Feedback is not a four-letter word: How to create a constructive feedback culture
The word “feedback” may conjure painful and awkward memories of previous bosses rating you on the degree to which you’ve reflected their own self-image. Rarely does feedback support the desired outcome—an improvement in individual performance. Instead, it typically activates defenses, shuts down curiosity, and has exactly the opposite effect. So how do you create a culture where you can freely share feedback and capture the true potential of learning from one another?
I believe creating a constructive feedback culture requires leaders to do three things:
- Build strong relationships with the people on your team so they know you have the same goal: to help them be their very best and find joy while doing it.
- Normalize the act of providing feedback so it becomes part of how you work day to day. Praise counts as feedback. Give sincere appreciation at every opportunity and remember to focus on effort more than outcome.
- Make a distinction between the work and the person. If you are commenting on the work, make it a forward-looking suggestion, like “One thing to think about for next time…” If the feedback is about interpersonal or leadership skills, talk about it privately and in the form of a conversation rather than a one-way declaration.
BUILD REAL RELATIONSHIPS
Professional relationship-building is not about birthday cakes and chit-chat before meetings start. It’s about being invested in the success of the people around you. The critical first step is to ask, “What motivates you at work?”
What humans crave is not feedback. It’s attention. And giving your team members your full and undivided attention while inviting them to share their aspirations can go a tremendous way toward establishing a genuine relationship.
Another key to relationship-building is intention. While people are naturally self-focused, leadership demands you to be other-focused. Be cognizant of the signals you are sending to your team, especially signals related to safety and belonging. For example, if you’re having a bad day and it’s showing, every person you interact with will assume your frustration lies with them. You don’t need to fake it. Simply state it: “I’m really struggling with a client at the moment and it’s hitting me particularly hard. That’s what’s causing my crankiness. Not you.” This level of self-disclosure can build trust with your team and contribute to psychological safety.
MAKE FEEDBACK AN EVERYDAY OCCURRENCE
One of the many reasons that feedback is so high-stakes is that it’s often an event—usually an annual one. Who wouldn’t be nervous having a full year of highs and lows distilled down into one numeric rating? In my view, there should never be any surprises in a performance summary because everything has already been said in real time.
I believe real-time conversations are the most effective because the people involved have an immediate connection to the data. There’s nothing worse than getting strong feedback when you’re barely able to remember the moment in question. By making feedback a normal part of how you work, a “suggestion for next time” can be expected and therefore more likely to be heard.
Spend most of your effort focusing on what’s going well. In my experience, people have a much easier time building on their innate strengths rather than trying to be something they’re not. Be as specific as possible so they know exactly what you’re noticing. Instead of “You’re so strategic,” try saying, “I appreciated the way that you outlined both the short- and long-term consequences of the choice we are making. It helped us all take a more strategic perspective.” You can’t be too thoughtful when it comes to providing feedback. Focus on behaviors and implications, not attributes.
DON’T KEEP SCORE
One of the greatest sources of anxiety for high performers is falling short of expectations in any way. This can make it very challenging to provide constructive feedback on work or projects. When I make corrective edits or take projects in a different direction, I emphasize that I’m not keeping score of the number of times I catch a mistake or make significant changes. We operate from a mindset that everyone is accountable for the outcomes, therefore we all take a vested interest in meeting high standards. In operating from a growth mindset, the emphasis is on effort and persistence rather than perfection.
You don’t need complex technologies or annual processes to build a feedback culture within your team. Instead, focus on having a commitment to caring for one another, sharing your observations, and providing genuine appreciation for the contributions each person provides. If you can shift your own relationship with feedback to one of genuine curiosity, it can go a long way in setting the tone for your team.