The Best Way to Create a Feedback Culture

feedback meeting

If your organization is anything like every other organization I’ve ever seen, you do not have a strong feedback culture.

Perhaps the people you hire are just really nice and they tip toe around the issues, rarely giving the direct and clear criticism that’s needed. Maybe your people give feedback, but it’s harsh or given in ways that are unproductive at best and unprofessional at worst. Or I’m guessing everyone is just too damn busy to deal with it; but you’ll definitely be focused on it next quarter!

Any of these descriptions sound familiar? Most likely, your culture is a hodgepodge of all three.

The good news: You’re not alone. I’ve yet to find an organization that has this all figured out.

The less than good news: Your organization is suffering as a result. I’ve seen three major areas deteriorate as organizations procrastinate on developing their feedback culture:

  1. Employee Engagement and Empowerment. When employees don’t get feedback on the reg, they second guess themselves and hold back. If they’re not sure about how they’re doing and worried they’re not living up to expectations, chances are that they won’t feel willing to step into more challenging roles and take ownership of projects. Without these new challenges, work becomes rote and they begin looking for new opportunities… outside of your organization.

  2. Psychological Safety. Without regular, candid feedback, trust begins to erode. When employees are unsure of themselves and their standing, they begin to create stories about how they’re perceived and fear begins to grow. Dynamic teamwork that fosters great organizations cannot thrive without safety.

  3. Productivity and Innovation. As a result of a lack of psychological safety, employees become unwilling to take risks and strategic thinking decreases. The science behind this is clear: as we perceive threats to our survival and success, we experience an amygdala hijacking that causes us to act without thinking, and that can be quite detrimental in today’s workplace.

Shifting an organization’s culture, however, is not a quick fix. There’s no magic bullet for infusing feedback into your company’s DNA. To make meaningful changes, it requires commitment from the highest levels, conversations across hierarchical lines, structures for giving and receiving feedback, and ongoing training. But the most promising initiative I’ve seen is to actually get the organization drinking the koolaid: to get people the feedback they need immediately. And the best way I’ve seen to do this: 360 assessments.

360 assessments are qualitative and / or quantitative feedback from people above you, your peers, and people below you in the organizational system. And they can be controversial beasts. But I’ve found that when done well - with attention to detail, goals, and implementation - they can shift an organization’s perception of and way of engaging with feedback. I have run 360s for teams I’ve managed, conducted them as an external coach, used qualitative and quantitative data, coupled data with coaching and failed to do so, and have used research-based tools and ones that I’ve customized for organizations. Based on my experiences, here are the four most effective strategies I’ve found for running a meaningful and successful 360-review process:

Shout it from the rooftops

Performance reviews and feedback tend to incite fear in both giver and receiver. Launching a 360-review process in your organization should be a celebration, one in which everyone is invited to the party.

boy talking into microphone

To date, one of the hardest coaching lessons I learned was initiating a 360 process in a vacuum. We were eager to get started and notified the team that would be receiving the feedback by email. Even today, I cringe when I write that sentence. We emailed (!!!) people to tell them about the process, we didn’t give nearly enough information or have a conversation with them about why we were doing this, and we only shared the information with those who would be receiving the reviews. Needless to say, it was a disaster.

But like all good failures, I’m grateful for the lessons learned. Since that project, I’ve put the launch of any 360 process front and center. We begin with why - why we are doing the 360s in the first place - and a conversation with those who will be receiving the reviews. We talk about challenges and concerns, and we acknowledge that this can be scary and overwhelming.

Then we bring in the rest of the organization. Many team members will receive requests to fill out the 360 assessments, and it’s critical that everyone understands why we are running this process, how their feedback will be used, the time it will take for them to fill out the 360, and most important, that this is an exercise focused on the participant’s growth (more on that in #2).

While bringing the organization along is critical for the success of the 360 process, it’s even more important in building a feedback culture. It is a way of modeling the importance of and investment in getting people the feedback they need to grow. We discuss the importance of giving challenging feedback that is candid and also in service of the person’s learning. While the 360s we run are anonymous, we like to point out that this is to kickstart the feedback process, not to act as a substitute for giving direct, in the moment feedback (more on that in #3!)

Focus on growth not performance management

360-degree assessments are not helpful as a performance management tool. When organizations use them to determine promotions or raises, raters are cautious and the feedback tends to be sugar coated and inaccurate. This erodes trust in the process, tends to be a waste of time, and takes away from the goal of creating a culture of feedback.

hand holding change

360s should not be used to “deliver a message” to an employee. If an employer has something specific they want the employee to know, for goodness sake, just tell the person! Engaging a team in a 360 review just to give a message one already knows is a waste of time, money, and trust.

Instead, 360s should be an investment in your best employee. Receiving a 360s is both a way to acknowledge the employee’s good work and to demonstrate that the company wants the employee to continue to grow and develop in a way that’s meaningful for the company and for the individual.

Keep it confidential and anonymous

It’s tempting to think that if you’re trying to create a feedback culture, you should just do this all out in the open. The challenge: currently, you don’t have a feedback culture, so no matter how hard you push, the honest feedback will not materialize in a meaningful way. If you don’t make the process anonymous and confidential, people won’t give the feedback that will be most beneficial for the receiver. Sure, in a perfect world, we might all give each other supportive, constructive feedback on an ongoing basis, and we don’t live in that world just yet.

lock

Creating a process that is confidential allows the receiver of the feedback to take a deep breath and see that this is truly for their development. The receiver may choose to share the feedback with colleagues, a boss, or perhaps trusted advisors outside of work, but ultimately, this person should not have to do that. As the coach, I encourage my clients to share themes with a few others so that they have outside accountability and support.

For the feedback givers, it’s important that the feedback be completely anonymous. This allows them to give the feedback in a way that is direct and without fear of consequence. I’ve yet to see someone give feedback that is intentionally hurtful because the process has been anonymous. As you’ll see in our final step, I recommend that receivers choose their evaluators with care, picking people that they respect and who will give them “loving criticism.”

Support the process with coaching

While removing the rose-colored glasses that shade your blindspots is critical for leadership growth and success, no one said it was easy. Most of us have never gotten feedback as direct and clear as you get in a 360. And while we all say we want feedback (“Feedback is a gift!”), it’s much harder to receive than you might expect (it tends to become a gift we’d like to return!).

present

Too often we take the hit-and-run approach to 360s: we hand someone their report and walk (or literally, run) away. This sends 360 recipients spinning. They focus on the wrong areas, get stuck on comments that really aren’t very telling, and little action results.

It’s critical that if you want the 360 process to be meaningful to the receiver and beneficial to the organization, support needs to be available throughout the process. When I engage with a client receiving a 360, our work begins before the 360. We set goals, work together to select raters who will give candid and valuable feedback, and create a stake for how to be with the feedback.  

I’ve found that most of my clients go through a process called SARAH: Shock, Anger, Resistance, Acceptance, and Help. I work with each client to pull out themes in their report (and not get hung up on a single comment), delve into what they’re doing well - not just where they’re not good enough - and figure out a plan to make the most of the feedback.

 

Running a 360 can be a scary process. It’s a lot of work and can be quite time consuming for the organization. But if you are serious about creating a culture of feedback, it’s one of the most effective ways to move the needle.

To learn more about Launch Project’s 360 assessments and leadership coaching, set up a time to chat!