Feedback: The Key to Alignment, Diversity, and Innovation
In this time of separation, remote work, and virtual meetings, feedback is more important than ever as it ignites clarity, motivation, and it keeps teams on track.
Written by:Tara A. Collison, Ph.D.
Why Do We Need a Culture of Feedback?
In this time of separation, remote work, and virtual meetings, feedback is more important than ever as it ignites clarity, motivation, and it keeps teams on track. A culture of feedback –– where everyone gives and receives it freely –– can remedy needless uncertainty, chaos, and conflict. Even when things are status quo, feedback is vital to creating a unified environment. It’s the key to alignment, diversity, innovation, and high performance. Without feedback, we’re feeling our way in the dark –– making guesses based on our own perspectives and biases.
Feedback should be something that happens every single day –– something that’s completely integrated into your daily routines. The beauty of feedback is that you can give and hear it anytime and anywhere. It doesn’t require you to wait for a “special event” like a yearly review or be locked away in a conference room. Instead, it can be as simple as a five-minute casual conversation over coffee. If we want to be at our best, understanding our impact is critical, and direct feedback is one of the most efficient ways to build perspective and elevate our performance. Beyond the performance edge and efficiency it creates, having a feedback culture is about creating an environment of psychological safety and openness, and encouraging diverse perspectives.
So, how do we cultivate a feedback culture –– an open channel of communication that flows both ways in our lives? It requires us to get comfortable asking for, giving, and receiving all kinds of feedback, even if the feedback itself is less comfortable. To give attention to your intention, and keep conflict and miscommunication from becoming long term problems, develop actionable strategies for promoting feedback based on the elements below.
Create the Right Environment For Valued Feedback
First, create an environment where it feels safe to share and ask for feedback. This doesn’t require you to avoid conflict or confrontation; those things are normal, and doing so would defeat the purpose. However, it does require you to get to know your co-workers and try to understand them as people.
Make a habit out of asking about everyone’s life and well-being, and occasionally reciprocate by sharing your own stories. The point is to become comfortable enough with your employees or coworkers that any feedback feels authentic. Remember, we’re all responsible for this –– creating safety is not just a job for your manager. Even just one person breaking trust can cause a ripple effect within the culture.
Make it OK to discuss emotions at work, too. Feelings are often at the heart of feedback, both good and bad. If emotions aren’t exiled in your workplace, people will feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts. It can be hard to introduce this or simply to say “emotions are okay,” so adopting a framework for bringing up important but sometimes difficult discussions can help. The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) has a great model for this called SBI (Situation, Behavior, Implication).
Consider the ratio of positive to negative feedback. Research conducted by John Gottman, a University of Washington psychologist, demonstrates that the sweet spot for any kind of relationship is a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions.
Feedback culture isn’t merely the acceptance of criticism before moving on –– it’s an exchange of meaningful insight to create change. Even if it’s mostly positive feedback, there should be something discussed that can lead to improvement. It can be anything from a strength they should keep leveraging or something to consider that will elevate their performance.
However, be careful not to use positive feedback as a cushion for negative feedback. If we make this a habit, it ultimately diminishes the value of positive feedback. It also conditions us to ignore good feedback in preparation for the bad.
Often, organizations and teams say they want feedback, yet as individuals we are slow to participate. It’s as if we are waiting for someone else to start. Truly creating a culture of feedback means every person needs to embrace and promote a culture of feedback through personal accountability. That means you participate in giving and receiving feedback, showing transparency about your ongoing effort to do so. When in doubt, ask for feedback. People may not be willing to give it without being prompted, but they should know that the process is important to you.
Get Good at Asking for Feedback
Start by observing yourself and gauging how often (if ever) you ask for feedback or give it. If and when you give it, is it more affirmative or critical? Once you’ve collected a few days worth of data, look for themes, strengths to leverage, and opportunities to work on. Once you have your baseline, start by asking for more feedback from a different colleague every day. It’s a good habit that nearly everyone needs to get better at. Or you can implement a regular all-hands meeting to discuss everyone’s ongoing thoughts and concerns.
In general, make a habit of asking for feedback. Studies have shown that asking for feedback can actually make a difficult situation less uncomfortable for everyone. Feedback is uncomfortable because it feels threatening in some way. When you ask for feedback, your own threat level is reduced because you're exercising autonomy. You feel more capable of steering the conversation, and you are much more likely to embrace what is said. At the same time, other people's threat level is reduced because they know –– on some level –– that you are open to listening, particularly if you are specific in your ask.
Get Good at Receiving Feedback
When it comes to receiving feedback, there are a few things you can do to improve your intake. Practice active listening techniques that show you’re hearing and absorbing someone’s input –– make eye contact, nod, and ask relevant, clarifying questions.
Another important element of receiving feedback is preventing an emotional hijacking. The truth is, feedback isn’t always positive or what we want to hear, and it can be easy to let yourself become overwhelmed with emotion instead of taking an opportunity to learn and improve. First, take a pause before you react. Focus on your breathing –– take long deep breaths in and out. This helps you manage your body’s fight-or-flight response. Try some grounding or labeling techniques where you give a name to your emotion, and silently name the things you’re feeling –– the floor under your feet, the chair beneath you, a pencil in your hand, etc.
Part of receiving feedback is follow-through. Listening and absorbing is great, but it’s meaningless unless you do something with the feedback once it’s given. Come up with a personal action plan that details the ways you can turn intention into attention, and advice into action.
Get Good at Giving Feedback
The feedback you give to others should be timely and specific. Try not to let a situation linger and miss an opportunity to give relevant feedback. Focus on things that the person listening can change –– that they have power over –– and veer away from what can be interpreted as vague or personal judgment.
It’s good to stay positive when giving feedback, even if not all of what you’re saying is “good.” Encouragement and patience go a long way toward making the listener comfortable and receptive. One way to do this is to focus on effort over ability. Ability changes over time, but effort is the key to getting there. Finally, check back in periodically after you give the feedback. Ask the person about their progress as opposed to letting your conversation float in the abyss, never to be mentioned again.
Another strategy is to create space for feedback in the regular course of business. Consider practices such as formal debriefs after big meetings or at the close of projects. In these meetings, you could utilize a simple Start/Stop/Continue framework which gives you a good way to reflect before moving forward.
Feedback is the Key
A healthy feedback culture is an indicator of a healthy team. Especially now, when most of us are under more stress than normal and separated from many of the people who we used to see on a daily basis, we need to practice balance, safety, and personal accountability. It boils down to this –– be open to constructive criticism, act on the feedback given to you, give feedback often and freely, and create opportunities for feedback. This could be as simple as setting up a work-related chat channel, opening up new ways for your teams to connect, converse, and trade feedback in uncertain times.