How to build a feedback culture

Last updated on 
March 18, 2019

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Open communication is key to good company culture, but it relies on one thing: honest feedback. Employees need to  feel comfortable enough to share ideas, voice opinions, and influence company decisions – and valued enough to want to contribute. But giving feedback isn’t always straightforward, and managerial encouragement alone won’t create an open workplace. For active and honest employee contribution, here’s how to build a feedback culture that actually sustains itself.

Why feedback culture matters

We all know that feedback is important. Without it, employees can’t develop or shape their working environment – and companies can’t correct mistakes or recognize where they need to improve. In order to be productive and feel content, people need to understand what effect they’re having on their organization, and how far they’re accomplishing their objectives.

Direct feedback is the best way to gain this knowledge – that’s why creating a feedback culture is essential to every workplace. But disappointingly, giving (and receiving) feedback has become something many people dread. If you’re giving feedback, you might worry about hurting people’s feelings or not communicating properly; if you’re receiving it, you may feel unappreciated, attacked or undervalued.

Build a feedback culture in 4 steps

In order to work and be useful, feedback needs to be a natural, safe and positive part of company culture. Here are four steps you can take to build your own feedback culture:

1. Start from the top

Leaders play an enormous part in positive feedback culture – in defending as well as creating it. So managers need to lead by example, setting the boundaries for what’s desirable feedback behavior and what’s not. If you want to encourage open communication, frank feedback and transparency, you need to be very careful not to do anything that might discourage it...

Imagine what would happen to your feedback culture if word got around that someone was criticized or punished for giving feedback. People would lose trust, and they’d start actively avoiding situations where they were asked to speak out. Try to think about the bigger picture at all times: make it clear that not only can you handle constructive feedback, you actively welcome it.

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2. Give feedback frequently and readily

Try to incorporate giving feedback into your daily routine. The more you normalize it, the less people will see it as something negative or suspicious. You don’t even need to wait until people ask you for feedback – volunteer it! As long as you’re communicating in a clear, measured way and your feedback is useful, criticism or advice is usually received well. If you’re not sure on the best approach, here’s a quick guide on how to give constructive feedback.

Make it clear that you’re always ready to be honest about employee performance; what people are doing well and where they can improve. Then encourage peer-to-peer feedback: this should not only normalize giving and receiving feedback, but help team members develop their communication skills, too. Who knows, you could discover an employee with a previously-hidden knack for leadership and tact! If you want to take it a step further, consider bringing in a facilitator to coach your team on how to get better at helping each other share ideas and make decisions.

Of course, you'll need to actually create opportunities for feedback (it won't magically take place without some guiding structure or dedicated space). There are a ton of ways of doing this, from staff forums and surveys, to one-to-one meetings, focus groups, team away days and workshops.

3. Ask for feedback yourself

Giving feedback is a two-way street, so make it plain that you want people to be honest about your performance: ask not only how you can improve, but what things you can do to help them succeed, too. Not only will this show how serious you are about your role, but it will also set the precedent for other team members and leaders.

Consider asking for feedback openly, in public. You want to remove the stigma feedback still has – of being taken off to private rooms and seriously anticipating being fired. There’s no shame in not being perfect (who is?!) or wanting to better yourself. One way to convey this is by asking for feedback while you’re in a group: this will make giving feedback seem open and normal.

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4. Be positive (and negative)

When you think of “good feedback”, chances are you might equate it to negative feedback; after all, we know that without honesty and constructive criticism, it’s nearly impossible to improve. But good feedback means positive feedback as well as negative. It’s about striking a balance.

Positive feedback should never be a shield, or a way of being able to deliver negative feedback. The old “compliment sandwich” way of giving feedback – bracketing your actual frank feedback with distracting compliments – is extremely ineffective (and also, totally transparent…). It gives the impression that praise is the only form of “good” feedback – that achievement is the only thing that matters. But critique can be a hugely positive form of feedback: it provides opportunity and is the means for actually solving problems. In this sense, no feedback is actually “bad” – only poorly communicated.

Obviously, it is important to recognize individual achievement – to feel included, people need to feel visible and valued. Reward the behavior you wish to see and give meaningful praise whenever it’s due: if someone has done well on a project, tell them where they did well and what you liked about it. If praising people doesn’t come easily for you, remember that positive feedback has been shown to encourage self-development... You’re not sucking up to people, you’re simply helping them grow.

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