The power of feedback

And what it takes to create an effective feedback culture

Exchanging honest and sincere feedback is a critical success factor for creating a positive, sustainable corporate culture. Renowned organizations such as Netflix recognized this correlation and built on it when introducing their own feedback systems. But feedback is not self-propelling. On the contrary, it is hard work and it has a tendency to scare off people in droves. Some are afraid of receiving it, others of giving it—both constructive criticism and praise. And the company culture can and does suffer as a result. But it doesn’t have to be that way! Effectively handling feedback is a skill, and it can be learned and positively institutionalized in an organization’s DNA. With the right attitude, effectual self-management, and the proper toolset, it can succeed—and is absolutely worth it.

Feedback culture drives organizational performance

Clearly investing in culture is not only a ‘nice to have’ but can also bring about a notable competitive advantage.

As Nicole Forsgren & colleagues revealed in their book ‘Accelerate—Building and Scaling High Performing Technology Organizations’, a generative and performance-oriented corporate culture has a positive effect on organizational performance as well as the level of job satisfaction. So, you really have a strong lever for success by focusing on your organizational culture.

And a meaningful culture requires first and foremost trust and cooperation between individuals across the organization. Google looked for the key ingredients that make up effective, high-performing teams. They were surprised to find that individuals who comprise a team (in terms of traits and skills) actually matter less than the level of collaboration and trust between them. Which means trust within a team is THE key to unleash outstanding achievements.

But how do you build trust? One way is by learning the most effective ways to receive, give, and encourage open feedback. Kim Scott points out in her book ‘Radical Candor’ that this is especially true for managers as feedback is one of their three key responsibilities in the realm of guidance (the other two being team building and producing results). And because a manager’s behavior can have a ripple effect: The relationships they have with their direct reports will impact the relationships those reports have with their own direct reports. Ultimately this can lead to the creation or destruction of a positive culture. But feedback from a manager is not the only key factor here. Indeed peer-to-peer feedback also plays an increasingly important role, especially in the Agile world. It is the peer feedback, e.g. in retrospectives that enables a culture of continuous improvement.

To summarize: Giving and receiving effective feedback can be considered a critical factor for economic success. And the good news is this: it’s a skill. And like all skills, it can be learned and taught!

Feedback accelerates improvement

Honest, effective feedback is undoubtedly a crucial component of great corporate culture and one of the most important interactions between individuals. But what is it exactly? Tamra Chandler’s definition resonates with me the most: ‘Feedback is clear and specific information that is sought or extended with the sole intention of helping individuals or groups improve, grow, or advance.’ So it’s about improvement, plain and simple. And no matter where you work or what your role is, one of the greatest paths to improvement is: feedback. Giving it—and vice versa—is a skill that’s relevant for all of us if we intend to grow as a person or drive success within our teams or organizations.

But how exactly do I learn this fundamental skill, and how do I ensure that all turns out well—rather than the opposite?

Culture follows structure

Culture follows structure. It would therefore make sense to implement structures that force us to give and get feedback regularly when such a culture is what we’re striving for.

Lean or Agile frameworks have such intentionally built-in feedback loops to foster continuous improvement, as well as to aid organizations in learning and staying relevant. In fact, the heart of agility is to continuously learn from feedback and then adjust when necessary. In the classic Scrum cycle, for example, teams have the option to inspect and adapt every two weeks during the retrospective. But all other rituals also invite you to rethink and make the best decision based on the current state of knowledge. The implementation of agile structures can therefore be an accelerator to create a good feedback culture.

Feedback Blog Post

Tip—Microstructure to try:

You don’t have to go ‘full-on Agile’ to harvest the first fruits. One Microstructure you could utilize is by using ROTI after every meeting, which is a very effective continuous improvement tool for meetings of any kind.

The problem is: we’re scared

Even if an Agile framework can aid your cause, it’s not necessarily sufficient for your feedback culture to be a success; giving or receiving feedback is not that easy - people dread it! No matter how old, where they’re from, what industry they’re in, or what academic credentials they hold – feedback doesn’t come naturally.

When we look closely at what really frightens us about feedback, it boils down to this: identity and connection. At the heart of our fear is our identity, and how that identity is shaped and reinforced by our connections to and affiliations with the rest of the world.’ (Tamra Chandler).

So, if you are struggling with it - you can be relieved because it is very human to do so.

Many of us still haven’t figured out how to deliver feedback in such a way that fear is significantly reduced. To circumvent this, we tend to give indirect feedback, provide hints, or simply do nothing at all. Or perhaps we give feedback when it’s already too late, e.g. firing someone without having discussed any of the reasons beforehand. All of this will very likely have a negative impact on our organizational culture and subsequently our financial results.

The top 3 elements for giving great feedback

In order to overcome fear and build trust so that the groundwork for success is ultimately laid, good self-management is essential. But so is having the right inner attitude as well as an effective structure for feedback delivery. I’ll briefly address these three elements below.

Leading yourself and others with emotional intelligence

As a person, you are in the focus of everything you do. The better you are able to lead yourself, the better you will be able to do your job—no matter what it is. This means that the better you are able to recognize and control your thoughts and emotions in a (difficult) feedback conversation, the more likely you are to be able to manage the situation well. This skill is called ‘Emotional Intelligence’.

Emotional Intelligence is the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.’ (Peter Salovery and John D. Mayer).

But clearly noticing or even changing your inner world is easier said than done. There is one effective practice with increasing relevance in the business world which is: Mindfulness. It helps you to familiarize yourself with your thoughts, feelings, goals and needs by just pausing to observe them carefully. The simple act of being attentive and aware of your inner state when giving or receiving feedback can aid you in questioning that state and altering it as needed.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.’ (Viktor E. Frankl)

Tip—Microstructure to try:

Take a deep breath before every new endeavor you do with careful attention on your breathing. In doing so, you train yourself—and, ultimately, your brain—to focus with full attention and without judging, not just on breathing, but anything for that matter.

The right inner attitude: Radical Candor

Before giving feedback, it is strongly advised to check your motives at the door. After all, it’s about building trust! And it’s about helping individuals to grow and improve. So, if your intention isn’t to help a person or team to thrive, then why offer feedback or seek it out in the first place? Kim Scott calls this attitude ‘radical candor’. It is a combination of ‘care personally’ and ‘challenge directly’. ‘Radical candor builds trust and opens the door for the kind of communication that helps you achieve the results you are aiming for’ (Scott). This inner attitude can help you strengthen your relationships instead of weakening them—even in difficult situations. When people trust you and believe you care about them, they are much more likely to hear what you have to say.

Tip—Microstructures to try:

Every time you are about to give feedback, pause 2 minutes beforehand to think about how you intend to help the other person to become better.

Every time you receive feedback (as badly as it may have been delivered), pause 2 minutes to think about how it can help yourself to grow. Say ‘thank you’ and mean it 😃

Simple and effective: The SBII Structure

If attitude and self-management are in the proper balance, there is a high probability that your feedback will be effective, well received and, consequently, helpful in building a team culture of openness and trust. Nevertheless, there is a tool that can assist in complementing these skills. The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) developed a simple structure to deliver effective feedback: The Situation-Behavior-Impact-Intent method (SBII). It’s a simple, four-step process: You begin by describing the situation to provide context for your feedback. This is followed by mentioning the specific behaviors you observed, and then explaining the impact that those behaviors had on you. You close by asking about the person’s original intentions.

Here’s an example: ‘In our strategy meeting this morning when it was my turn to present my ideas for our next steps, you interrupted me twice by saying ‘yes, but…’ This left me feeling annoyed because it cut off my train of thoughts. What were you trying to achieve?’

This structure is so powerful because it contains the most important rules of feedback: observe without evaluation, be specific when describing the problematic behaviors you want to address, and transparently communicate the impact those behaviors have had on you. Maybe most relevant: Stay curious about what the other person has to say! According to the CCL, their method is even ‘proven to reduce the anxiety of delivering feedback and also reduce the defensiveness of the recipient.’

Feedback Blog Post

Now what?

Somehow, it’s all so simple and clear, and yet seemingly difficult and complex. But nothing helps more than to just take the first step—doing so is undeniably worth it. And this is exactly what we can tackle head on in a feedback-training, which mainly consists of tried-and-true, result-producing exercises which take you from where you are.

In order to help you reflect on your inner world and awaken the leader in you, book effective 1:1 sessions with one of your Agile Leadership Mentors.

As inhouse Agile Coaches we can help you to facilitate the implementation of a successful feedback culture in your organization.

Just contact us to discuss your ideas or needs.

We offer

  • Agile Coaching - We accompany your teams, your executives or even the whole organization with commitment on the journey to an Agile company.

  • Agile Consulting - A view from an expert from the outside can sometimes be very enlightening.

  • Agile Leadership Mentoring - We support your leaders in finding their own solutions for specific contexts so that they remain the rock of your organization.

  • Agile Trainings - We are also happy to implement trainings to teach an Agile method that will get all employees to the same level in a structured manner.

  • Agile Workshop - Think, create and decide together. We will gladly guide you through the process. What is your topic, what would be a good result?

Image soure: Photo by Jukan Tateisi on Unsplash