Everyone wants happy, creative, high-performing teams. A healthy feedback culture throughout your organisation is an amplifier of team performance. Here’s why that’s so and how you can start building a better feedback culture.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
A lack of feedback causes friction
Imagine the scenario. A big deadline gets missed, and a product gets shipped too late. Customers start complaining, and some even start leaving. A meeting is called to find out what happened, and everyone starts pointing fingers and blaming each other. Lots of noise, and nothing really gets resolved. The tensions simmer, and teams start bickering with one other. Now the P&C team is called in to fix the issue. Yet this isn’t an isolated incident. This seems to happen time and time again. Why can’t teams resolve these issues before they reach boiling point? It’s easy to see how a lack of feedback affects an organisation at every level.
At the organisational level
Execs can’t always be on the ground ‘doing’ or ‘executing’, and this distance means it’s easy to lose touch with what’s really happening. The ‘iceberg of ignorance’, based on a sturdy by Sydney Yoshida, implies that executives see just 4% of the problems that frontline employees face. This lack of visibility means that smaller issues can simmer until they explode, and then everything feels like a crisis.
At a team leader level
Team leaders can also end up getting an inaccurate view of what’s happening in front of them if team dynamics and lack of psychological safety mean people don't share openly - and this problem is compounded when teams are hybrid or fully remote without proper communication channels set up.
At a team member level
Everyone wants to feel they are supported and listened to. When feedback only flows one-way (top-down), it leads to disengagement. People feel like their ideas and input are not important. This, coupled together with a lack of frequent career development and performance conversations, mean people don't feel valued and are less likely to stay.
When there is a lack of feedback flowing in an organisation, it creates a lot of friction and tension. And that tension needs to be resolved.
Common responses to a lack of feedback (that don’t fully address the underlying issues)
When we sense we’re out of the loop, we tend to respond. Yet many interventions focused on increasing feedback, even when they’re well-intentioned, don’t address the underlying, deeper issues.
Infrequent engagement surveys
Bi-annual employee engagement surveys are often used to give everyone a chance to put forward their thoughts. But engagement surveys are only really a start, and don’t catch everything. They don’t happen in real-time (when problems are being felt most), and there are often gaps between how people respond to a survey and what they think. Plus, surveys struggle to catch the details and nuance that are key to elevating team culture. Then there is the gap between when the survey is completed and action, which often can be months, and that isn't fast enough.
Leaders getting into the weeds (a.k.a Micromanagement)
Leaders sometimes take the feedback problem into their own hands by micromanaging their teams. They feel if they have their finger on the pulse of everything, they feel, they’ll melt the iceberg of ignorance, and fewer mistakes will be made. While this may seem like an effective short-term solution, it’s never the answer. Micromanagement creates bottlenecks that effectively quash team innovation and speed and destroy engagement. It’s also exhausting and unsustainable, as the micromanaging leader is dragged into a tangle of weeds that prevent them from doing their real job - developing the team and operating more strategically.
Light team-building interventions
It’s easy to think that just getting people together in a relaxed atmosphere will make them open up and that this will have a positive effect on team communication back at the office. But this just isn’t true: social events don’t go deep enough to build the trust and safety needed to open up feedback channels.
Fortunately, there’s a real and lasting way to get your teams and organisation interacting well together: by building a healthy feedback culture.
What is a healthy feedback culture?
A healthy feedback culture (see infographic here) is about building an atmosphere where feedback and constructive ideas flow freely.
Feedback flows frequently, and freely in all directions.
Everyone in the organisation openly expresses their views in the spirit of healthy dissent and debate. People have feedback conversations regularly and share positive feedback, ideas, and constructive feedback very frequently rather than waiting for formal performance conversations.
Feedback has a positive intention in mind.
Feedback isn’t about correcting behaviour. Sure, team leaders have feedback conversations with their team, but team members also give feedback to one another and feel they have input in higher-level organisational issues. Feedback is delivered as a conversation, in a supportive and thoughtful way, with the intent of helping the team, teammates and the business to grow and flourish.
Once in place, this kind of culture encourages feedback to be shared regularly rather than allowing multiple issues to be bottled up for once-in-a-blue-moon conversations. But that’s just the start.
The advantages of a great feedback culture
Image credit: Virpi Oinonen, Business Illustrator
Better, faster decisions (and less firefighting)
Feedback helps leaders make better decisions. In a strong feedback culture, people (especially those right in the thick of ‘doing’) are more likely to raise issues as they occur. This means leaders can fix small things (sparks and flames) before they become real problems (big fires). It also gives leaders more real-time input on what’s important for their teams, so they’re more likely to act effectively and less likely to question decisions once they’ve been made.
Clearer and more effective goal-setting
Team goals are essential for collaboration and team performance. Getting team input when setting organisational goals means those goals are better, and teams unite to work towards a common objective.
A strong feedback culture sets the scene for this.
When everyone from execs through to team members are comfortable with receiving and considering the views of others, collaborative goal-setting gets much easier.
A feedback culture gives the individual members of your team a real voice. And all of those voices are usually jam-packed full of sparks of inspiration that you can foster. Healthy feedback also helps teams shape and grow their raw ideas into something special, through healthy debate and a continuous development loop.
A healthy feedback culture supports every stage of the innovation process.
A place where people grow and actually want to work
Finding and keeping great talent is a real challenge right now. Building a magnetic culture, where people feel like they’re doing meaningful work, with a leader that values them and a team they feel part of, is key.
In a healthy feedback culture, team leaders feel more informed without having to micromanage their teams, so autonomy goes up. Team members, in turn, feel better heard and listened to, which promotes engagement. Increased positive feedback also means that everyone can see the value of their work, and so good work keeps happening.
So how is your feedback culture doing?
Image credit: Tom Fishburne, Marketoonist
Many organisations feel like they have a healthy feedback culture. Yet the true test of a feedback culture is what happens in sticky situations. Ask yourself these questions to explore how your organisation is really doing when it comes to feedback.
Q: Does the HiPPO* always win?
In a feedback culture, senior leaders are open to changing their views and admitting they’re not always right. Steve Jobs famously said, “I don't really care about being right; I just care about success.” The opposite of this philosophy is management claiming to be listening to everyone’s input but then acting on their own instincts when a decision has to be made.
* HiPPO: Highest paid person's opinion
Q: What happens when a mistake is made?
When things are all sunshine and roses, a feedback culture is more straightforward. Your culture shows its true colours when deadlines are missed, complaints are going up, and targets are unmet. Do things then turn into a scene out of Lord of the Flies, with scapegoating, blaming and voting people off the island? Or are people able to sit down, listen and take responsibility to address the issues?
Q: To what extent do people openly disagree on issues?
"Everything’s fine because everyone agrees.” But do they really, or are issues simply sitting and festering because nobody wants to rock the boat? A certain amount of open disagreement actually proves the health of your company’s feedback culture. It’s also a sign of cognitive diversity: people can’t come up with creative solutions unless they disagree, question others and build on their ideas.
Q: Does underperformance come as a surprise?
If performance issues seem to spring out of nowhere, then it's a sign performance, and feedback conversations don't frequently happen enough. There should be no surprises for anyone involved if there are performance issues. In a healthy feedback culture, performance and progress are transparent. This applies at all levels: between individuals, within teams, and in the exec offices. Leaders don't wait three months before things hit breaking point to then “performance manage” someone, and teams don't hide critical problems that impact progress. Dealing with performance issues should be a collaborative endeavour.
How to start building a feedback culture
A healthy feedback culture is key to getting teams working effectively. There are several things you can do to get started.
Get people to ask for more feedback.
Organisations often think the key to better feedback is to upskill people on the art of giving feedback. Whilst this is important, the better place to start is by getting people more comfortable to ask for feedback, and for them to become better at receiving feedback. If people become feedback magnets, then the process of giving feedback becomes much easier.
Increase the amount of positive feedback.
Instead of starting with constructive feedback, start by significantly increasing the amount of positive feedback that flows through your organisation. High-quality praise boosts engagement and helps build a platform for other types of feedback conversations to flow from.
Develop rhythms and rituals for reflection.
At In The Game, we’re big on building rhythms and rituals around healthy team habits, so they become part of how a team operates and works. Encourage teams to schedule regular time for retrospectives and reviews to celebrate success and reflect on learnings. This safe space for feedback means a high-quality conversation can happen when things are less emotionally charged.
Encourage better-quality 1-1s.
Frequent, high-quality 1-on-1s between a people leader and each member of their team, provide an excellent space for two-way feedback. The biggest mistake with 1-on-1s is that they focus on the people leader, not the team member. A good 1-on-1 should feel like a really good in-depth conversation where the team members walk away with a greater sense of clarity, connection and confidence. We've got a practical 1-on-1 toolkit you can download for free here.
Supplement your engagement survey data.
Engagement survey data needs to be complimented with other data sources, so you have a more accurate gauge of what your people are thinking and feeling. Any time teams come together, there is an opportunity to collect additional data. That's why we've designed our platform in a way to provide more real-time insights and ideas from teams, whilst they are in the flow of their work.
In contrast to engagement surveys and micromanagement, a feedback culture creates a positive atmosphere of openness and safety in which information can flow freely. This leads to
Better business and team decision-making
More effective goal-setting, especially for hybrid teams
A happier and more engaging culture, which drives employee attraction and retention
Building a feedback culture doesn’t have to feel like a massive undertaking: with just a few small steps, you can be well on your way to encouraging more (and better) feedback at all levels.
At In The Game, we’re all about creating seriously engaged teams. To learn more about our game-changing approach for making feedback flow easier throughout your organisation, book a demo here.