A personal point of pride for me is the conviction that I’m a straightforward person. I’ve consciously made an effort to give feedback as soon as I notice something, as directly as I can and I try extremely hard to avoid giving my team members the impression that there is any topic, no matter how critical or awkward or difficult to discuss, that I would not want to talk about. This isn’t to say that I always manage or that I do it exceptionally well but rather that it’s a personal commitment and something I aspire towards under all circumstances.
There was a moment where, despite this commitment of mine, I noticed the exact opposite happening. Our management group did quarterly brainstorming together, where we’d come up with the topics that would form our goals for the quarter. This was always a fun experience because it was an avenue to bring up the things that we thought were essential for the department. One of these suggestions was especially important to me: I saw it as a way to dramatically increase the impact the department could have on the company by increasing our contribution and visibility. It did make it into our goals, with the caveat that only the head of the department would work on it. The reasoning behind this was never explained. Over the next few weeks, all discussions about this goal ended with “we’re discussing it” with no further information given. I raised the project multiple times with my head and tried to explain my perspective on it, essentially that the specific project fit within my team’s purview and that we should take it on and push forward with it. This discussion never went anywhere. Eventually, the announcement came: “We’re no longer working on it.” Under normal circumstances, I would have (and should have) questioned the direction, tried to gets answers as to how exactly it was being worked on and why, and worked to understand the reason that it was sidelined. In this situation, I found myself sitting on a giant well of frustration and resentment. I bit my tongue and didn’t speak up.
Everyone has that moment sometimes where the idea of speaking up feels like an insurmountable step, as though you’re the only person sticking your neck out. I spent a long time after this situation trying to figure out how I got there. What was it about the previous meetings with my boss that left me with that feeling? Why did I decide to not speak up, despite having consciously worked on it for my entire career? What made me feel so hesitant and anxious and convinced that it would be a waste of time and energy? The thing about environments that don’t encourage feedback is that it’s hard to pin down the specifics. It takes a long time to even notice that it’s happened (my boss had no idea how I felt about that situation at the time). If you happen to notice, then it’s hard to recognise the specific behaviours that led to it. If you’re lucky enough to see those, it’s almost impossible to figure out exactly how to change them.
The Challenges With Giving Feedback
Giving honest and direct feedback goes against our nature in many ways. Culturally, we learn sayings like “if you’ve nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” We learn that it’s okay to tell white lies in order to avoid hurting people’s feelings. We almost never exchange any kind of feedback in private life. Think about the last time your roommate or your spouse did something you didn’t like. Did you think about how you’d approach it and make sure you didn’t tell them about it in an accusatory manner or did you just pick a fight? Even if you think you weren’t picking a fight, did they think you were? Feedback is just not something that we learn to do well. Some cultures like Japan actively discourage positive feedback. So when you get to the workplace and you try to do it, you’re fighting an uphill battle, often against your own, deeply ingrained instincts.
The thing about giving feedback is that it opens you up for scrutiny. You bring attention to yourself. You stand out from the crowd. That takes a certain amount of confidence and self-belief, which is hard to accumulate. None of us wants to sound like idiots. Add to that the fear of coming across as arrogant or mean. We don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings either. Telling someone that they’ve done something annoying or that they’re wrong somehow or that their performance isn’t up to scratch and creating more work for everyone around them can feel cruel and harsh. It’s incredibly difficult to give good feedback and we’ve all been on the receiving end of some feedback that we thought was unfair or unconstructive.
Then add the extra complications caused by a hierarchical structure and you have the perfect recipe for a zero feedback culture. Giving your boss feedback is even more difficult. No one wants their boss to think badly of them. Everybody understands that your boss has to be the first person to recognise your positive performance because they’ll be the ones making the decisions that could potentially impact your career. Giving your boss critical feedback is like asking for them to hate you. The moment you get into a managerial position, the cards are stacked against you. Having a culture of open feedback exchange has to be something you put active effort into.
The Importance of Feedback
Why is feedback so important? Feedback is the cornerstone of any development for you, personally, for your company, for your employees, and for every single person you’ve ever come across. To grow in any way, you need to accept that there is room for you to improve and then you need to figure out exactly where that room lies and what you can do about it. If no one is giving you real, honest feedback, you can only rely on your own perceptions and you’re always going to have glaring blind spots that are obvious to everyone around you but not to you.
Imagine an environment where everyone felt able to speak their mind. This is the kind of environment that predicates any kind of open, relaxed working atmosphere that encourages innovative ideas and real engagement. You want the people in your company to feel like they can suggest anything, anytime, anywhere; that they can openly criticise and explain when they disagree with something; that they can ask questions that are uncomfortable and awkward. Not having to walk on eggshells in the workplace is essential if you want motivated employees. Motivation will pay off in retention and in overall performance. The quality of their work will improve because, in Eric S. Raymond’s words, “given enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow.” Synergy and innovation are just not something you can achieve in a tense, anxiety-inducing environment where people sit on negative emotions instead of addressing them.
One of the best wins of an open feedback culture is that the role of the manager becomes a little less important. They need to intervene less because people get just that bit more comfortable exchanging feedback with each other directly. Everyone will naturally help the others around them grow without the feeling that they need to “snitch” on someone. This kind of team is the most difficult one to build but it’s by far the most fun one to work with.
Transforming Your Feedback Culture
As the manager, there’s a lot you can do to transform the feedback culture within your own sphere. It might not work on the company level. It might not even work on the department level. Start with your team. Focus on the people you work with every day, and then see how it goes from there. When it comes to feedback, the manager’s role is extremely important. People will take their cues from you and follow your lead, so you have to be the role model. You need to encourage it and you need to set the standard for it that you expect from everyone around you. Let’s break it down. There are two aspects that you’ll need to think about in order to change the culture you have around feedback: how you receive feedback and how you give feedback.
Start by creating opportunities for the people around you to give you feedback. This can look like the following:
- Whenever you discuss a company policy for the first time, ask your team what they think about it.
- Whenever you make a decision, ask your team if they think it makes sense or if your rationale is understandable.
- Whenever you present information, ask your team for their gut responses. Was anything about the information surprising to them or did they expect it?
Try to invite feedback in every situation where it makes sense. If you’re unsure about what anyone thinks about something, anything, go out of your way to ask them. Give them prompts to help them out. If you’re asking for feedback on a presentation, say something like “I’m worried that it’s a little too brief and won’t be easy for the others to follow” or “I’m not sure this is actionable enough.” Show vulnerability, be openly self-critical and articulate your own insecurities. This will eventually, over time, give people the impression that you are actually open to feedback, that it’s important to you and that you’ll act on it. Be careful not to overdo it. You don’t want to sound like you have no confidence in your skills. That will make your team lose faith in your leadership. You just want to make it clear that what they think truly matters to you. It becomes much easier for your team members to either criticise you or openly disagree with you when you take the first step and critique your work first. You being the role model will normalise it in your environment.
Pay very close attention to how you respond to feedback. If I had to pick one thing that will make or break your feedback culture, it’s how the manager responds to critical feedback. Keep an incredibly close eye on your own behaviour, on your own body language, on the first things you say in response. Don’t ever immediately respond by questioning or dismissing the feedback. If you can hear yourself think “but that’s completely not true,” do not say it. Don’t even let it show on your face. This makes you sound defensive. It isn’t about their perspective being right or wrong. You’re completely within your rights to disagree and to explain why you disagree. At the beginning though, you want to build enough trust for them to feel secure in telling you what they think. It’s essential that you make them feel heard and understood. Body language like crossing your arms and moving your torso away from them is a signal that you’re not happy. Frowning and shaking your head is a way to say “you’re wrong.” This is not what your first response should be.
Your first response should be focused on understanding. Try to understand where they’re coming from. Maybe rephrase what they said in your own words, as you understood it, and ask them if that’s what they mean. Ask questions that are exclusively around getting clarity, until you know exactly what they mean. This is how you show that you’re listening. Once you’ve understood it and had enough time to process the feedback, you can think about responding. Tell them the part that you think is fair feedback which you will act on and try to change. Tell them if you aren’t sure you’ll be able to change it because it’s out of your hands. Tell them if you won’t be changing it because you feel like the way you handled it was the right way for whatever reason. Under all circumstances, be specific and explain your reasoning. Explaining why is absolutely essential. Make sure to stress that you’ll continue to evaluate the situation and that you’re open to changing your mind should it evolve or make sense at a later stage.
You can only encourage feedback by showing that you’re open to admitting that you’re wrong. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have your own convictions or beliefs. You just need to communicate them well.
The other way in which you can be a great role model is by giving good feedback.
Again, assume that your team will take their cues from you, so start by thinking about the setting you choose to give feedback in. It’s good to praise publicly because this is a way to recognise and celebrate achievements. If you want to see more of any kind of behaviour, public praise is an easy way to encourage it. It’s also important to address important questions publicly. If you already know that everyone in your team is wondering about something, don’t avoid it or talk around the issue. Just address it openly. Even if it’s hard. Even if you put your foot in your mouth. Talking about difficult topics is something you’ll only get better at with time and experience. Avoiding them is how you lose the respect of the people you lead. So if you’re sitting in a meeting and you notice someone rolling their eyes or scoffing internally, call them out on it. Ask them to speak up and say what they think.
If you need to give someone negative feedback, doing it one-on-one will be the better option in the vast majority of cases. Calling people out in public if they made a mistake just makes it feel uncomfortable for everyone. The others sitting there will think “what if this was me” and it’s very easy for the person to feel embarrassed. This isn’t an environment that’s conducive for taking feedback on board or trying to change your behaviour. It just makes people angry. Some general rules of thumb when it comes to giving feedback:
- Do it as close to the event as possible. It’s much more awkward to follow up on something a week later than to just address it immediately.
- Focus on finding the right balance between being blunt and being straightforward. Don’t focus so much on not hurting the person’s feelings that you don’t actually end up saying what the problem was. You have to be direct and articulate it properly. Don’t say “your performance is subpar” (too blunt) or “your performance was okay” (too wishy-washy) but rather “a great performance at this task which you worked on would’ve included more comprehensive research, been on time, took more perspectives into consideration” and so on.
- Be prepared. When you walk into a feedback session, you should know exactly what you want to say, what kind of change you expect to see from your team member, and why this is important enough to you that it’s worth addressing.
- Be as specific as you possibly can. Don’t say “your demotivation is bringing down the others in the team” but rather say “by saying “nothing will ever change anyway, so there’s no point,” you gave the impression of a fatalistic and demotivated attitude, which feeds to an environment in which none of us can be bothered.” You want to focus on the specific behaviour that you observed. Don’t ever give feedback that you can’t back up with at least one example, ideally a couple.
- Be very careful not to assign meaning to an action. Give people the benefit of the doubt. The vast majority of people you work with will not do things out of malicious intent. Don’t automatically assume the worst because of something they said or did. Assume that they made a mistake and they didn’t realise how it might have come across.
- Keep a tight rein on your emotions. If you feel angry, resentful or frustrated, it’s not the right time for you to give feedback. Give yourself some time to calm down. Figure out exactly what’s making you angry. You can tell the person that what happened made you angry but the moment emotions run high in a conversation like this, you should stop the conversation. For it to be constructive, you need an environment in which both parties feel able to say what they feel is true. That’s never going to happen if you’re visibly angry.
- Be generous with your praise! Appreciate everyone’s work openly. If you think someone did an especially good job at something, tell them. If it’s been a hard week and you’re proud of your team for working through it, say it. It’s important that your relationship with your team isn’t one-sided. Take the time to notice the hard work and the achievements of the people around you and reward them for it in whatever way you can. There’s something to be said for not praising so often that no one notices or takes it seriously, but you don’t want to do it so rarely that your team members think you don’t even notice. Find the right balance for yourself.
One way to measure this is to run a small survey asking your team members about the feedback culture that they feel currently exists in your team. After about six months of concerted effort doing the above, run the survey again to see if and how things have changed.
To give you some guidance, we’re working on creating the following resources for you. If any of them sound appealing, feel free to let us know and we’ll prioritise it.
- An email course of short prompts to help you put some of these into action.
- A survey that you can use to assess the current status of the feedback culture in your team
- A cheat sheet guide for how to give good feedback, that guides you through structuring your feedback and includes example phrases for better communication.
Let us know what your experiences have been like when it comes to feedback. Have you seen the impact when the feedback culture changes or is transformed? What are some of your challenges?