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How to Create a Feedback Culture

July 17, 2018
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Giving feedback can feel like walking on eggshells. You're either afraid of offending peers or worried that you're padding your constructive criticism with too much positivity.

Because giving feedback can be awkward, it often feels easier to avoid doing it at all. But when you shrug off that responsibility, you fail your direct reports and potentially risk disengagement and turnover. That’s why creating a culture of direct, consistent communication is so important.

Why Feedback Matters

According to a LinkedIn survey, over 90% of employees say they would be stick around longer if they could develop at their companies. While giving feedback and feel uncomfortable, employees expect it. They can't improve without your constructive input.

In this situation, it’s also not likely that you’re receiving feedback. CEO of the Energy Project Tony Schwartz notes in a piece for HBR that before creating a feedback culture in his business, the company had a “conflict-averse culture, preferring to see ourselves as a happy family for as long as our business prospered.”

But that was an illusion: issues were simply shoved down and not talked about, and difficult periods for the business became all that more challenging to handle. The problem with not addressing problems through employee feedback in a timely fashion is that there's a lack of personal development: people never learn what they’re doing wrong, so they can’t improve or course correct. They also don’t know what they’re doing right — without positive reinforcement, employees can’t know where they’re succeeding, and how to bring that into other aspects of their job.

In fact, feedback is almost more important when things are going well than it is when they aren’t: when things are going generally well, feedback increases efficiency and creates more solid foundation for weathering rough periods at the company.

What is a feedback culture?

Schwartz describes a culture as, “the collection of beliefs on which people build their behavior.” So, a company culture centered around feedback is really just one in which open, honest feedback is continuously given and received throughout the business. Patty McCord, the creator of Netflix’s revered culture document, advises that the best way to make giving feedback go smoothly is to practice— something that’s just second nature in a feedback culture.

Giving (and getting) feedback the right way

Practicing feedback is great in theory, but if it’s something a person has struggled with in the past, it can be tough to figure out how to get more comfortable with it. After all, many people have a physiological response to getting feedback because we so associate it with being personally attacked. As Tim Herrera writes forThe New York Times: “The solution to this problem on both sides — whether you’re receiving the feedback or giving it — boils down to trusting that everyone is participating in good faith.”

A manager should deliver negative feedback regarding an employee's performance honestly and openly, and truly make it about helping the other person improve, while understanding that both parties feel vulnerable in the conversation. Giving feedback is important, but so is being open to others giving you feedback, too. After all, it isn’t really a culture if certain participants aren’t open to receive feedback— and no one is perfect, so feedback ultimately will also help you do your job better. Jim Whitehurst of Red Hat, which makes open source technologies, says, “We all need to be able to process constructive criticism without taking it personally.” That means that from the top of the organization down: leaders have to take part in receiving feedback; additionally, listening to feedback and demonstrating that you intend to follow up on it makes the employee who gave it feel heard and leads to greater engagement on their part.

Another way to establish trust when building a feedback culture is encouraging the habit of giving positive feedback often: spending more time showing appreciation through public praise and highlighting the good work an employee or team member does. This will prevent your employees from conflating receiving feedback with only getting constructive feedback -- and they will see that the more constructive feedback is coming from a place of care.

Public praise can happen anywhere from an all-hands meeting to a department or team meeting — but it can be tricky to integrate that company-wide as you grow. Invest in a performance management system like Lattice, which will not only post all the praise in one place for the whole company to see, but can be integrated into company tools like Slack:

On that note, it’s also to remember that your choice of tools when creating a feedback culture can make a huge difference. Lattice provides notifications and reminders around providing and receiving timely feedback, as well as updating goals, preparing for 1:1s, publishing status updates, and preparing for performance reviews. Public goals are particularly helpful for providing feedback based on how and when employees accomplish those goals. 

Feedback examples

Giving feedback means communicating about the positive behaviors you’re seeing, as well as the ones that need to be adjusted. Positive feedback can be a way of saying, “keep doing what you’re doing.” First Round Review also advocates reminding employees of their talents, and that you believe in them. Some examples of this feedback include:

  1. “I think you did a great job when you did [x]. It showed that you had [y].”
  2. “I can see you’re having a positive impact on [x].”
  3. “I really appreciate your [y] and the work you’re contributing to [x].”

Giving feedback to adjust a behavior, on the other hand, is more about correcting a negative behavior by transferring it to the correct one. Some examples include:

  1. “I’d like to give you some feedback, is now a good time?”
  2. “Can we talk about... What do you think worked, and what didn’t?”

Additionally, as a manager you have to check in and invite employees to give you feedback. You have to be truly open to that feedback, find a method that makes it easy for them to give you that feedback, and remind them that you value their perspective. Here are some examples for how to open that door:

  1. "Being a good manager is important to me, and I could use your help improving. What are your thoughts on how I could better support you?”
  2. “I feel as though I’m not motivating you as well as I could. Would you prefer I… or…?”
  3. “I’m always looking for ways to be a better manager. Know that I’m always happy to hear what is and isn’t working for you.”

(Looking for more  -- and more specific -- scripts? Check out our pieces on praise and constructive feedback and our series with Gusto on feedback scripts and tips specific to person.)

Creating a culture of feedback takes work, but the rewards are immense: you’ll be able be open and honest with your team to help them improve. They’ll feel welcome to give you that same honesty so you can be the best possible manager.