Developing a Positive Feedback Culture

If there is one subject that creeps into any conversations about team performance or leadership development it is how to give effective feedback. Most people recognise it is a valuable skill for developing others and improving performance and many people welcome well-intentioned and well-delivered feedback. So why do we find ourselves holding back from those open, honest conversations that could so often aid our development or that of others? And why do we sometimes react so defensively to feedback when someone is only trying to help?

Many organisations in a quest to develop a positive feedback culture, invest in training in the art of open, honest conversations and there is a plethora of frameworks around to help plan and deliver conversations in a structured way. All these are a great starting point, but we need to take a broader perspective if we are to truly create teams, relationships and organisations where openness and honesty is embraced and feedback welcomed as an integral part of performance improvement.

Natural Human Behaviour

On an individual level, our reticence for receiving or giving open, honest dialogue can be explained in part, by what we know about how the brain works. David Rock’s SCARF model highlights that there are 5 key factors that we as human beings need: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. If any of these are threatened in any way then we will experience an instinctive, hormone-driven fight, flight or freeze response with a resulting negative impact upon our confidence. 

Let’s take a scenario. Imagine that your manager, in the middle of a team meeting unfairly (in your view), singles you out for under-performance and says in no uncertain terms that if you don’t pull your socks up, your position within the team may be threatened. On receiving this feedback, witnessed by all of your peers, you storm out of the meeting with an atmosphere now hanging over the team. Wham…in one fell swoop your status in the team, certainty about your future, your own autonomy in giving your side of the story, your respect for and relationship with your manager, and fairness are all compromised.

This scenario will also have an impact on the manager whose own status and respect from the team may also be affected. Is it any wonder, when if having been exposed to such experiences, whether as the giver, receiver or observer, that many people avoid such conversations? Just understanding this natural human behaviour can help us to approach such conversations very differently.

Emotional Intelligence and Coaching Skills

Developing the skills to both give feedback and receive it in a non-defensive way is a starting point for these conversations.  Knowing how to plan conversations is helpful but not enough. Individuals need also good skills in emotional intelligence so they can build good relationships with others, manage their own emotions as well us understanding and working with those of others.

A coaching approach encourages self-reflection and helps an individual take responsibility for their own learning and development, rather than being told what to do and how to do it. People usually know more about their own performance than anyone being given feedback on what they already know is likely to trigger a defensive response. Developing coaching skills to allow the other person to reflect on their own performance and behaviour, helps to give them a sense of autonomy and ownership for any improvements.

The Team/Department/Organisation Culture

The overall culture and strength of relationships that exists in a team, department or the wider organisation, will have an impact on the attitude to giving and receiving feedback. People need to feel safe to have open, honest conversations and good relationships need to be developed between team members. 

Team Norms: Team norms are those behaviours that impact upon the climate and performance of a team. If it is common practice for feedback to be given regularly as a way of supporting personal development and performance then this paves the way for such conversations in the future. Conversely, if there is a strong cultural tradition of criticism and blame, then this gets perpetuated as learned patterns of behaviour. To develop a positive team culture, it is helpful for teams to work on issues such as feedback collectively so that a team is aligned around how it wants to manage its performance. Developing a strong team behavioural contract that explicitly states how it wants to communicate and have those ‘difficult’ conversations will help embed positive team norms.

Positivity Ratios: If there is a climate of positivity and encouragement then feedback is likely to be more readily accepted. Research by Heapy and Losada into the effectiveness of teams established that the ideal ratio of positive to negative interactions is that's a whole lot of praise and encouragement that is needed to balance one piece of 'negative' feedback. This means there needs to be a constant focus on what is being done well so when a mistake or area of learning has been identified this will be accepted more readily. This is further supported by the research carried out by the Gottman Institute, which over many years has studied the relationships of married couples. Again, they identified a ratio of 5:1 as the optimum for thriving relationships. Given the importance of this 5:1 ratio, individuals should choose their feedback carefully and weigh up the value of any piece of feedback. 

Role Models: Individuals and teams need role models to lead the way with creating and embedding team norms. Leaders and managers need to demonstrate that they are both prepared to give feedback and welcome feedback from others and model those skills required to do it effectively.

Supporting Processes: Supporting processes such as any appraisal or performance review systems will have an influence too. If all performance conversations are linked with a reward system, such as performance related pay, then there may be a reluctance to openly admit shortcomings or be receptive to feedback.

If performance conversations are restricted to infrequent formal conversations documented on an unwieldy and inflexible form, then the important conversations that matter on a week by week basis may be bypassed. It is crucial therefore, that any related processes such as appraisals and formal performance management systems are aligned to the positive feedback culture you want to create.

The Wider Context

The industry, sector or environment that an organisation operates in also has an influence on a culture that is created and how feedback is given and received. I worked with one organisation in the public sector which was under extreme pressure for its previous underperformance. Blame and criticism were rife as was defensiveness to feedback and this was accounted for in no small part by the scrutiny and finger pointing by those stakeholders, external to this team. Understanding external influences can help a team to make sense of those behaviours that are playing out internally and be conscious about how they work within this context.

In summary, there are a whole host of factors that impact on an organisation’s ability to develop a positive feedback culture, which, with thought can be developed over time. If you would like to discuss this topic or add your thoughts, then please get in touch.