How to Create a Feedback Culture

Written by Dave Bailey

Filed under coaching culture feedback management

Company feedback meeting

As a startup entrepreneur, it's hard to know what your team is thinking. Here's how you can get more honest feedback from your employees.

Teams that are good at giving each other feedback are faster, more innovative, and often happier at work. Here’s why it’s not enough to just ask for honest feedback . . . and what you have to do to get it.

The key to learning is feedback. It’s impossible to learn anything without it.” Steven Levitt

As a founder, manager and creative, I crave feedback, from everywhere — from my customers, from my employees, from my investors. Feedback helps me to know what’s going well as well as what I need to work on.

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So I’ve always been proactive about requesting it. I’d continuously tell my team about the importance of giving feedback and that they could come to me with any issues. I assumed that because it was easy for me to give feedback, it would be easy for them too.

But I was wrong. My team sat on their feedback and said nothing about issues that could have been nipped in the bud. In fact, I sat on my feedback too. It turns out that giving feedback is hard in all directions.

My words of encouragement weren’t enough to actually make feedback easier.

What else could I do?

The Organ Donors Study

In their famous study, behavioural economics psychologists Eric Johnson and Dan Goldstein looked into organ donorship consent rates across different countries. Austria and Germany share a border, but their consent rates are wildly different. In Germany, only 12 percent consent to donating their organs after death. However, in Austria, nearly everyone (99 percent) does.

What’s explains this difference? Is it better communication? Different incentives?

The answer is far simpler: Germany requires citizens to opt-in to organ donorship, while Austria requires citizens to opt-out.

By asking people to ‘give more feedback’, I was asking them to opt-in to giving feedback voluntarily. But in order to get radically more feedback in my company, I needed to make it opt-out.

Feedback that Scales

To build a culture of open feedback that scales, you have to build in mechanisms that ensure people give feedback by default. Here are actions you can take to ensure feedback happens when it’s supposed to:

1. Normalise feedback

What does good feedback look like? Many people don’t realise that giving feedback isn’t an innate trait — it’s a learned behaviour. There are many advantages to training your team in how to give and receive feedback effectively.

We use the following format when giving feedback in our company (inspired by this article):

  • Ask for permission: It makes a big difference to the receiver if they’re asked, ‘Do you have a minute for some quick feedback?’
  • State what you observed: It’s important to be as specific as possible, so we stick to direct quotes and behaviours that we’ve seen directly.
  • Explain the impact: Next, link the behaviours to their impact. This might be on the team, on the product — even on our emotions and needs.
  • Pause: It’s often good to pause at this step, to listen to the reaction and be open to learning new information.
  • Suggest a concrete next step: Describe a behaviour that you believe would have a positive impact on the situation.

A common approach helps people achieve better outcomes whilst setting clear expectations from both sides. Set up good practices, like focusing on specific behaviours rather than making generalisations, and describe their impact.

Consider including feedback training at your next all-hands meeting and during the onboarding process of new employees. It doesn’t have to take a long time — just 10 minutes of explaining what good feedback looks like can have a massive impact.

2. Put regular feedback meetings in the schedule

Now you’ve outlined how to give feedback, it’s time to figure out when it will happen. This means you need to block time into your calendar specifically for your team to give feedback to each other.

Here’s a list of feedback meetings that I run in my teams:

  • One-on-ones: There’s no point in having one-on-ones if difficult conversations aren’t happening. The expectation that I set is, either you come to me with a difficult conversation, or I’ll come to you with one.
  • Retrospectives: Get the whole team to sit down for an hour each week to talk about what went well, what didn’t go well, and how we can improve.Creating an opportunity for group venting and praise has a powerful impact on morale.
  • Speed-back: Think speed-dating but for feedback. A team splits into pairs, and team members take turns to give their partner two minutes of positive feedback and two minutes of constructive feedback. After receiving individual feedback from all members of the team, each person presents back to the group what they’ve learnt about themselves.
  • Office-hours: Managers and founders set time where any team members can drop in for any reason.
  • Town-halls: Popularised by Facebook, this is a meeting where anyone in the company can ask the leadership about anything that’s on their mind.

When work gets really stressful or busy, feedback meetings like these are often the first to get cut — and this is a problem. It’s exactly in these moments when feedback is most important. If you’ve cut your retrospectives to save time, it might be time to reconsider reinstating them.

3. Proactively seek out more feedback channels

Meetings are great but they aren’t the only way to give feedback. The more channels that you have available for feedback (especially to encourage upwards feedback to superiors), the more feedback you’ll have.

Here are some examples:

  • Regular feedback surveys — you can use Google Forms or Survey Monkey to ask questions, such as Gallup’s Q12 Index Survey.
  • Continuous performance management platforms — Saas platforms like15Five and Lattice aim to facilitate regular feedback in teams.
  • External coaches — bringing in external coaches can be a great way to facilitate rigorous feedback and 360 reviews.
  • Trips and team building activities — informal ways to interact can promote more casual opportunities to give and receive feedback.

When it comes to giving feedback, get creative. What works for one team doesn’t work for another. Find out what works for you.

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4. Empower your team to give feedback directly

What should you do when people come to you with feedback about a particular teammate? If you’re like me, your instinct will be to go into problem-solving mode and say, ‘Leave it to me — I’ll take it from here.’ However, if you want to build a culture of feedback, you might want to resist the temptation.

Instead, you need to empathise with the person and empower them to give the feedback directly to the teammate in question (unless there is a really good reason not to, for example, if it put them in a dangerous situation). You can encourage this by asking questions like:

  • What specific behaviours did you observe?
  • Are they aware of the impact this is having?
  • How would you like them to behave?
  • Have you tried looking at the situation from their point of view?
  • How will you give this feedback to them directly?
  • When will you do it?

Remember, just because a teammate brings you a problem, that doesn’t mean it’s your problem.

Strong feedback, strong culture

It’s human nature to avoid conflict, and there’s no getting away from the fact that giving feedback is hard. The truth is, you probably aren’t getting anywhere close to the amount of feedback you could — and should — be getting. That’s why you need to make it mandatory.

Be clear on what feedback looks like, when it’s going to happen, and make sure you follow through on it. The more it happens, the more people will expect it — and the better they’ll get at it.

Continue reading about giving constructive feedback:

Originally published Apr 7, 2019, last updated Jul 28, 2023

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