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The Idea of a Feedback Culture

Many organizations are looking for ways to build a feedback culture. They do this because the organization will benefit from more intensive and qualitative feedback. We know that feedback can be beneficial under specific circumstances. But we also know that in the majority of cases feedback does not work.

So it’s crucial to get it right. And so if you want to build a feedback culture, you should carefully design the approach.

In the past feedback the design of a feedback approach was very formal and linked to a performance management approach. The general experience with these approaches is that they have not delivered much value. More, performance management systems were seen as a burden by managers, and often demotivated employees.

The role of HR in this is crucial. HR is the architect of the system and should design the process according to the company’s culture, the dominant leadership style and the general work context.

But to be honest, HR has often failed to do this. For several reasons.

  • HR sees a performance management system as a source of data. This leads to an overengineering of the system and an obligation to document too much. If the target of the approach is gathering data, the approach is losing its value.
  • HR underestimates the role of the leader in performance management and does not involve leaders enough in the design. We should see performance management as a business process aimed at aligning, motivating and coordinating people.
  • Systems that support the feedback approach should be as light as possible. Never forget that a software platform should decrease the effort both managers and employees should do to ask and receive feedback.

Two Design Questions to Ask

But after the design of the system, the role of HR is basically limited to advocacy and support. And in this, there are only two questions HR should be interested in.

  1. How can we make sure there is sufficient feedback?
  2. How can we make sure the feedback is of good quality?

The first question seems to be easy to answer. It’s not. Feedback will only be sufficient when both the leaders and the employees think it’s sufficient. So it’s difficult to define a frequency requirement. The golden rule is: give enough feedback to satisfy the needs of both parties involved.

That also responsibilities both the individual employee and the leader. If they do not feel they receive or give enough feedback, they should take initiative.

In general most organisations will put forward a minimal number of feedback conversations. And very often this is only once or twice a year. But if we are honest, feedback should be informal, timely, continuous, etc. So asking a minimal frequency of once a year is not very helpful in establishing that feedback culture. The answer should be as much as needed.

So every encounter, every meeting, every conversation could and even should contain opportunities for feedback. Only when feedback is engrained in every day life, will there be a feedback culture.

Only when feedback is engrained in every day life, will there be a feedback culture.

The second question is even more difficult to answer. When is feedback of high quality? To me there are three aspects:

  1. Is the feedback actionable? Can the person receiving the feedback actually something with it? Doing something with feedback sounds vague, but in general feedback is oriented towards behavioural change. So feedback will be actionable if it enables someone to do things better, differently, more effectively or when it helps people to acquire new behaviour.
  2. Is the feedback motivating? Is the feedback given in such a way that the person receing it wants to do something with it? So if the feedback does not appeal to the needs of the person, it won’t be motivating.
  3. Is the feedback fair? Feedback should not be an evaluation. The moment someone feels that the feedback is unfair, they will feel aggressed. Again, this is tricky. And that is why negative feedback should be given in an non-aggressive , non violent way. And that is why feedback should be actionable and not mixed with evaluation.

How will you know if the feedback has been of high quality? Just ask for feedback.

Feedback culture defined

Building a feedback culture is not easy. In a feedback culture people give and ask each other feedback continuously and informally. It is normal to give feedback as a way of sharing information about how things get done. 

Performance Management Systems include feedback and they have their role to play in supporting and facilitating feedback.

However, often they are over engineered and seen as a burden, rather than a help.

In this article you find the two relevant questions to ask when working on feedback within your organization. 

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.

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