Feedback Cultures

Let’s be really blunt. Inside your organisation, the approach to feedback sucks. Royally. How’s that for feedback?*

*Apologies to the outstanding few. No need to get offended that I’ve lumped you in with the norm. You’re gonna love where this article goes; read on.  

Generally, if we were to walk into most organisations and ask the entire workforce to rate how good feedback is, the numbers would be shockingly low. A plethora of engagement surveys in the past decade (or more precisely, lack-of-engagement studies) point to the current workplace needing to shift its workplace dynamics in a different direction than it’s currently tracking. And at the heart of any shift? Get your approach to feedback right. 

Often it looks like this: the HR/People and Culture department will develop and implement a suite of processes and policies to drive feedback, often in a top-down method. Typically this results in the organisation achieving transactional results—hardly inspiring—but rarely do we see results that are transformational through this well-worn approach.  

Where we’ve got it wrong 

Take a cursory look at most accepted leadership programs and you’ll see sections focussing on feedback. There’s no doubt it’s important. We know that when feedback works, results are easier to achieve and are often better too  But feedback isn’t a tool.  

Let me say that again for emphasis: feedback is NOT a tool. Actually, I’m going to immediately contradict myself. Feedback actually is a tool.  

For the average and underperforming, it is.  

Bolt it on. Put it in your toolkit. Whip it out when you need it. Use it when you have to.  Fill in the form and tick the boxes. 

Do you see the problem yet? Nope? Well let’s take the opportunity to breathe some rarefied air. Let’s look at the outliers. The ones who really ‘get’ this whole feedback thing. 

Where outstanding workplaces get it right 

It does exist. It’s not a mythical thing made of pixie dust and unicorn tears. There are actually organisations (and teams within organisations) that have cracking feedback happening. I mean, really impressive feedback conversations that drive their innovation, creativity and accountability. 

So, how do they do it? What is their super-duper, dang-fangled feedback process, you might be asking. Or perhaps an impatient few of you are banging your fist on the table…’dammit! Tell me their secret!’  

Well, lean in close…the secret to their outstanding feedback is this: 

Feedback is not a process, a tool or a policy. Feedback is actually a culture. 

Elite teams have an altogether different philosophy or world view of feedback that differs markedly to the approach that the middle players take.  

Feedback isn’t a thing we have to do; it’s a thing we want to do. 

Feedback isn’t a process we have to follow; it’s the thing that processes follow on from. 

Feedback isn’t a tool we use to evaluate results; it’s a culture we belong to that results then arise from. 

Building a feedback culture 

Culture. The most discussed, least understood topic on the planet. We could fill libraries with the study conducted on human culture. But strip it back and let’s get you started; give you something to work on today. Sound good? 

Okey doke. Pens at the ready! We’ve got three things to focus on. 

1. Attach yourself to an identity 

Culture can be a by-product or it can be an intention. Make no mistake—culture arrives whether you invited it or not. The big question is, do you like what shows up? 

The best cultures are intentional. And to live out your intentions, you must have a vision or direction of where you’re heading.  

Your feedback is no different. How do you want to be known for your feedback culture? How might people perceive you and talk about your team and organisation when it comes to feedback? 

2. Establish your non-negotiables 

One approach to culture is to identify the desirable behaviours we’d like to represent our culture. Then we constantly reinforce those behaviours when they show up to have them happen more regularly, eventually building good habits. 

But there’s a quicker way. Decide on the things that your culture won’t cop. It could be as simple as not turning up late for meetings or turning phones off in strategy sessions. Be brutally honest about them; be ruthlessly protective of them.  

Establishing non-negotiables within a feedback culture gives the parameters we can work within. They shouldn’t be restrictive; done well, they should be simultaneously liberating and comforting.    

3. Clarify language 

The vagaries of language are many, yet it’s still our dominant overt channel to communicate (non-verbal communication is a whole other beast). So it makes perfect sense for us to know when, where and how well we’re being understood. 

In a rather gross delineation, our language can be split into two key areas: a) traits and b) behaviours. 

Traits are the summary words and phrases that encapsulate a set of behaviours.  

Behaviours are observable actions—the things we see. For example being dedicated is a trait. It’s a summary of a whole set of behaviours. Possibly hundreds. 

Whereas staying back late on Wednesday for two hours, or turning up to your mid-year performance review with a detailed learning development plan for the second-half of the year are both behaviours that might sit within the trait of dedication. They’re much more specific and observable.  

Generally speaking, the less conflict and more trust we have, we can speak in terms of traits more freely. Conversely, if there’s less trust and more conflict, we should shift our language to being predominantly behaviour-based. It’s clearer, less ambiguous and gives people a chance to win. 

The sooner your team and organisation understand these critical language distinctions, the better they’ll communicate throughout the feedback process. 

So that’s the three foundational elements required to build a phenomenal feedback culture that can live and breathe. Focus on feedback—it’s more than a helpful tool for your team or organisation, it’s the heartbeat for its success.