It Takes An ‘Awakening’ Before a Feedback Culture Can Flourish

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Aug 1, 2017

Implementing a culture of feedback from scratch at a company is no simple task, especially if it hasn’t historically been a part of the company’s values. Too many times, managers and HR teams view feedback as a way to critique associates’ performance, and to highlight where they need improvement – which is exactly the wrong way to approach it.

No matter how well-intentioned your feedback, without first earning the privilege to use that level of candor with a teammate, your input won’t be received positively. The way you earn that privilege is by building an environment where all teammates own that they are responsible for each other’s success. With that knowledge as the foundation for feedback, all teammates know that critiques are offered out of care for their personal and professional success.

This point was driven home when my foster son, Daniel, first came to me at 12 years old. By that point, he had been in over 30 foster homes, which left him distrustful and closed-off to any parental guidance. I wanted so much to bond with him, to let him know he could trust me, but whenever I tried speaking with him I was met with significant anger and resistance. Then one day, I left work feeling disappointed with myself for not knowing how to fix a mistake I’d made. I came home and Daniel was playing video games. Without thinking about it, I said, “You know what, I really screwed up today.” He stopped playing video games, looked at me and said, “I screw up sometimes, too.”

It may seem small, but for us it was a huge breakthrough. It took me being vulnerable and letting my own guard down for him to see me as human and trust me enough to open up. It changed our relationship, because it created the chance for us to build psychological safety in a way he hadn’t felt before.

Trust and psychological safety reposition feedback in a constructive light. Without it, the receiver will only hear criticism. Before rushing to put a feedback system in place, though, three “awakenings” need to happen within your teams.

Three ‘Awakenings’

I call them “awakenings” because they’re truly that transformative — both for the individual and the organization. They ensure a supportive environment where the receiver feels safe and understands the purpose of the specific feedback. Once these awakenings occur, HR executives and managers can take practical steps to spread this culture throughout an organization.

Awakening #1: Giving feedback is not a right

There is no title in the world that automatically gives you permission to give unsolicited feedback; it’s a privilege you have to earn. A title doesn’t automatically mean you have a relationship with someone, but you do need a relationship to give and receive feedback effectively. Without it, your direct reports may sit and listen, but they are unlikely to process it, let alone take action. So what do you do to make sure the feedback resonates?

HR teams and managers can help by building a sense of psychological safety that empowers everyone to give (and receive) feedback respectfully and effectively. Teach managers to take the time to think about and explain how their feedback is in service of the recipient’s success. Giving feedback that lands successfully, whether it’s personal or professional, puts your employees on the most direct track to reach their goals and enables your organization to be more productive and efficient.

Awakening #2: Feedback is different from performance reviews

When feedback is handled well, performance reviews are confirmations of the progress made on commitments set throughout the year, and they highlight where more work is needed. By the time a performance review comes around, nothing said should be news to your employees, but rather a validation of the feedback received over the performance period.

Awakening #3: Feedback is a gift — but it’s up to the receiver whether or not to accept it.

Recipients of feedback do not have to agree with or take action on anything they hear. Feedback is just information for them to consider. The recipient gets to choose which piece of feedback actually serves them and their priorities. If the feedback is given with the receiver truly in mind, addressing how they can achieve personal success rather than where they are not meeting expectations, the receiver is more likely to take action.

It’s only by the actions of individuals that a virtual cycle of feedback will become an integral part of your company’s culture.

This article originally appeared on ReWork, a publication exploring the future of work.