How to cultivate a culture of open feedback

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By Walker Donohue

Giving feedback can be terrifying. You’re often afraid of being too direct and setting a team member on the defensive. Or you’re worried that you’ll temper criticism with too much praise — losing your message in translation. Because giving feedback is difficult, people often do the exact wrong thing and avoid giving feedback altogether.

That’s one of the worst decisions you can make. When you withhold feedback not only do you risk the team member making the same mistake over and over again — but you deprive them of the opportunity to improve.

When you create an organizational culture around clear, open feedback, you’re making a promise between team members to compound and learn from past mistakes.

Why bother?

For both the person giving feedback and the person getting it, feedback can feel awkward and uncomfortable. As the First Round Review writes,

[Managers] worry that what they need to communicate won’t come out quite right or be well received. So they sit in silence — which ends up feeling far worse when people around them continue to make the same mistakes, underperform, and gradually get managed out. All of which might have been prevented had someone just intervened.

Simply put, if you don’t create a culture where feedback is open and welcome, you end up missing opportunities and losing good people because you didn’t give them enough support. If this is the case, it’s also pretty likely that you as a manager aren’t receiving enough feedback. Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project, points out in a piece for the Harvard Business Review that his company had a “conflict-averse culture, preferring to see ourselves as a happy family for as long as our business prospered” before implementing a culture of open feedback.

Schwartz notes that while this doesn’t seem bad at first, it ends up creating an environment where issues are buried and forgotten. When turbulence would hit the business, it was difficult to course-correct because the organization lacked accountability. The other issue with not providing feedback is that your team members won’t know what they’re doing well — and how to incorporate that into other aspects of the job.

It’s almost more critical to give feedback when things are going well then when they’re going wrong. Positively reinforcing your teammates during the good times creates a relationship of trust and a solid foundation for weathering the inevitable storms.

So what is a feedback culture, anyways?

While we’ve covered the importance of a feedback culture, it might not be completely clear what exactly that entails. Don’t worry — it’s pretty simple.

Tony Schwartz defines culture as “the collection of beliefs on which people build their behavior.” A culture focused on feedback is simply one in which feedback is practiced and exercised continuously at every point of the business. Patty McCord, former Chief Talent Officer at Netflix, advises that the best way to learn how to give great feedback is to practice.

Giving (and getting) feedback the right way

It sounds well and good to say, “practice giving feedback.” But it’s a lot harder to actually do in the wild, especially if you’ve struggled with giving feedback in the past.

Difficulty with feedback can even be hardwired into our biology — many people subconsciously associate getting feedback with being personally attacked. Tim Herrera, an editor at the New York Times, writes: “The solution to this problem on both sides — whether you’re receiving the feedback or giving it — boils down to trusting that everyone is participating in good faith.”

For feedback to work, both parties have to trust each other. As a manager, you need to deliver negative feedback honestly and openly. Don’t make it about tearing the person down, but focus your criticisms on helping the other person improve. Remember to make feedback a two-sided conversation. When you give feedback, you also need to be open to receiving it. Red Hat’s Jim Whitehurst points out that, “We all need to be able to process constructive criticism without taking it personally.” That starts at the top of the organization.

The more open and receptive you are to improving through feedback, the more likely the members of your team will feel they are being heard — and the more open they’ll be to acting on the feedback that you give.

Another trick for building a foundation of trust for a feedback culture is to encourage positive feedback between team members but don’t take the feedback sandwich as a compliment as it is quite opposite of that.

When a team member has crushed a sales call or a design spec, show your appreciation via praise through public channels like email or Slack. Without positive feedback, you’ll condition your team members to expect the negative each time you hold a 1:1. Performance management systems like Lattice integrate directly into tools like Slack, creating a repository of feedback for an entire company.

Remember that your choice of tooling helps shape your culture of feedback. Creating public goals is an especially helpful way of providing regular feedback based on team performance.

Good examples of feedback

Giving good feedback means clearly communicating what a team member is doing right, what they’re doing wrong — and, most importantly, why.

  • “You did a great job on x. It showed that you had y.”
  • “You’re having a positive impact on x.”
  • “I appreciate your y and the work you’re contributing to x.”

When you’re delivering positive feedback, you’re simply trying to reinforce existing behavior within a team member. When you’re trying to help team members improve through constructive feedback, you’re trying to replace a negative behavior with a positive one:

  • “I’d like to give you some feedback, is now a good time?”
  • “Can we talk about… What do you think worked and what didn’t?”

As a manager, you also have to make sure that you’re getting enough feedback from the people on your team. They may be hesitant at first, especially if you control their career progression. That’s why it’s crucial that you make the first move and open the door:

  1. “I’m trying to improve as a manager and could use your help. How can I provide better support to you?”
  2. “I feel as though I’m not motivating you as well as I could. Would you prefer I… or…?”
  3. “I’m always trying to be a better manager. You should always feel free to tell me what is and isn’t working for you.”

If you’re looking for more feedback inspiration, check out some of these pieces on praise and constructive feedback, along with our series with Gusto on feedback scripts and tips specific to a person.

Creating a culture of feedback isn’t easy, and you won’t get it in one try. But build the habit, and you’ll see the immediate upside. Open feedback allows team members to communicate with each other honestly without needless politicking. It makes for a healthier and stronger team.

This is a guest post from the team at Lattice, a platform for people management. For more great people management tips, check out the Lattice blog.


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