Updated: Apr 15, 2021
To improve, we must understand what isn't working well. This is the basic premise behind feedback and evaluation. Yet simply instituting some form of evaluation without changing the work culture vastly limits potential for improving team performance.
What we need is to transform how individuals think about and engage with feedback and how to set up our businesses and organizations to model and reflect that. Teams with a growth mindset and culture of feedback have better morale and higher success rates. Individuals are more likely to speak up, take on leadership roles, and make the improvements needed to ensure the highest quality teamwork possible.
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Changing the Paradigm: Why Feedback Alone Isn't Working
Have you implemented some kind of feedback mechanism at your company and seen little to no change? Perhaps annual reviews and exit interviews have not improved high turnover, or customer/client feedback has not yielded large-scale change. The problem likely lies with the team culture. Many teams (consciously or unconsciously) make it difficult if not impossible for employees to speak up honestly with their own concerns and to hear the concerns of others. This problem is compounded by hierarchy and power dynamics, different cultural norms, and a lack of clarity or trust around the process of feedback.
A culture of feedback is an environment in which individuals speak up and express concerns, offer innovative solutions, and provide opportunities for growth to one another in order to optimize performance. By its very nature this kind of feedback is both vertical and lateral across an organization; it encourages employees at all levels to seek out and offer feedback and support to one another. A manager should be as open and receptive to hearing suggestions for their own growth as they are providing them to those they oversee. But the key here is "receptive." This is where a growth mindset comes into play.
What's Mindset Got to Do With It?
To truly develop a feedback culture it is necessary to cultivate employees' growth mindset: a belief that intelligence and other skills/qualities can be developed through effort. It may sound obvious, but in fact much of American culture and our current systems value a "fixed mindset" over a growth mindset.
In a fixed mindset, we all have innate abilities and talents. Some are smart and some are not, or athletic, and so on. Tracking at schools (where students are put into advanced tracks and remedial tracks) is an example of this mindset in policy. Our judicial system is another example, being more focused on punitive solutions than reform.
With fixed mindsets, failures and successes are intrinsically tied to our self-worth; it's a direct reflection of our ability, of who we are.
What this looks like on teams:
managers enforce hierarchy to maintain leadership positions over others
employees hide resources and information from one another
employees attempt to appear more knowledgeable or competent than they are
employees claim credit for accomplishments and do not share credit with others
employees are quick to lie and to assign blame to others for setbacks and failures
So it would be natural that in a fixed mindset would see constructive feedback as either pointless (it won't help us get better) or threatening (it may make me "look bad").
Power dynamics have a huge impact on feedback and change. Learn how to notice it
The truth is most of us have at least some level of a fixed mindset; it permeates our society. Individuals want to be perceived as all things "good" (smart, strong, moral, kind). It can be difficult to acknowledge that these are not fixed and constant qualities but rather qualities that require effort and work to maintain and develop.
This is what a growth mindset is all about. It doesn't deny talent, that some may learn a skill more quickly or easily than others. A growth mindset simply acknowledges that all of us can get better.
How Do We Get There?
Changing culture is easier said than done. It requires buy in from decision-makers and those in positions of power and can take time to feel truly authentic and transparent. Fear of repercussions for speaking up can only fade by consistently modeling encouragement and support.
To implement any projects, you need to get leadership buy-in. Learn how here
A few key takeaways:
1. Build multiple avenues and strategies to collect feedback.
Particularly in the beginning of changing power dynamics and creating safer spaces for dialogue, offer multiple avenues to provide feedback, some anonymous, some individually in person, some as focus groups. The more ways you ask for information, the more likely you are to get it from all members of the team.
2. Teach all team members how to give and receive feedback.
It's not intuitive; how people give and receive feedback can be deeply entrenched in power and identity. Create a cultural standard as a team for how you should do it, and hold people accountable. Keep in mind people in positions (and with identities) of power are often very bad at receiving feedback, and those who have less power may not feel confident providing feedback. Train all staff so they feel capable of holding the space needed to really hear one another.
3. Managers must take an active role to encourage feedback.
As simple as it sounds, make sure the first response for feedback from all managers, even if the person giving it didn't deliver it well, is to say thank you. To see in every critique a desire to improve the way things are working or to highlight a struggle, or as I have often called it a "pain point."
4. Feedback should be immediate and direct.
Eventually, as the team gains confidence in the culture of feedback, team members should speak directly to those they are struggling with, not through an HR representative or manager unless absolutely necessary (as in the context of harassment or violence). Instead, work to establish a culture where feedback is a natural part of meetings and discussions, where it is open and transparent and occurs in the moment.
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As always, we strive to co-construct ideas and solutions together. While dialogue, alternative perspectives, and questions are encouraged, please note that extreme comments will be deleted as they do not foster collaborative communication. Instead, I would encourage you to message me directly through our website -- I am more than happy to continue conversations in person or over a phone call.