How to Develop a Company Culture of Feedback?

When we talk about developing a company culture of feedback, we have to differentiate between feedback and criticism. The main difference between the two is in the motivation of the speaker. Constructive feedback comes from a place of support, while criticism is fundamentally punitive. Someone who offers constructive criticism wants the best for the person they offer it to. If the organizational environment is going to be one in which people give and receive feedback freely, the top management must make it clear that they want it. More importantly, they must be prepared to model it themselves - particularly, how to receive it - and to provide their employees with explicit expectations and guidelines for giving and receiving constructive criticism.

So what makes feedback effective? One of the most important considerations is to make the experience as positive as possible. Many of us shudder involuntarily at the mere mention of the words, "performance evaluation." While a performance evaluation clearly is a kind of feedback, and usually intended to be constructive, annual and semi-annual performance evaluations can become emotionally devastating if six or twelve months of shortcomings are dumped on our head all at once. In order to avoid overwhelming an employee with a comprehensive list of their failings, it is important to provide informal feedback consistently and frequently, on a weekly or even daily basis, so that the catalogue of issues that must eventually be discussed during formal performance evaluations is neither unexpected nor overwhelming. Moreover, the employee becomes emotionally habituated to feedback when it is offered frequently enough for them to become used to it. In addition, feedback that is provided as soon as possible after the incident that provoked it gives the employee the best chance of understanding their error in their own terms and therefore being able to make appropriate corrections. Moreover, no more than two, or at the most, three, issues should be discussed at one time; a longer list is likely to be disheartening and therefore counterproductive. It is also important to remember to focus on positives whenever possible. Not only does providing praise when praise is due bolster the employee's self-confidence, it shows him or her what success looks like. In this connection, it is important to remember to praise in public but to ensure that constructive criticism is offered discretely. Above all, it is critical to remember that a harsh or punitive experience really doesn't teach an employee anything except to hate the experience and to try to do anything to avoid it in the future.

In addition to being delivered in a positive way, effective constructive criticism has four major characteristics, which I have abbreviated to the WWWH Questions: When, What, Why, and How. The "when" issue addresses the timing of the incident that provoked the feedback. Knowing precisely when a behavioral lapse occurred makes its memory sharper in the employee's mind. Clearly, the better someone understands exactly what they did wrong, the more likely they will be able to correct it.

The "what" issue also helps the employee understand specifically what they need to work on. When you tell an employee what they did improperly, be sure to limit your comments to what you know first-hand; bringing up issues you know of only from the reports of others can cause resentment between employees and damage morale. Moreover, you can never be sure of the accuracy of second-hand reports. It is also good to prepare your general comments in advance; because that makes it more likely you will remain objective and able to stick to the issue(s) at hand. When you describe the problematic behavior, do so by using "I" statements because they will help you avoid labeling the employee. Say, "I was disappointed and concerned that you did not bother to check the accuracy of your references yesterday" instead of, "You were irresponsible yesterday." Most importantly, tell the person exactly what they need to improve on, sticking to facts to prevent ambiguity. If you tell someone they acted unprofessionally, what exactly does that mean? Were they too loud, too unfriendly, too coarse, too flip, or too poorly dressed?
Although the "why" issue may seem self-evident to you, it be a complete mystery to your employee. Never assume an employee understands the full implications of a professional mistake. Indeed, new employees may resent being called to task for doing something if they don't understand the risk they ran or the damage they did.

Perhaps the most important characteristic of effective feedback is the "how" issue - providing explicit instructions on how performance should be improved in a specific area. The best kind of objectives to give an employee has "SMART" characteristics: they are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-specific. Ideally, they have also been at least partly set by the employee, because then he or she is much more likely to take ownership of them. Finally, you should be sure to follow up on any objectives you and your employee have agreed to. Slacking off on follow up snatches defeat from the jaws of victory by sending the message to the employee that your concern was not serious.

Feedback should happen throughout the year and should be provided by everyone, regardless of their position in the company. Feedback provides valuable information to the receiver. You don't have to agree with it, but it is important to hear it. Giving and receiving feedback will be discussed in detail in our chapter on Courageous Conversations. Again, the ultimate source of a culture of constructive feedback must be top management. Senior managers must solicit it for themselves, and consider it when offered. They must offer it to their subordinates and colleagues as one team member to another, in a transparent effort to improve the chances of collective empowerment, motivation and success.