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Giving and Receiving Quality Feedback: Culture Is Key

Changing Expectations For Feedback

Not so long ago giving employees feedback was a once a year event, and sometimes the feedback was limited to just a few written sentences to justify the scores on an employee’s annual evaluation. This type of feedback has been given and received by seasoned leaders through the years. But today’s employees have much higher expectations about the kind of feedback they should receive from their supervisors, and how often they should receive it. The Millennial generation’s entrance into the workforce has prompted much research on managing and motivating this distinct group of employees. A major recurring theme from these studies is Millennials’ need for constant feedback. They want to know if they are meeting their manager’s expectations if their contributions are viewed as valuable, and even if they are appreciated for their unique personal characteristics. In study after study, Millennials have communicated that they view the ability to receive regular feedback from supervisors as one of the most important aspects of a positive work environment. While some managers interpret this need for constant affirmation as a symptom of Millennials’ inflated egos, others see it as a component of Millennials’ above average interest in professional growth and learning.

Improving feedback in an organization should not be about keeping up with the latest trend in management. It must be part of a cultural shift that reinforces the benefit of informal learning opportunities and recognizes the value that all members bring to the team. Research has shown that when supervisors provide environments where quality feedback flourishes they reap the benefits of higher performance and positive organizational citizenship behavior from employees. Included in these findings, is a link between managers’ and employees’ positive relationships with each other, and employees valuing the feedback they receive. A positive organizational culture is by far the most important element of an effective feedback improvement initiative.

While detailed explanations and complicated definitions of organizational culture abound, authors Kim Cameron and Robert Quinn provided a refreshingly succinct description of culture. They said, “... the concept of culture refers to the taken-for-granted values, underlying assumptions, expectations, and definitions that characterize organizations and their members.” Leaders must ask themselves if the underlying assumptions and values of their organization align with the cultural components necessary for learning and growth. Do we believe that we all have value to add to the organization, our teams, and our coworkers? Do we believe that we all have room to grow? Do we value professional development for individuals and ongoing growth for the organization? Can we describe our culture as a learning culture? These cultural components are necessary for improving feedback within an organization.

Leaders Change Culture

Without a doubt, culture creation and culture change require involvement from both leaders and followers. Both groups must share a common regard for the value that regular feedback has as a component of an overall culture of learning for the feedback to be useful. However, leaders carry the bulk of the responsibility for sustaining and enforcing an organization’s culture. Cameron and Quinn said, “In a growing organization, leaders externalize their own assumptions and embed them gradually and consistently in the mission, goals, structures, and working procedures of the group.” The following list of strategies provides leaders with suggestions for embedding quality feedback in the organization’s culture.

Share Personal Examples: Leaders can help to create a culture where feedback is valued by sharing examples of how they have personally benefited from input through their careers. Was there a pivotal conversation that changed the way you viewed your work? Did you have a mentor who taught you a valuable lesson? Sharing these types of stories with employees helps to reinforce the concept that we all need feedback - both positive encouragement and constructive criticism - to grow.

Trust Others Intentions: Leaders must reassure followers that feedback is offered as a means of investing in both the individual’s and the organization’s strengths. Positive feedback helps people identify what they do well (so they can do more of it), and constructive criticism helps to ensure that adverse incidents do not detract from a person’s or team’s overall successes. Leaders should acknowledge that giving negative feedback to others is often uncomfortable, so it should be viewed as a commendable act when someone steps out of their comfort zone to share something that could be perceived as negative. A willingness to share negative feedback indicates a desire to see someone grow and succeed, and this concept is one that the leader should reinforce as often as possible. 

Lead By Example: Use team meetings and individual conversations as opportunities to show others how quality feedback looks and sounds. Plan for what you will share so that you can give input in a way that is respectful, supportive, and encouraging. While there is a place for candor in feedback conversations, there is also much to be said for investing time in thoughtful reflection and planning.

Practice What You Preach. Ask for input from others as a way of showing that you value their feedback. Leaders should make it clear that they are not “fishing for compliments” when asking for input. By sharing examples of quality feedback you have received from employees in the past, leaders set the standard for the type of information that is valued.

Followers Support Culture Change

When it comes to lasting cultural change, followers also have a significant part to play. As new members join an organization, they will look to existing members to learn what the organization values, what it will and will not tolerate, and what has been planned for the organization’s future. Effective leaders know that working together with followers is the only way to accomplish mutual goals and make lasting changes. From a practical standpoint, leaders cannot possibly provide all the feedback that employees need to grow and develop. Feedback from peers and coworkers can be of tremendous benefit to employees, and their support of feedback initiatives can help to solidify the cultural changes necessary for lasting impact. The following list of strategies provides followers with suggestions for helping to embed quality feedback in the organization’s culture.

Share Lessons Learned: Openly talking about feedback you have received in the past communicates the idea that giving and receiving feedback is “how things are done around here.” Openly discussing the value you place on quality feedback lets coworkers know that you welcome their input.

Ask Peers For Feedback: Asking for input from peers is a way of inviting them to give you feedback. Validating a coworker’s assessment of their own performance is always easier than offering unsolicited advice, so make it easier for your peers to share their input by communicating your thoughts on how you could improve your performance.

Receive Negative Feedback Graciously: While the organization is in the process of “normalizing” a new focus on feedback, it may take some time to get used to receiving negative feedback from peers. The most important thing is to remain calm, respectful, and reflective when receiving negative feedback. Strategies that work in one organization may be unsuccessful in another, and each new environment provides an opportunity to further develop skills and techniques. Learn to regard negative feedback as informational, rather than judgmental.

Give Quality Feedback to Peers: A culture that values feedback has a shared understanding of the purpose of feedback, and the fact that sharing it with others is a way of helping them. Giving negative feedback can be uncomfortable, and on the flip side, giving quality positive feedback can be challenging. Often the most natural thing to do is not to say anything. But for cultural change to take root, feedback must become a regular part of an organization’s structures and work procedures - and that means everyone must participate in the process.

Organizational Initiatives or Limited Pilot Programs? Yes.

An organization-wide initiative is beneficial for many reasons. Shared values, language, and modes of operation help to ensure that the organization’s culture is reinforced at all levels. Investing time in learning new skills together can create a bond that unites teams and managers alike. Depending on your organization’s recent track record with implementing new initiatives, starting a new “Let’s all get better at feedback” program could easily be reduced to another “This too shall pass” event. If your organization does not currently have the capacity for a system-wide culture change, you can start smaller - with the subculture of your team or the specific group of employees who report to you.

Different departments and subunits within an organization tend to develop their own cultures. This phenomenon makes an organizational culture change a challenge depending on the diversity of the groups. But for group leaders, it makes instituting the type of cultural change necessary for improved feedback methods an achievable goal. Developing your team’s capacity to give and receive quality feedback to each other does not depend on all of the organization’s teams getting on board with the change. It is possible to institute this type of culture change one team at a time. And improving the performance of your group members through enhanced feedback methods may provide the proof that the rest of the organization needs to invest in lasting culture change.

Four Tips For Giving Good Feedback

1. Give feedback that is specific. Saying, “Good job at the meeting yesterday” does not offer any valuable information on what the person did right. Instead, say something like, “I appreciate the thoughtful questions you asked in the meeting yesterday. It helped us realize that we had not considered all of the necessary logistics.” This type of feedback is more beneficial because it identifies what the person did right, and why it was helpful for the group.

2. Give feedback that is balanced. Quality feedback should include both recognition of strengths and suggestions for growth. Too much positive feedback can call into question the sincerity of what is being shared, and too much negativity can become a demotivating force in the organization. Remember that the purpose of feedback is for growth, and people need to know what they are doing right just as much as they need to know how to improve.

3. Give feedback for the right reasons. “You always know just the right thing to say” sounds more like flattery than feedback. Instead, say something like, “I was impressed with the way you were able to change the tone of the meeting and calm everyone down. How did you know to take that tact with them?” Ending with a relevant question shows that you hope to learn something from the other person.

4. Ask others how they prefer to receive feedback. Not everyone wants to receive a “shout-out” in front of the whole group, or a mention in a company-wide email, but some people do. Taking time to ask your team members how they like to receive feedback and displaying sensitivity and respect for their preferences is an essential component of establishing a culture conducive to feedback.

References

Cameron, K.S., and Quinn, R.E. (2011). Diagnosing and changing organizational culture: Based on the competing values framework. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Hall, A. (2016). Exploring the workplace communication preferences of Millennials. Journal of Organizational Culture Communications and Conflict20(1), 35-44.

Peng, J.C., and Lin, J. (2015). Linking supervisor feedback environment to contextual performances: The mediating effect of leader-member exchange. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 37(6), 802-820.

Rosa, N.M. and Hastings, S.O. (2017). Managing Millennials: Looking beyond generational stereotypes. Journal of Organizational Change Management31(4), 920-930.

Shein, E.H. (2004). Organizational Culture and Leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.