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Gallup’s 2018 Workplace Experiences research found only 14.5% of managers would strongly agree they’re effective at giving feedback. Study after study report that the majority of managers today are terrible at providing feedback. Yet, we also know that regular feedback leads to improved employee engagement.
Employees want more, effective feedback — but managers are terrible at providing it. So how do we reconcile this? Small, incremental improvements can happen by individuals resolving to do better, but the real impact happens when the entire culture becomes comfortable with feedback.
I recently interviewed Melissa Lamson, my go-to guru on all things leadership — especially feedback — and founder of Lead with DEI. She stressed the importance of creating an organizational culture in which feedback is not only normalized but also woven into the fabric of day-to-day operations. Here’s how to do that.
Look in the mirror
First, assess your own relationship with feedback. Our relationship with feedback starts early and is always at risk of deviating to a dark place. Parents start setting the tone for it, followed by teachers and eventually bosses.
When I think about my relationship with feedback, it’s a bit of a bumpy ride. I was an artistic kid. Yet, in listening to conventional wisdom about the poor job prospects for artists, I majored in business in college but held onto an art minor as a bit of a palette cleanser for the dullness of my full course load. There’s a culture among artists of shared struggle that means feedback comes with consistency, thoughtfulness and — perhaps most importantly — empathy. It’s not scary, but a welcome ritual when it’s feedback circle time.
Then I worked at an art gallery. Again, my boss, an artist, provided me with caring, nurturing feedback. But, this time it wasn’t on my artwork, but on my marketing and sales work. On the heels of this experience, my next boss told me that her five-year-old daughter could have written better copy than I did. Ouch.
My experiences taught me that people aren’t scared of feedback until they have a terrible experience with it. I had given and received loads of feedback pretty successfully in my life until I spent that year and a half being criticized over and over again. Even though I built up scar tissue through that experience, I also learned to fear feedback. I didn’t want to damage anybody else the way my boss had damaged me, and I sure as heck didn’t want to take one more iota of feedback from others either.
The takeaway? An organization must start by acknowledging its current state. If you don’t have a feedback culture, but want one, then say that. And, while you say it, recognize openly where you’re starting from, and acknowledge that some people may have had bad experiences. From there, commit to doing better.
Switch up the format
The problem in many businesses is that feedback is a one-way street. Bosses critique their subordinates’ work and that’s the end.
Instead, drive a feedback culture by insisting and asking for feedback at the top levels of the organization. And although your CEO’s “open door policy” sounds good, you probably experience a lack of people walking through that open door. The truth is it’s awkward to go to the CEO and say hard things, especially the first time.
The key? Ensure everyone in the company gets — and gives — feedback through regular, standardized cadences. As I mentioned, I recently spoke with Melissa Lamson on my podcast, but the whole reason I even know Melissa is that she helped us bring structure to our company’s feedback process. During our work with Melissa, we recognized that our feedback loops weren’t even loops, but rather one-way streets that no one enjoyed going down.
Here are some recommended feedback cadences we now practice, that you can steal:
Boss to subordinate
I touched on this lightly above, as it’s certainly the most common type of feedback given in a workplace. Managers need to feel comfortable providing both positive and negative feedback on their direct reports’ work and making suggestions for improvement. Ideally, this is a weekly, one-on-one sit down, for 45 minutes to an hour. Make feedback on a project a regular talking point.
Subordinate to boss
We call this a Reverse 1-on-1. Think about this 30-minute meeting more as the subordinate telling the boss what they need to thrive in their role, rather than picking on what the boss does wrong. Although, if they have insights into ways in which the boss can improve, they should also feel free to share those.
From experience, I can tell you that getting employees to open up with you about critical issues in your performance can be daunting. To help, here’s an easy approach. They prepare a start, stop and continue in at least one of these five categories:
Communication and feedback
1-on-1 and coaching effectiveness
Goal achievement and career progression
Key job processes
If your managers are giving feedback to their direct reports once a week, carve out time once a month for the reverse to happen. It may take some getting used to, but eventually the format will begin to feel comfortable and useful.
Related: 6 Tips for Hearing Tough Feedback
Peer to peer
This type of feedback can feel awkward and make dynamics weird, to say the least. Even if you notice something abhorrent in a coworker’s behavior and approach them about it gently, the conversation can still go horribly wrong. There’s often a “You’re not my boss” mindset that peers have, and being criticized by a coworker pushes that button. But, it’s really important that peers hear from each other.
Again, it has to be part of the culture to work. Executives should model how to do this respectfully between themselves, during meetings or whenever they have an opportunity. Then, employees should practice following suit. One of the women I work with is junior to many of the salespeople on our team, but has used Melissa’s framework flawlessly to give feedback to them. She starts with intention, which, in this case, would be that the sales folks want to make money — and so does she. She leads with the fact that she has thoughts about how they can both achieve that.
By being more open with her feedback, and handling it this way, the sales team is more open to receiving it. They also become more open to giving feedback to her, and each other. It’s contagious. By making her move, she has created a safe place for others to hear what she’s saying and say what they’re feeling, too.
Feedback is worth the struggle
The key to making this practice positive and productive is to incorporate it into your business’ culture. Only then will team members feel comfortable giving and receiving feedback, and be in a position to reap the benefits.