Everyone knows those situations where something happens at work that you disagree with.
The default reaction is to bite your tongue and not say anything.
The thing about environments that don’t encourage feedback is that it’s hard to pin down the specific cause.
It takes a long time to even notice that it’s happened. If you do happen to notice, then it’s hard to recognise the specific behaviours that led to it. And if you’re lucky enough to see those, it’s almost impossible to figure out exactly how to change them.
Avoiding a culture of 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.
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.
Giving feedback is hard:
- 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.
- It could damage your relationships. We don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings either. Telling someone that they’ve done something annoying or that their performance isn’t up to scratch and creating more work for everyone around them can feel cruel and harsh.
- Formulating constructive feedback is hard. We’ve all been on the receiving end of some feedback that we thought was unfair or unconstructive.
Giving your boss feedback is even more difficult. 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.
Creating a culture of open feedback exchange has to be something you put active effort into.
The benefits of healthy feedback
Feedback is the cornerstone of any development for you, for your company, and for your employees.
If no one is giving you real, honest feedback, you can only rely on your own perceptions. 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. You want the people in your company to feel like they can:
- Suggest anything, anytime, anywhere
- Openly criticise and explain when they disagree with something
- Ask questions that are uncomfortable and awkward.
Not having to walk on eggshells in the workplace is essential if you want motivated employees.
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.
How to be open to feedback
As the manager, there’s a lot you can do to transform the feedback culture within your own sphere.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- Remember that feedback has nothing to do with whether someone is 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.
- Make them feel heard. Body language like crossing your arms and moving your torso away from them is a signal that you’re not happy. You should reiterate what they said and see if you understand it. Ask questions that are exclusively around getting clarity, until you know exactly what they mean.
Once you’ve understood it and had enough time to process the feedback, you can think about responding.
Good responses might be:
- Choosing one part of the feedback which you will act on and try to change.
- Admitting if you can’t change something because it’s out of your hands.
- Taking their feedback on board but explaining the background behind your decision the first time round.
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.
- Praise publicly. 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.
- Address critical questions publicly. Don’t avoid or talk around critical issues. 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.
- Give negative feedback privately. 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.
Tips for fostering continuous 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.”
- 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 specific. Don’t say “your demotivation is bringing down the others in the team.” Instead 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. For it to be constructive, you need an environment in which both parties feel able to say what they feel is true.
- Be generous with your praise. 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.