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How to Create a Working Culture of Feedback

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One of the most common buzzwords of 2015 has to be the word ‘feedback’. My sense is that leaders and managers for the most part want to get better than this, and it could therefore be a major goal for 2016. As you might expect however, there’s a trick or two to getting it right …
It’s common today for employees to exhibit a sort of schizophrenia about feedback, probably because of the way in which it is delivered: they simultaneously crave it and hate it.

Feedback delivered well, is one-on-one, structured, frequent, assumes the possibility of a positive outcome and is without question, a two-way street. Feedback delivered most usually however is either too casual, and therefore lacks all the required gravitas; is only delivered when the energy needed for a face-to-face conversation is possible and only then when a dressing down is called for; and lacks any obvious return conversation.
It’s not surprising that it doesn’t work.

There are other challenges that prohibit a decent crack at a conversation also. For instance, as human beings we’re often prone to sponge up praise as if we have an addiction, but fold into aggression, defiance or sulkiness at the first hint of a criticism. We’re all guilty of not saying what we want to someone we know for fear of the way they will react, but none of this will help you build a healthy feedback culture.

So what to do? Try some of these:

Make it one-on-one:
Firstly, deep feedback fails in groups. In groups of people, the usual voices will speak out, while the others will hide. If you want to know what John or Jane are thinking, you probably have to speak to John or Jane.

Now, it may not be possible for you to do that personally, so delegate it down. However you do it, this has to happen. The correct ratio for solid feedback is one leader, manager or supervisor to one employee. Anything else is a dilution.

If you think this is incorrect, ask yourself how well your group meetings actually go, how openly you believe people speak and how many of those present fail to participate at all.

Finally, you have to know by now that you have different, and perhaps vastly different challenges with each individual in the group you run. Some of them you can leave to themselves and expect a good outcome. Some of them need constant supervision. Dealing with them in a group is like giving every doctor’s patient the same treatment and advice.

Make it structured:
I am a big believer in on-the-fly feedback. When you see someone doing something awesome, make a point of telling them. If it’s doubly awesome, single them out in front of the group. Let them know you appreciate the fact that they care. Similarly, when you see someone getting it wrong, stop it in its tracks. Whether you have an avuncular conversation or come in more forcefully depends entirely on the maturity of your organisation’s conversational capabilities, but what you do not do is let it just sit there.

That said, there is inherent power in structure, and in a formal setting, feedback acquires greater weight. Since we’re not looking for casual chit chat, but useful information sharing sessions, attach a ritual to it. One way I have always liked to do things is to pull up a chair to each employee’s desk for an hour at a set time every week, to run through what was promised last week, to learn about where they need help this week and to see what opportunities lie ahead of us. Every week, same time, they know what I want and that my preference is to get through things smoothly.

Make it frequent:
Those once-per-week meetings are non-negotiable. They don’t get routinely cancelled and they don’t get moved. The basis of my thinking is simple: five working days is sufficient time to make observable progress on anything, or at least to provide intelligent feedback about why it hasn’t happened. More frequently than that and it becomes micro-management. Less frequently than that and I suspect we may get onto some solvable challenges too late. Save for that hour together, during the in-between times, people are let loose to go and do their jobs.

I am convinced of this formula. It may be different for you however, and so it’s a matter of whatever works best. Just know that you must strike a balance between micromanaging people into hating their jobs, and losing control of your ability to have a positive influence on things. Find your middle ground.

Assume the possibility of a positive outcome:
In other words, don’t be a bully. Feedback isn’t about your ability to flex your ego or your muscles; it is about keeping things constructive. If someone has screwed up and their actions cannot be forgiven, you may well have to fire them, but that’s still a positive outcome, right?

Seriously though, problems can usually be solved, and the person who created the problem generally has some insight into how it was caused and what could have been done differently. If you’re into growing people, every piece of negative feedback, and yes, every telling off, should have as its logical outcome, an improvement in their performance.

If improvement isn’t the goal, you may as well just not have the conversation in the first place.

And, if your feedback session is a positive one, aim for the same thing: people who are getting things right can be challenged to get them even more right.

Respect the two-way street:
When you’re raising small children, you expect them to do as they are told. I am not about to have a discussion with my one-year-old about the rights and wrongs of drawing all over the dog with her Mom’s eyeliner. When they’re bigger, you’d better be ready for that to change. When my five year old messes up, we have a chat about it and I want to hear her reasons. Mostly they’re the reasons of a five year old, which are as unhelpful as they are honest (I did it because I wanted to). As they get older however, unless I want to raise mindless drones, I feel like I’d better learn about their patterns of thinking, not so I can change them, but so I can guide them.

That’s my kids. At work, I deal with actual, real-live adults. If I’m not interested in hearing what they have to say, then I deserve what I get. Let me tell you this: if you can create a time-and-place zone where anyone can say anything that is on their mind (as long as we are both assuming the possibility of a positive outcome), you’ll rapidly accelerate your learning as a group and as individuals.

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