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“Constantly giving feedback is precisely what a CEO must do.” — Ben Horowitz, The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers
Our workplaces are changing. As the world speeds up, there is higher demand for fast, continuous learning in professional environments. Millennials make up more and more of our workforces, and the values they were brought up with will shape the future of our companies. Having grown up with the rapid feedback loops that characterise social media, this new workforce demand stimulating jobs which enable growth and development through learning. Continuous feedback is a cornerstone of this vision. According to the Harvard Business Review, millennials want feedback 50% more often than other employees.
Millennials comprise 30% of the population, and will represent 75% of the global workforce by 2025 - McKinsey, Leadership & Org blog
To learn more check out our blog: Why Feedback Will Transform Your Millennial Workforce
Feedback methods have traditionally taken the form of annual performance reviews (APRs), and while they may have worked for 20th century industries, in 2019 they’re no longer cutting the mustard. 95% of managers are dissatisfied with the APR approach, not least because they take up an average of 210 hours of management time every year. Additionally, CEB research shows there is no correlation between individual annual performance ratings and actual business results. APRs are simply too slow and inefficient for the 21st century.
Instead, we need to adopt continuous feedback systems to enable faster learning. Deloitte and Adobe are among the first to have scrapped APRs for regular feedback culture - with positive results. For example, Adobe saw a 30% drop in employee resignations after replacing their annual model with regular check-ins.
Only 29% of millennials feel engaged at work, compared to 45% of traditionalists; 55% are indifferent - Gallup, How Millennials Want to Work and Live
Other companies have yet to adapt, despite these figures. Yet the proven advantages of a robust, integrated feedback culture are countless. Not only does continuous feedback improve the general well-being of employees and managers alike; but productivity goes up while employee turnover rates go down - by as much as 59%! Furthermore, those who give regular feedback often make considerably better leaders. In turn, employees working in great feedback systems are more engaged, which has a positive impact on company profitability. It has also been shown to reduce absenteeism by 41%.
Fair and accurate feedback boosts individual performance by up to 39% - Corporate Leadership Council, Managing for High Performance and Retention
Feedback is part of every great leader’s toolkit. The ability to give (and receive!) ready, authentic feedback is a key driver of leadership effectiveness, as shown in a 2013 study by Forbes. This is in part due to the way it fosters a proactive attitude to growth and development: rather than leave employees to themselves and hope for the best, good leaders understand it’s their job not only to respond to their workforce, but to guide them as well. By routinely flagging what’s working well and what’s not working so well, feedback provides employees with opportunities for growth. In the words of Ben Horowitz, “people rarely improve weakness they are unaware of.”
When leaders emulate a culture of responsible feedback, it lets people know that they are valued. Knowing a leader will be honest and tell people how they’re doing creates trust, transparency and security, fostering a sense of psychological safety. A 1990 study by William Kahn found that when employees work in these conditions they’re more willing to go above and beyond, and the absence of fearfulness or doubt creates a more forthcoming workforce. No wonder good feedback increases employee retention!
To learn more about feedback and leadership check out our blog: Why Good Leaders Don’t Just Give Feedback, but Ask For it Too
A great lesson about feedback and leadership can be found in Kim Scott’s “Radical Candor” approach. Scott’s experiences working for Google and Apple left her with a lot of insight on leadership, which she subsequently plotted along two axes: “care personally” and “challenge directly.” In order to be an effective leader, she realised, it’s important to care about employees while also having the courage to be honest with them.
“Care personally; challenge directly” - Kim Scott, Radical Candor
Within Scott’s framework, feedback that’s direct but uncaring classifies as “obnoxious aggression”, while an uncaring and evasive approach creates “manipulative insincerity”. By far the most common offender, though, is “ruinous empathy”: the habit of withholding constructive comments to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. To illustrate the trouble with “ruinous empathy”, Scott recalls her experience of an employee named Bob. Although his work was consistently poor she avoided confronting him, as he was so likeable that she couldn’t bear to upset him. When Scott finally had to let him go, Bob was amazed he’d never been pulled up on his shortcomings, either by her or his colleagues, and Scott realised how much she had let him down. Rather than keep people in the dark, strong leaders know it’s kinder and more helpful to give feedback on people’s work in a direct, sincere, yet compassionate way.
Feedback can really boost leadership effectiveness and it can also be a gift, but only if it’s given (and received) in a helpful way. Take the following example: Dan gives a presentation in June. It’s clear he’s spent time on it, but his delivery is pretty distracting. He skips slides, mixes up words, forgets his points and often glances out the window. As a result his boss, Tina, can’t focus on the presentation. Afterwards...
...Tina can’t wait to forget about the whole thing. She doesn’t mention anything to Dan, but over the next few months Dan’s presentations only get worse. Finally, in November, she calls him in for a feedback session. She says:
“Dan, you are a terrible presenter. You always act strangely, and it’s not only unprofessional but embarrassing for the audience. I expect your upcoming presentation to be better. This is my first warning!”
...Tina feels awkward, but knows it’s up to her to make Dan aware of his performance. She checks their schedules and arranges a feedback session as soon as it’s convenient for both of them. Tina opens the feedback session by saying:
“Dan, I really appreciate the work you put in for that presentation - your dedication was plain to see. I was actually craving a slower approach so that we could have some time to properly digest your ideas; I got a bit confused at points because you skipped some slides and your body language made you seem distracted. I wondered if you needed some guidance. Do you see where I’m coming from?”
Dan admits he’s been having health issues: he’s been finding work tough and would appreciate support. After developing some initial solutions that work for both of them, they decide to schedule another meeting in two weeks’ time to check in.
It’s easy to notice the major differences between the two scenarios: in the first, Tina is forceful and unreceptive, making assumptions without hearing from Dan. In the second, she is sympathetic, inquisitive and tactful with her observations.
Why do some leaders struggle to give good feedback? In her first approach, Tina seems more emotionally invested in her authority than in her employee. This is understandable: strong leaders are often stereotyped as formal, strict characters who keep their emotions - and their employees - at arm’s length. Kim Scott flags this misconception when talking about the “care personally” axis: at the start of their careers, many employees understand that being professional means being stoical about their emotions and leaving their personal selves at the door. However, this needn’t be the case.
Meeting with someone on a more human level makes them more likely to listen to what you have to say. According to long-term Stanford Business School researcher and CEO Carole Robin, a healthy dose of self-disclosure can be very beneficial for professional interactions, even if you’re the boss. When we share the impact something has on us, we become ever so slightly vulnerable. This has the potential to level the playing field between givers and receivers of feedback; it makes the session feel less like an attack and more like a discussion, as we saw in Dan and Tina’s second scenario.
Some people think of giving feedback and assume their words will be taken with offense; others think of getting feedback and worry whether it’ll affect their pay. It’s easy to arrive at this image of feedback where both parties are swallowing their emotions and hoping to get out the room as fast as possible.
There’s a biological explanation for this: humans evolved to respond to new information very quickly in order to judge whether changes in environment were safe or not. And because feedback hinges on sharing new information, a feedback session has the potential to easily evoke a fight-or-flight response if framed in a certain way.
A touch of vulnerability can make all the difference. Vulnerability makes comments easier to relate to, creates affinity between participants, and encourages employees to be authentic, too. Before feedback sessions, simply drinking water, opening a window and assuming an open posture can make you feel more relaxed: and taking a deep breath stimulates your PNS (Parasynthetic Nervous System).
For more perspectives on vulnerability, watch Brené Brown’s compelling TED Talk.
In the last section we’ve discussed face-to-face interactions between two people. When planned, these are known as 1:1 (one-on-one) meetings, and they lie at the heart of great feedback culture. Without 1:1s it can feel like written feedback has been sent into a void rather than being consolidated in person. They provide ample opportunities to discuss mutual solutions as well as building manager-employee relationships.
And the more regular they are, the better! We recommend 30-60 minutes every week or two. If you feel like that’s a lot, remember that checking in aligns your team, nips problems in the bud, and encourages managers to give guidance. Indeed, great managers have more frequent 1:1s, and companies like Google are staunch advocates of the method.
Before each 1:1 it helps to have a clear idea of what’s to be discussed so you can make the best use of that time. Use a digital feedback tool to help record key points, achievements, and roadblocks, and to summarise and save the meeting afterwards. For more information on 1:1s, keep an eye out for our upcoming 1:1 eBook.
Employees who have regular 1:1 meetings with managers are three times more likely to be engaged. - Gallup, Managers: Millennials Want Feedback, But Won't Ask for It
“The purpose of constructive feedback is to encourage the other to move into a problem-solving conversation with you” - Deborah Petersen, 7 Tips for Giving Great Feedback
To echo Kim Scott and Carole Robin, attitude is one of the most important factors when it comes to giving and receiving feedback: it should be a means to support each other, not to complain or gripe. To get things off to a good start, make sure it’s the right time and place. If both parties involved can fully focus without being distracted by external factors, you’ll raise the chances of having a productive feedback session.
Don’t just spiral headlong into negativity. If you do have praise to give, it can make people feel more receptive to constructive comments. If you don’t have any authentic praise for them, at least approach the meeting with a sense of empathy. Everyone struggles at one point or another, and as Robin notes, no one gets up in the morning and wonders how they can be a worse colleague that day.
It’s also important to remember there are two sides to every story, and you may not know someone’s reasons for behaving a certain way - for example, in Dan and Tina’s case, Dan’s health problems were affecting his work. Go into the feedback session with humility, and the intention to gain clarity.
Feedback doesn’t just take place in 1:1s - sometimes it feels more natural or appropriate to give feedback on the fly. Whether you’re giving feedback over lunch, on a walk or outside the meeting room, it helps to remember this easy four step framework: situation - impact - pause - resolve.
When raising any piece of feedback, get everyone on the same page by describing the situation you want to give feedback on. This might be something like Dan’s awkward presentation in June, or an aspect of a particular project your team is working on. Being specific with the context leaves less space for misinterpretation or confusion.
Next, explain the impact of the situation. In Dan and Tina’s case, Tina’s feedback was most effective when she expressed the difficulties she experienced as a result of Dan’s behaviour. Explaining impact made her feedback more easy to relate to by offering perspective, and clarified Tina’s practical reasons for giving feedback. This is a key differentiator in making feedback more than just a comment on someone’s actions.
However detailed your explanation of a situation’s impact, make sure you take a break for questions. Even if the other person doesn’t have much to say, a break allows both parties to cool off and process what’s just been said. More often than not, though, the other person gets a chance to illuminate the situation, share their perspective and provide more context. It helps to create a dialogue rather than a one-sided rant, and gives space to clear up any misunderstanding. In Dan and Tina’s case, pausing for Dan’s input shed a whole new light on what was going on.
Finally, work together to find a resolution. If you’ve followed the above approach it should feel like you’re already on the same side. You’ve both had a chance to air your thoughts and respond to each other, so now it’s time to make suggestions on how to move forward. Remember, the solutions you come up with should be viable for everyone involved. There’s no use coming up with a strategy that only works for one of you, or that might create further roadblocks in the future!
At the end of a feedback exchange it can be really useful to plan a follow-up session. This shows personal investment and allows you to consolidate progress.
Even if you have the best of intentions upon entering a feedback session, sometimes it so happens that things don’t come out quite right. As Scott notes, feedback “doesn’t get measured at your mouth; it gets measured at the other person’s ear.” In other words, if you can’t give valid feedback with the right language, it might not come across as intended.
Take the word “but”. As part of the “sandwich” technique, which alternates praise with criticism, “but” often turns up looking like this: “you’re good at (a), but you’re bad at (b).” In practice, this phrasing is counterproductive. People tense up as soon as they hear “but” because they understand the praise they’ve just been given is about to do a U-turn. “But” is such a loaded word, it cancels out the praise and accentuates the negativity of what’s coming next.
It’s much more motivating to hear something like, “better still...” or “it would be more impressive if…” These phrases go with the grain, not against it, building on the praise while emphasising the opportunity to progress: “you do (a) well; you could do even better if you worked on (b).
“If you do feedback right, the other person also feels cared for, valued and closer to you” - Carole Robin, Feedback Is A Gift
Now we’ve been through the fundamentals of good feedback sessions we can understand Dan and Tina’s scenario’s more fully. In the first scenario, Tina delays the session for so long that she becomes resentful. As well as saying he is a terrible presenter, she says he always acts strange without giving context or examples, and makes disparaging statements about him. She offers no concrete solutions, telling him to just “be better”. She doesn’t ask him any questions, or leave room for dialogue. Finally, she ends on a threat, creating fear and mistrust.
In the second scenario, Tina organises the feedback session as soon as an appropriate time comes up. She remembers a positive aspect (that he had obviously put effort into the presentation) and stresses her experience: she really wished she could’ve taken in his ideas better, and he seemed distracted to her. She uses a concrete example and gives him a chance to speak, which allows her to hear the information she didn’t yet know. Because she treats the session as an opportunity to gain understanding, Dan is more than happy to accept her help and work towards improvement.
So far we have covered the principles of feedback culture, explaining its values as well as some of its methods. The question still remains: how does a company go about overhauling its current feedback system? For some, the benefits described in these pages can seem like just another millennial nice-to-have; a goal that might require a lot of persuasion. And anyway, how do you go about realising something as intangible as a “culture”?
Only 23% of employees believes that their organisations encourage them to learn from failure. - McKinsey, Leadership and Innovation
Luckily, creating and maintaining feedback culture doesn’t have to be vague, unstructured or idealistic at all. Claudia Braun is a partner at the management consultancy Return On Meaning, and she regularly guides companies through these processes. When it comes to feedback implementation, Braun highlights the importance of four key components: skills; buy-in; mechanisms; and role modelling.
Skills are essential: you need to empower employees to give and get feedback - for example through workshops. But this can’t work without the willingness and buy-in from people in the company to get on board.
In addition to skills and buy-in, you also need role models, - put simply, the people who go first when enacting cultural change. Humans are social creatures and it doesn’t take long for them to fall in step with those they look up to. Finally, you need mechanisms to be put in place to ensure feedback happens. It’s all very well thinking that feedback is great, but if you don’t have tools to remind or enable you to give feedback, it can become one of those things that always gets pushed to the bottom of the to-do list before you’ve even started.
Braun advises creating a company strategy for each quadrant - skills; buy-in; mechanisms; and role modelling - and address them simultaneously. Tricky areas tend to be role modelling and sustainability: role modelling requires engagement from executives and managers, while sustainability is often short-lived without mechanisms. “Change is hard to achieve and often people are excited about an initiative, but then become busy with other things or lose enthusiasm,” Braun continues. “Companies need processes and formalised mechanisms in place to create long-term support for feedback culture, not just an initial introduction.”
Click here to read more about Claudia Braun’s feedback ethos!
More and more it becomes clear that ours is a generation of change and ongoing transformation. Bill Gates once remarked: “success today requires the agility and drive to constantly rethink, reinvigorate, react, and reinvent” (come to think of it, he also said we all need people who give us feedback…!)
Feedback culture isn’t just about responding to past events; it’s about anticipating the ongoing need for adaptation. This is particularly relevant for companies experiencing rapid growth or significant transformation. In order to be scalable or to successfully transform without losing a sense of collective identity and purpose, companies need to find ways to continuously learn from and alongside their employees. And yet 81% of companies don’t have good structures and processes for feedback and learning.
Only 33% of respondents at corporates say their people provide each other with continuous feedback, compared to 80% at agile units. - McKinsey, How to Create an Agile Organisation
Studies show that feedback and company agility are already linked: agile units are 47% more likely to have a culture of feedback in place than traditional corporates. It’s no surprise that the two go hand in hand, as feedback is a building block of successful, structured change.
It can be hard to know where to start. You might work with people who think they’re doing just fine without regular feedback; others might crave it, but express anxiety about the implementation process. However, these concerns don’t have to get in the way of forward-thinking changes - especially when there are so many rewards to reap.
This is where Claudia Braun’s key factors come in handy. By focusing on skills, buy-in, mechanisms and role modelling, it becomes easier to form a structured response to any reservations your company might have about a new proposal.
As an exercise, think of a totally unexpected, radical proposal to test under the microscope: imagine you had to convince your company to start wearing scuba suits to work. Already you might start to picture the reactions to such a proposal: maybe you even share some of the reservations yourself!
Some people might be self-conscious about wearing a scuba suit at all; others might worry about the logistics of getting around the workplace in one. A manager might write the whole thing off as unfamiliar territory. It’s up to you to dispel these fears by offering tangible solutions in each quadrant.
As with giving feedback, anyone can wear a scuba suit - it just takes a bit of practise before you feel comfortable with it. You could hold scuba suit fitting sessions so that people feel great in them, as well as workshops on how to walk in flippers.
What if wearing a scuba suit were best practice? Maybe it strengthens team spirit, or makes people more creative. If you have persuasive reasons for implementing change and can explain its positive impact, let people know about it!
Of course it’s much easier to follow by example. Getting some managers on board is a great way to demonstrate and normalise the proposal in action. You could even add that other companies have already adopted similar strategies!
Lastly, make sure you can provide the right tools for implementation. People wearing scuba suits could probably use changing rooms, lockers, and special washing facilities. These provide a robust infrastructure for sustainable change.
To learn more check out our blog post with 4 Tips That Will Help Your Company Build a Successful Feedback Culture
Good feedback doesn’t happen by thinking about it. Generally the companies who have the most success with feedback culture are proactive with it. They also work continuously to improve their feedback mechanisms.
If you want to get just one thing right in your company, then get the feedback culture right. - Claudia Braun, Unlocking Your Company's Potential: What If Feedback Culture Was the Key?
You don’t have to take on everything at once. Consider what types of feedback work best for your company: being selective will make the process feel easier and more natural (you can always add more later!) Once you’ve figured that out, set yourself a specific time period for your company to learn about feedback and your approach to feedback. This creates an incentive to get started, and allows people to give their full attention to new practices. Make sure everyone gets to familiarise themselves with the new system. A feedback system won’t work if people aren’t aware of it!
Finally, we recommend ditching the pen and paper. Smart technologies can support and sustain your feedback culture in a streamlined, convenient, and flexible digital way so that shaking things up needn’t come at the expense of clarity and structure.
For example, many companies have a top-down feedback system. But it’s important for employees to give each other feedback, too, as well as to their managers. Doing this can feel awkward without consistent encouragement, but feedback software helpfully introduces and maintains ongoing feedback pathways between peers. Similarly, scheduling feedback can seem nightmarish when APRs are the norm. Having the option to give feedback digitally resolves those tricky moments when you want to give feedback but there isn’t a good time to meet in person, and email seems too formal.
And of course, intelligent feedback tools save a whole lot of time otherwise spent on paperwork and manual tasks, leaving more room for the important human stuff and actual conversations.
There’s so much more to gain from a continuous, supportive feedback culture. It really is a world away from the stress of APRs, and a step towards more connected workplaces. If you want to know more, look out for our upcoming eBooks where we’ll be diving into specific areas of dynamic feedback culture.