4 keys to creating a feedback culture

Industrial psychologist Phiona Martin offers tips on how to foster a culture of open and honest communication.

Feedback, in the organisational context, can be defined as the process of giving and receiving suggestions, constructive criticism or positive affirmations regarding work activities, behaviours or tasks. It creates an enabling environment for continuous improvement and increased productivity, allows leaders to gauge the pulse of how their team is feeling at any point and enables them to provide real-time responses and interventions. It can also be a rich source of information for reflecting on and enhancing one’s own leadership skills. In addition, because employees feel valued when their feedback is given importance, it can lead to higher engagement levels. Ideally, feedback should be multidirectional in nature, imparted from manager to subordinate, from subordinate to a manager and/or from peer to peer. 

Below are four things to consider in order to improve the efficacy with which managers get their team members to offer meaningful and honest feedback without necessarily having to go through formal channels.

1 Solicit it explicitly

Managers should not always wait for feedback to be offered. If people are not giving feedback, it does not always mean they have nothing to say. It may be that it's not being solicited or that employees do not feel that their unprompted input will be welcomed. Soliciting feedback can be a daunting task for managers that are unaccustomed to the practice. But, in order to create a feedback culture, it must become second nature. 

Here are some practical questions that managers should become accustomed to asking:

  • If you were in my shoes, what would you change? Why?
  • What do you think is the number one problem within our department/organisation/team? Why?
  • What are you hearing clients say about our business/department?
  • What’s the biggest opportunity we are missing out on?
  • What are we not doing that we should be doing?
  • Is there anything that’s slowing us down from getting our work done?
  • As a manager, what do I do that is most helpful to you?
  • As a manager, what could I do more of?
  • Name something I haven’t been doing that would be helpful for me to start doing.

2 Have multiple feedback channels 

People prefer to communicate in various ways and this should also reflect the channels available for feedback. Some may feel more comfortable in team meetings and one-on-one conversations with the manager, while others may prefer written and/or anonymous communication. Provide a variety of feedback channels so that you give employees the opportunity to give feedback in a way that they’re most comfortable.

3 Consistency is key 

It is important to have a consistent feedback routine in order for it become part of the organisational culture. The regularity with which feedback is collected, whether it is done quickly “on the spot” or in a more structured format allows people to anticipate and prepare what they may want to share ahead of time. If feedback is something that happens only at unusual times (such as a performance review or when something’s gone wrong), it will never really be an organic part of the organisational culture.

4 Feedback must result in action

The effort that a team makes towards providing feedback and the value they attach to the process will be correlated to the impact thereof. Employees will be reluctant or unmotivated to provide feedback if they feel it goes into a black hole and that the information they provide is not valued enough to impact future decisions. Sometimes, lack of participation in feedback can be an indication that employees do not believe there will be any action resulting from the process. One way to illustrate the impact of feedback and reinforce its value is to periodically highlight decisions that have been affected as a result of it.  

The aforementioned factors are key factors impacting your organisation’s feedback culture, or the lack thereof. Ultimately, the quality of feedback received from a team will hinge on several factors, not least of which is a manager’s ability to foster trust and create a safe environment for team members. 

Phiona is a registered industrial psychologist with a special interest in career, talent and leadership development. Her key work experience has been within the consulting and education environment.