What If We Don’t Really Want a Culture of Feedback?

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Feb 25, 2021

The phrase “a culture of feedback” gets thrown around often. It seems every company strives for such a workplace, but when many organizations survey their people, they often discover that employees feel like they do not get enough feedback to be successful. Often, it’s because the feedback is not specific enough, or it’s buried in the sandwich method, or is not shared in a timely manner, or it can come from the wrong person, or it…well you get the point. Feedback is messy.  

Leaders and Employees Don’t Feel the Same About Feedback

None of the above is surprising, but here’s what is: While employee appetite for feedback remains high, executive sentiment toward instilling a culture of feedback in the past few years has slipped. A Reflektive survey of HR and business leaders reveals that instilling a feedback culture moved from second to sixth place in importance when it comes to measuring the health of an organization’s performance management process over the past two years.   

The survey also found another disconnect between HR and business leaders with employees: 25% of employees do not know how to request feedback, while 85% of HR and business leaders believe that their people are clear on feedback-request processes. 

What triggered executives’ reduction in focus on feedback over time? And why the disconnect between leaders and their people? 

Was Feedback a Flashy Trend?

Even though we still talk about creating a culture of feedback, it may be just that — talk. The survey findings suggest — possibly, anyway — that the focus on feedback is a flashy trend that has since passed. Of course, many workplace trends come and go, but the problem particularly with this one is that it hasn’t truly fulfilled its purpose of creating an open, safe culture where employees learn how to grow. 

Never mind that improving feedback should be an evergreen endeavor. Without it, it’s hard to imagine workers improving and developing and, ultimately, businesses succeeding.

If this past year has taught us anything, it’s not to take anything at face value. To give and receive truly candid feedback, people must feel a sense of psychological safety, trust, and transparency. None can be taken for granted, and organizations have to commit and regularly work together to ensure all of this to lay the groundwork for feedback.

A True Culture of Feedback

What needs to change is how organizations are approaching feedback. It’s no longer enough to say we want to instill a culture of feedback and then merely adjust the frequency of reviews or change the performance rating system. The key to a feedback culture is first to build a culture of trust, created by ongoing transparency and follow-through by leadership. This foundation of trust needs to be in place so employees and managers will feel safe having honest conversations during which true feedback is exchanged, listened to, and acted upon. 

But this is easier said than done, which is why so many companies pay lip service to the endeavor and fail to change behaviors. 

One way to begin is for HR to actually coach employees on how to ask for, receive, and take action based on feedback. At the same time, coach your managers on how to deliver feedback so that people view it as constructive, rather than making the employee feel defensive and/or angry. For instance, consider setting up separate Zoom calls — one for employees and one for managers — that allow participants to ask questions and voice concerns.

Once an organization has established a transparent environment with proven follow-through on commitments, it can then work towards a culture of feedback. It is important to note that it is not enough for leaders to assess whether they have created this environment. They must also ask employees to evaluate if this culture of trust has actually been created. 

This is where surveying people comes in. In today’s workplace, which may include a remote and in-person workforce, regular employee surveys are the best tool HR has to gauge worker sentiment. In particular, it’s good practice to include comment boxes for each question to allow workers to give context, suggestions, and meaningful feedback. This not only benefits HR teams enormously but also helps make employees feel heard, valued, and included. Comments are where you’ll find qualitative insights that can help move your culture forward. 

Meanwhile, leadership plays a pivotal role by exemplifying the behaviors and promoting a feedback-rich culture. Teams take cues from leadership to what’s acceptable, and if they aren’t seeing their leaders give and receive feedback, they too won’t be compelled to try. Patience is important here. Employees and managers won’t get feedback right every time, but we owe it to ourselves to continue together on this critical journey. We’ll make mistakes, but those mistakes are essential learning opportunities. 

Building and strengthening the muscle of trust, transparency, and feedback is an essential focus for organizations. Let’s all commit to making a culture of feedback one of our top three ways to measure the health of our performance programs. If our people are our most important asset — and they are — then we owe them this.

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