We often get asked how the features our Fast Mirror platform help motivate people to give and accept feedback. We also get asked how it can be used to hold people accountable for providing feedback. Not just managers, but all levels of employees. They’re trying to create a “feedback culture” and often in the early stages of determining what this new feedback culture will look like. So, they’re checking out the new HR technology to get some ideas.
Checking out the new technology certainly makes sense. It’s good to know what’s out there. But there’s a potential trap as well. If you’re looking at technology solutions before you’ve defined internally what the new feedback culture will look like, you risk letting the technology drive your vision, rather than the other way around. You also risk mistaking the characteristics of effective feedback for the presence of a feedback culture.
There’s a difference between an effective feedback practice and the existence of a feedback culture.
HR professionals have a wealth of resources available to identify effective feedback practices that can be implemented in their organizations (examples can be found here and here). Although some of the aspects are quite controversial – such as the feedback sandwich and its ever-expanding menu of variations (wraps and pizza for example), there are some basic elements of effective feedback that most of us would be able to agree on. Examples include covering both positive and developmental feedback, grounding feedback in tangible behaviors rather than adjectives, and including actions that can be taken in the future to address behaviors that need to change.
A feedback culture, on the other hand, is different. It is organizational culture applied to the practice of feedback. Organizational culture defined is “a system of shared assumptions, values, and beliefs that govern how people behave in organizations.” Applied to the concept of feedback, the definition of a feedback culture is the shared assumptions, values and beliefs that govern the feedback behaviors demonstrated by individuals in the organization.
When you implement effective feedback behaviors in your organization, you can provide guidance to employees on what to do and how to do it when giving and receiving feedback. But those steps do not address how they feel about it – their assumptions, values, and beliefs about feedback. What do they think about it? Do they find it useful? Do they enjoy getting it? How do they feel about giving it? How do leaders feel about being both givers of feedback and receivers themselves?
Just because you implement effective feedback practices does not mean you’ve created a feedback culture.
Creating a feedback culture, particularly in organizations that have historically had challenges with feedback, is a large-scale change intervention. It therefore requires the same level of diligence you would apply to any other change strategy. Ideally you will be applying one of the major change management models in your efforts or something similar. No matter which model you’re using, as with any change intervention, the change will need to start at the top. The “top” means the CEO and his/her direct reports, not a team of voluntold executive sponsors. This McKinsey article offers excellent advice for what the CEO’s role should be in facilitating the change. The section about the importance of role modeling is particularly important for a change regarding feedback.
A change readiness assessment should be also be performed. There are many tools available for use. Make sure you partner with a qualified change management expert to ensure you’re using the best one for your situation.
Whatever methodology you choose, the assessment should include a thorough analysis of the current and desired state of feedback behaviors in the organization. Here are some sample questions focused on feedback to get you started.
- What outcomes do we expect to achieve by implementing effective feedback behaviors? Be sure to answer this question with observable behaviors and measurable data.
- What is the current employee perception about feedback? Manager perception? Senior leadership?
- Do employees have sufficient level of trust in leaders to foster a feedback culture? How is the trust level between employees and leaders at the same level?
- What are the obstacles to employees’ and leaders’ willingness to be honest when giving feedback? (e.g., fear of retaliation, conflict-avoidant culture, etc.).
- What are the strengths of senior leadership regarding feedback and what are their development needs?
- What are leaders currently doing right when giving feedback?
- What are leaders currently doing wrong when giving feedback?
- Under what circumstances do we expect feedback to be provided?
- How do we want people to feel after receiving feedback?
- How will employees and leaders know it is safe to provide feedback?
- What specific feedback behaviors do we want to encourage? How can we reward or incentivize people to demonstrate them?
- What specific feedback behaviors do we want to discourage? What should the consequences be for demonstrating them?
- How have we (HR) tried to help in the past? What was most valuable / least valuable?
The Role of Technology
As you can see, none of the questions have anything to do with technology. They have to do with the communication facilitated by the technology – whether it’s the latest web-based tool or a face to face conversation.
Can technology help you support a transformation to a feedback culture? Absolutely. HR technology now makes it easy for people to get quick, real-time feedback. It can also help drive accountability with tracking features, ability to share data, social tools, etc. But, it’s important to remember that these features are supporting mechanisms, not drivers of change. The drivers of change for creation of a feedback culture are the same as for any other culture change. Without visible demonstration and role modeling of the desired feedback behaviors from the very top leadership levels, a feedback culture will not be attained.