One of the consulting assignments I most enjoy is working with all the people in a client's business.
Often, when I am helping Directors prepare a strategic plan, or Managers work on their business plans, I only work with these Directors and Managers, or sometimes owners and other stakeholders. Rarely do I get to work with the company as a whole unless I am working on a change management assignment involving restructuring, systems, people and culture.
But of course, even when I don't work with people below management level, I meet and interact with the other employees, and see a vast range of cultural phenomena.
Even in driven and well-led companies, I sometimes see an underground layer of tension. Leaders need to recognise that some people feel intimidated by strong leadership and despite being invited to, do not voice their opinions. They have to be invited to do so and be given the opportunity to see that feedback from them is welcome and positive.
Open management needs good teams.
One of the characteristics of a good team is the level of genuine trust in each other.
I watch a Netball team called the Melbourne Vixens. They are a young side with a proven coaching team and an inspiring captain and vice-captain. Yet, when you watch them play and encourage each other and when you watch them in a huddle, there is no one voice that points out where they can improve. The positive and reinforced feedback comes from all the team members, and you can see their teammates listening and nodding to each point of feedback.
A strong company is a company where people are not only praised for the work they are doing but where people also see that their achievements are told through the company so that their success can be learned from and duplicated.
This environment allows employees to offer advice that is positive and well-intentioned while feeling safe. This environment welcomes feedback as positive ideas for improvement rather than criticism. This environment will drive employees to do better and engages them in the culture of the company.
The following are only some of the benefits a strong feedback culture brings to any business: -
- Engaged and loyal staff working at their best means higher profit and less cost;
- Continuous improvement means more efficiency for better profit;
- Improved understanding leading to easier internal succession;
- Reduces time on (wasted) annual review processes;
- Increases clarity of business purpose and goal-attainment;
- Decreased cost of staff turnover;
- Faster corporate communication of ideas and adoption of initiatives;
- Nurtures a "continuous improvement" mindset; and
- Makes it a fun place to work!
A feedback culture develops when leaders allow it to and show the way. The culture itself is created because members of the team decide a way to treat each other and behave toward each other positively, and made the choice that providing feedback is important. It must be two-ways: Managers must not be the only ones providing feedback and feedback from employees to management and Executives must be seen to be welcome.
At the root of the level of underground tension I spoke about earlier is the type of culture that develops in some strongly led companies where the feedback culture has been allowed to look only one way. While they attempt to install a feedback culture, the initiating examples from management down is allowed to continue without any major effort into encouraging and allowing feedback that goes everywhere - up, down, sideways.
One of the ways this is then unintentionally reinforced, is the annual review process.
At its best, it should be a warts and all, but an honest and supportive review of a person's performance. It should motivate and inspire, encouraging improvement.
However, these often become stagnant processes where reviewers are starved of the time to do them properly, they become a procedural exercise in motherhood-statements, they deteriorate into fault-finding, and they become a stressful and a morale-destroying conversation. So, any feedback provided in annual reviews is expected to be and seen as, negative and discouraging. This view is supported by the practice where no other feedback is given in the course of non-annual review periods. No wonder then, that despite strong leadership, "feedback" is seen as stressful and negative.
A positive feedback culture is not just about providing feedback - it is about how you use the feedback to improve processes or support the people.
If staff provide feedback on process-improvement but are ignored, they stop trying to help.
If management point out opportunities for improvement of staff performance but no help is provided to make these improvements, trust is lost.
A feedback culture needs to contain a 365-day conversation in the company about how people and processes are going, conducted in a 360° context. Everyone needs to be encouraged to give positive or negative feedback as long as it is feedback that will help people do better work. At the same time, people should be asked to stand in the shoes of the person receiving feedback and strongly consider what they are saying and how they are saying it. The cultural rule I have seen adopted in some companies, in order to create Emotional Quotient behaviour, is to ask "would you say that to your mother?"
To do feedback really well people need to be shown that both the intent of the feedback and the content of it must be considered and fairly provided. The recipient hears your content, but they can sense your intent. Once they sense negative intent, they will disregard the content.
So, how does a company turn around a feedback culture that is developing into a poor or even toxic culture into a positive one?
Creating a positive feedback culture does start with commitment from the very top. The executive-level must be engaged in developing a positive feedback culture by firstly supporting all employees to provide feedback and secondly, to receive and act on feedback. This engagement is crucial - you cannot have executives simply say that a feedback culture is to be "encouraged" and then disappear to their top floor offices.
Once the leadership is committed and engaged in the process, the staff should be provided with training on feedback. People need to be shown how a feedback culture should work, what it means to them, and how to provide feedback on people and processes in a positive and constructive way. A support system needs to be put into place after the training so that feedback becomes a habit, as "the way we do it here." Where possible, any existing systems and procedures that can, should have feedback embedded into them as part of daily routine, and not as a once-a-year tick-off item. Initially at least, in order to start the habit, organisations can hold frequent feedback meetings where groups of people are "caught" and are asked for and given feedback.
As the feedback habit develops, people will see the value of having short, on-time conversations so that any small problems are dealt with before they grow, and any opportunities for improvement are seized in the moment for greater benefit.
Feedback should be sought in all areas of the business.
Imagine a feedback system that is all internally focused and ignores a customer who continually abuses your staff? Or dealing with a supplier who makes your staff lives a nightmare? The feedback should include these incidents and issues so that appropriate people can have feedback conversations with the customer or supplier, and affirmative decisions made about dealing with them in future.
As the feedback culture develops, you may see a short-term turnover of staff, as in any change management initiative. This should be seen in a positive light, as in any change management initiative, where the "wrong" people realign themselves out while the "right" people settle in. Then, an increase in performance can be seen as people become more engaged and people and processes are managed better.
Through better communication and feedback, people enjoy themselves at work and the benefits listed at the beginning of this article start to manifest.