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Encouraging a Feedback Culture: You're Doing It Wrong

By Jessica Stillman | Small Business

If you're starting by teaching your managers to give better feedback, you're approaching the process all wrong.

Whether the comments are coming up, down, sideways, or from customers, feedback is incredibly valuable. It's also sometimes strangely hard to come by.

In a world where it seems everyone has an opinion and a willingness to share it, once people get to work they often become weirdly close mouthed, hesitating to tell the boss that the new initiative is doomed, the founder asking for money just how hopeless his business plan is, or the less-than-stellar colleague the several ways he is making your life more difficult.

Hence all the advice out there on how to elicit more feedback, give better criticism, and even, in a recent favorite phraseology, build a "feedback culture." But the very fact that these types of posts and articles are so numerous tells you something--despite a tsunami of tips, people are still looking for answers. So why is getting people to say what they really think so very hard?

Putting the Cart Before the Horse

Because most people go about it backward, answered recruiting blog Fistful of Talent recently. "Most organizations start by teaching managers how to give feedback effectively. The logic follows that if they have the skill, then they'll go around giving all sorts of helpful feedback to readily receptive employees who will use it to improve and pay it forward in a never-ending positive spiral of development and enrichment. Sounds lovely, doesn't it?" writes Ben Olds. "Problem is: I've tried it. It doesn't work."

Is there a better way to encourage feedback? Yes, insists Olds, but only if you start by acknowledging that just tutoring bosses in how and why to give more feedback is not enough; employees also need to learn how to receive that advice.

"The most skilled provider in the world will have a miserable conversation with someone who doesn't want feedback, and/or doesn't know how to receive it," Olds says. It's hard to argue with him. So instead of just focusing on giving feedback, you need to simultaneously ensure you're helping your employees get better at accepting it as well. This requires a four-point strategy, according to Olds:

  • Encourage a culture of learning. "This requires creating the psychological safety among colleagues to be vulnerable, to admit imperfections, and to embrace learning and improving," he writes. "Educate employees on the value of constructive feedback, and seek out and destroy habits that erode psychological safety. Amy Edmonson's book Teaming has some great advice on how to do this."
  • Teach your team how to hear feedback. Your team needs the skills to not get defensive. Olds has another book suggestion: "Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen have a fantastic book on this subject, called Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well."
  • Teach leaders to give feedback. We're relatively good at this part. Advice abounds.
  • Encourage leaders to give more feedback. Make sure you have a feedback-friendly company culture and "create incentives for it (recognize those who give it, have leaders go out and ask for it, etc.)," suggests Olds.

Are your attempts to encourage more feedback missing crucial pieces of the puzzle?

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