Building a feedback culture: 6 steps to success

You can think of feedback as information and insight flowing through your team and your business. Building a feedback culture multiplies and accelerates that information and insight, creating great benefits for you and your team.

Benefits of a feedback culture

There are many ways of defining the benefits of building a feedback culture, we’ve distilled them down into 4 headlines.

Continuous performance improvement

We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve. Bill Gates

Effective feedback accelerates our learning: it shines a light on what we are doing well, and what we need to improve. And for this reason, building a feedback culture is fundamental to learning and improving performance. Critical to this is emphasizing the skills and mindset of effectively receiving feedback, not just giving it. It’s this ability to effectively receive feedback that really unlocks the potential of a feedback culture.

FASTer goal achievement

In the same way that feedback accelerates learning, it accelerates goal achievement too. It does this by ensuring that the energy, focus and effort of your team is directed effectively.

Take a look at FAST Goals, this acronym is quickly surpassing SMART Goals as the preferred approach, partly because the ‘F’ stands for ‘Frequently discussed’. Frequently discussing goals, and providing feedback on progress, keeps us on track.

Improved employee engagement

In the latest State of the Global Workplace, Gallup says 18% of employees are actively disengaged at work, while 67% are not engaged at all.  These individuals may not be the worst performers, but they are indifferent when it comes to their respective organizations.  These employees are giving their time, but not their best work.

Employees who report receiving recognition and praise within the last seven days show increased productivity, get higher scores from customers, and have better safety records. They’re just more engaged at work. Tom Rath

Recognition and praise is just one form of feedback, there are many others. All the research shows that combining multiple forms of effective feedback (including recognition, praise and engagement surveys) into a feedback culture improves employee engagement and retention.

Increased business agility

Finally, a culture of feedback inevitably makes the people in an organization more responsive and that creates a more responsive organization. Partly because people are more engaged, but partly because people are attuned to receiving information and insight and ‘course correcting’ as they work.

It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change. Charles Darwin

Building a feedback culture increases business agility, and in our rapidly changing world it’s those who are most responsive to change that survive.

Building a feedback culture

Building a feedback culture is a significant undertaking, it’s not something that can be done with a couple of emails, or a half-day of training. It requires an ongoing and sustained commitment. As a result, you must have the right mindset, you have to believe that building a feedback culture is part of the ‘secret sauce’ that will make you and your team successful.

1. Hire life-long learners

Hiring people who want to learn is so obvious, and has so many benefits, it almost seems unnecessary to mention. But many companies still miss this fundamental characteristic in their hiring process. Too often hiring is about ‘experience fit’ or ‘industry fit’ and misses the opportunity to explore fundamental aspects of how they’ll be successful in your team.

And don’t assume everyone wants to learn, it’s simply not true. Lots of people, even very successful people, have fixed views, are passive-resistant to development opportunities and aren’t interested in learning.

People with a growth mindset (as opposed to this fixed mindset) see feedback as an opportunity to grow and have one of the most important qualities for development and learning, a willingness to receive feedback and act on it.

Consider asking the following types of questions in your hiring interviews:

  • Give me an example of when you received some tough feedback. What was the situation, what was the feedback, and what did you do with the feedback?
  • Give me an example of when you’ve had to deliver some tough feedback. What was the situation, what was the feedback, and what was the outcome?

People who embrace feedback as part of their day-to-day will be able to answer these questions with easy, and those who don’t, won’t!

2. Walk the talk

It’s essential that you role-model the behaviors that you want to build. To get into the habit of giving effective feedback, take a look at these effective feedback examples. Take the time to request feedback too.

To help you build these habits, ask yourself some simple questions at the end of each day:

  1. Have I given any feedback today?
  2. Have I asked for any feedback today?
  3. How have I balanced reinforcing and redirecting feedback?

Notice the use of ‘reinforcing’ and ‘redirecting’ feedback. It’s good language to use. Too often people talk about ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ feedback. This language sends the wrong message. All feedback should be positive, because all feedback is an opportunity to learn. Even if we’re asking a team member to reflect and redirect their behavior, this is still positive!

To reinforce this idea, it’s important to ensure that our mindset is right. We must come from a place of care and concern for our team, with a desire to help them improve.

3. Cultivate the skills

Giving and receiving feedback is a skill. Like any skill you and your team will improve with focus. Knowing how and when to give feedback, and how to avoid common pitfalls like the feedback sandwich takes learning and practice.

To support this, establish some feedback best-practices within your team. Here’s a good reference, this 5-minute video highlights the challenges and outlines a simple 4-step approach:

  1. Ask for permission to provide feedback (what they call asking a ‘micro-yes’ question). Something like “Do you have 5 minutes to talk about how that last meeting went?”. This let’s the other person know that feedback is coming and creates a moment of buy-in (the person has the choice to say yes or no to the question).
  2. Name specifically what you saw or heard. For example: “You were due to get the data to me by 11.00am, but you didn’t email me until 12.30pm”.
  3. Specify the impact. Again, be clear and direct. For example: “Because I didn’t get the data on time, I couldn’t finish the report in time for the meeting”.
  4. Wrap the feedback with a question. For example: “How do you see it?” or “What are your thoughts?” or “Am I missing something here?”

Taking this approach aims to make feedback more collaborative, more of a two-way discussion. That said, you should still be prepared for a level of defensiveness. After your final question, you may need to let the person express themselves. Don’t be distracted, return to the message: “next time let’s discuss again in advance and make sure we can both hit our commitments”.

Because of this natural defensiveness (especially when feedback is not delivered well) it’s essential to work on the skills of receiving feedback too. Take a look at step 4: Listen and be open to feedback, in our post how to request feedback from coworkers.

4. Embrace diverse opportunities for feedback

An essential part of building a feedback culture is embracing the diverse opportunities for feedback.

Here are a few examples:

  1. Instant feedback: immediately after the event, as you walk back to your desks, or in a taxi back to the office.
  2. Weekly 1-1s: still close to the event, an opportunity to provide feedback and explore in a little more detail.
  3. Postmortems and premortems: not typically associated with feedback, but these activities encourage collective feedback on projects and help to build a culture of feedback.
  4. Employee surveys: Surveys by established providers such as Great Place to Work and Gallup are typically organization-wide. See Survey Monkey (below) for simpler solutions that you can implement yourself.
  5. Annual performance reviews: the opportunity to give more strategic feedback, aligned with development planning discussions
  6. 360 assessment: talk with your HR team, they may be able to offer you the opportunity to participate in a 360 assessment. Here’s a sample from Qualtrics.

As you can see, there are many and varied ways of engaging employees through feedback. Some of them require an ‘organization-wide’ approach, but many can be initiated within your team.

Take a little time to evaluate each option, brainstorm additional opportunities that are relevant to your team, and start to plan how you can incorporate them into your working practices.

5. Tap into the tech

Just as you can embrace the diverse opportunities for feedback, you also can also tap into the tech as part of building a culture of feedback.

Here are some of the best web-based tools that support feedback:

  • Officevibe: pulse surveys, space for honest conversations, team reports.
  • 15five: communication, alignment, recognition, tools for managing remote teams.
  • Lattice: a people management platform with plenty of built in feedback tools.
  • Betterworks: a performance management platform, again with engagement, conversation and feedback tools.

If your company is using more ‘traditional’ enterprise-wide platforms such as Workday, PeopleSoft and SuccessFactors, these also have modules for encouraging feedback (if your company has purchased them). Check with your HR team regarding what’s available.

And then there are even simpler tools such as the Survey Monkey feedback template which you can explore for yourself.

And finally, here are 5 simple, app-based feedback solutions.

6. Dramatize the value

Finally, remember to communicate the value of feedback. And do this through storytelling that adds a little drama.

Feedback is the breakfast of champions. Boris Becker

If someone in your team has given you feedback, then celebrate the feedback in team meetings (best ask them if it’s OK to share first). Tell the story of how you used the feedback to improve your performance. Thank them. Recognize their contribution.

And share examples of feedback you’ve received from your manager and colleagues, share how it helped you.

Talking about the importance of feedback, and dramatizing the value, is a great way to encourage people to be open to giving and receiving feedback (it makes it less scary).

Building a feedback culture – in summary

Building a feedback culture has significant benefits. It supports continuous performance improvement, FASTer goal achievement, improved employee engagement and increased business agility.

You can achieve this by:

  1. Hiring life-long learners
  2. Walking the talk
  3. Cultivating the skills of feedback
  4. Embracing diverse opportunities for feedback
  5. Tapping into the tech
  6. Dramatizing the value of feedback

Building a culture of feedback is a journey, it takes time and commitment. But the rewards are enormous! Take care and travel well.

Colin Bates

Colin Bates

I'm at my best when helping people to learn, grow and succeed. This might be facilitating a training program, coaching a colleague, or sharing advice with my kids. I'm also an introvert by nature, and love to read, reflect and write. Hence this blog!