- A feedback culture creates a high-performing, engaged environment that retains the right people.
- Effective feedback is four parts positive to one part negative.
- Implementing a feedback culture involves executive engagement, training, support and role models.
By Chris Sheedy.
A coach joins a sports team to improve performance and boost results. A mentor’s purpose within a business is exactly the same. So imagine what can be achieved when every player in a team is taught to take on a coaching role, or when every person in a workplace is permitted to offer feedback.
Imagine working every day in an environment in which people are not only openly commended for the great work they’re doing, but also see their achievements broadcast on to others in order to duplicate their success. The same environment would allow colleagues to safely offer well-intentioned advice when an individual was struggling or showing signs that they could improve in certain areas. Imagine being surrounded by mentors and positive role models every day.
Such an environment is engaging and high performing, says Georgia Murch, a leading expert in creating feedback cultures and author of Feedback Flow: The Ultimate Illustrated Guide to Embed Change in 90 Days.
“A feedback culture is an important goal, particularly for organisations or leaders that aspire to developing a great place to work,” says Murch, an accountant by trade before specialising in workplace performance. “What is a feedback culture? Well, a culture develops when a group of people choose to behave in a particular way. It’s a number of individuals making a choice about how they will treat each other and relate to each other. A feedback culture is one in which people have agreed that feedback is important.”
Feedback in such an environment is not one-way, says Murch. It is not about managers telling staff how to be better at their jobs. Feedback is, in fact, everywhere throughout the organisation - and even outside of its walls. It runs in every direction, from managers to staff, from staff to executives and from the organisation to its suppliers, partners and customers. It is about possessing the intention and the skills to ensure there is always open, honest and positive communication between everybody connected to the business.
Related: Available from the CA ANZ Library: HBR guide to delivering effective feedback
Offers practical advice and tips to deliver effective performance discussions, from weekly check-ins to annual reviews. Advises how to establish trust, assess an employee's performance fairly and emphasize improvement.
“Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking feedback is only about the workplace,” Murch says. “But it is so much bigger than that, and it has a ripple effect. When you become good at having tough conversations, or at giving positive and negative feedback on a regular basis, the impact is everywhere. You can take it home and see it improve the way you connect with your partner, or how you treat your family and friends. It’s bigger than the organisation. It’s about customers, suppliers and all of your stakeholders.”
Making feedback enjoyable
Annual performance reviews have a lot to answer for. When badly executed, the process can leave managers and staff scarred. At its best, an annual performance review can be a motivational, inspirational meeting. At its worst it is the opposite, a morale-sapping, anxiety inducing hour of misery – and that’s just for the manager! So when feedback can sometimes be seen as a negative, how does an organisation ensure that their well-intentioned feedback culture doesn’t turn toxic?
Rhonda Brighton-Hall, CEO of mwah (“making work absolutely human”), says a feedback culture is not just about the “tough stuff,” but is instead about using feedback as support.
“It’s a constant 360-degree discussion about how people and processes are going. It’s a culture where people are giving each other feedback, positive or negative, to help them do better work,” says Brighton-Hall, who also chairs job search firm FlexCareers and the National Inclusion and Diversity Reference Panel at the Australian Human Resources Institute.
“When people are doing it well it is a very good thing because it means you’re constantly getting in-the-moment communication around how things are going. It means you’re being noticed and appreciated and that adds purpose to people’s work. Purpose comes when other people around you appreciate what you’re doing.”
So how does an organisation avoid the type of feedback that creates dread, the feeling sometimes attached to the annual performance review process? It’s about putting yourself in the shoes of the person who is receiving the feedback, Brighton-Hall says.
“If you’ve got somebody who only feeds back the negatives it can be exhausting for those around them,” she says. “It makes people go into crouching, defensive positions. They’re not getting a balanced view of their work. Instead, feedback needs to be relevant to the person it’s going to.”
People hear your content, but they smell your intent.” Georgia Murch
Murch agrees. People offering advice or feedback must strongly consider what they are saying, its structure and how they are saying it, she advises. And actually, for a feedback culture to work most effectively, feedback should be four parts positive to one part negative.
“To do it really well and in a positive way you must get two things right, the content and the intent,” Murch says. “People hear your content, but they smell your intent. There must be some self-reflection prior to, and during, the conversation. What is your intent? Is it to win? Is it to assassinate? Is it to show them up? Is it to pile all your frustration onto them? If so, they’ll smell that and they won't hear your content.”
Get the intent right and you’ll have a very good chance of getting the content right.
Creating a feedback culture
Having worked with such organisations as Mercedes-Benz, Australia Post, BUPA, BP, MYOB and Atlassian, Murch says the implementation of a feedback culture must start with buy-in and engagement at the very top. Without that engagement, Murch will happily inform a potential client that they’re wasting their time.
Sometimes executives have an old-school, command-and-control mentality where they feel business is simply about telling staff what to do. That doesn’t fit with the new way of doing things, Murch says, which is more about the power of many minds, of communication and collaboration. Sometimes ego simply gets in the way. Other times, she says, management simply feel they don’t have time to learn about feedback done well.
“I say to them, ‘What happens if you don't have conversations with people who aren’t performing?’, or ‘What if you don't give feedback to the high performers to help them be seen and recognised?’,” Murch says. “Feedback is positive and negative. What if you don't have the conversation with the supplier who’s making your staff’s lives a nightmare, or with the customer who is making your employees’ time really difficult? If you don’t have those conversations then nothing changes, everything gets worse, and suddenly you’re having to fight bush fires rather than simply manage spot fires.”
Once the business’s leadership is on board, it’s time to train and support the staff. People must be taught how a feedback culture works, what it means, and how to offer feedback in a constructive and positive fashion.
The support mechanism is all about what is put in place after the training to make sure it remains top of mind, to turn feedback into a habit.
“We look at things like what systems and processes already exist internally that can have feedback embedded into them,” Murch says. “One of the ones we love, in terms of creating feedback cultures, is setting up what I call ‘kick-ass catch ups’ with our people. We need to make sure that every time we catch up with our people, we’re giving feedback both ways.
Then we might have end-of-project reviews where opportunities are created to give feedback. And what about in our customer relationships – are we providing opportunities in those relationships to give and receive feedback?”
Finally, Murch recommends putting ”feedback mentors” or ”feedback ambassadors” in place.
After a small while, people begin to understand the power of having conversations in the moment, of nipping small problems in the bud before they ever have a chance of becoming major issues, and of boosting people’s morale and confidence with positive feedback.
The feedback payoff
Get it right and the rewards are plentiful. Brighton-Hall recalls attending a meeting in a government department that has made feedback a part of its culture. At one stage an attendee said something that originally seemed to have a racist undertone. Rather than the atmosphere of the meeting changing for the worse, another staff member immediately asked for clarity around the person’s comment and its intention, explaining how it appeared offensive. All was cleared up and the meeting continued without any discomfort.
Murch says that in the short term, as feedback cultures are introduced, companies tend to see some turnover in staff. But this is a positive, she says, as the right people stay and the wrong people move into businesses that are better suited for them. It’s an increase in turnover but a decrease in “regrettable turnover”.
“Then we see an increase in performance because people are more engaged, because the right ones are there,” she says. “We start seeing the atmosphere improve because staff and clients are being managed more effectively through better communication and feedback. In the end, people enjoy working more. The culture highlights the good in people. How can you not feel good about who you are and what you’re doing when people are always seeing the good in you?”
Chris Sheedy is a Canberra-based journalist, corporate writer, author and media consultant.