aligned with organisational goals. It also turns feedback as a whole into a more balanced experience.

 

As Ed Batista notes in Harvard Business Review, high-quality relationships tend to have a ratio of five positive interactions to one negative (even in the middle of conflict), making positive feedback an important ingredient in strong relationships at work.

 

Focusing exclusively on hard skills when encouraging feedback

 

It’s much easier to give feedback on hard skills than soft skills because hard skills – such as proficiency with software – are seen as less entwined with a person’s personality, making them easier to ‘criticise.’

 

Yet there’s evidence strong feedback cultures include a balance between hard and soft skills [PDF]. This is unsurprising, because soft skills are intrinsically linked to organisational culture and for feedback to turn the dial on performance, it must positively shift organisational culture over time.

 

Failing to instil a culture of feedback-seeking behaviour

 

In healthy feedback cultures, there is a strong element of feedback-seeking behaviour [PDF]. Organisations must actively encourage this because most people never think to request feedback, mostly because they assume the feedback given will be exclusively negative.

 

Role-modelling helps employees ask for feedback. Organisations should recruit internal champions to seek out feedback among different employees and at different hierarchical levels to encourage others. As part of this role-modelling process, champions should also be encouraged to give positive feedback.

 

Not providing training on giving and receiving feedback

 

Interactions in which feedback is given often go wrong. This is for several reasons. The giver may fail to ‘de-personalise’ the feedback and therefore activate the receiver’s fight-or-flight response. The receiver may become defensive due to negative experiences of receiving feedback in the past.

 

Ultimately, giving and receiving feedback isn’t always easy, and organisations looking to create a feedback culture should give training on how to ask for feedback, how to frame feedback constructively, how to receive feedback, critique it, seek further input and act on it.

 

The same syllabus should be given to everyone so that there are organisationally-agreed methods for dealing with feedback: this helps set expectations across the board and reduces the chance of communication issues getting in the way of feedback being used in constructive and performance-enhancing ways.

 

Maintaining boundaries between feedback and business-as-usual

 

Because giving feedback is culturally seen as something sensitive and personal, it feels natural to want to do it in secret. Obviously there is some feedback that must be delivered on a one-to-one basis, but it’s certainly not universally true. Until people feel free to ask for and deliver feedback in public, as part of their day-to-day role, it’s very hard to say that you have a feedback culture.

 

One way to help encourage this is to hold debriefs after projects end in order to analyse what went well and what went wrong. By pinning feedback on the project as a whole, rather than isolating individuals, you help to bring the idea of critiquing performance into the open. Ask everyone’s opinion and get people talking openly; it can be difficult at first but it’s a good way of getting staff to open up over time.

 

Failing to create objective standards/values to hang feedback on

 

Having objective standards or values allows the feedback giver to invoke a non-personal, organisationally-sanctioned reason for their constructive feedback. Otherwise, it could just be down to personal style or beliefs. This is especially true for soft skills as everyone has very different ideas on how we should behave.

 

It’s important that when creating standards and values, organisations are granular. Many organisations will say one of their values is ‘treating people with respect,’ but what does this actually mean? Unless you are clear on exactly what this means, it’s hard to compare people’s behaviour to these standards and therefore provide objective feedback.

 

Interested in how you can better deliver positive feedback to employees in your team? Take a look at our article detailing a useful framework for giving praise in the workplace.