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The PerformYard Blog

A practical look at building and implementing your perfect performance management process.

How To Create a Feedback Culture

rawpixel-423665-unsplashEvery business leader wants the kind of company where each and every employee feels like they have skin in the game. Where lightning-strike ideas turn into multi-million dollar revenue streams.

For most of us, it's a vision that just doesn't feel real.

Despite the myriad business books, scholarly articles and flowery Forbes editorials, the idea of a 'feedback culture' just doesn't feel viable at our companies — and we all have our "reasons". You can blame it on the industry, the economy or the team itself, but whatever the reason (or cough, cough excuse), you're sure this stuff won't work for you.

But what if it weren't really that complicated? What if the transition to a can-do culture were as simple as asking a question?

The need for feedback won't go away

The annual review is the proverbial dead horse of HR topics. And our obsession with it is understandable. As humans, it's natural to crave a magic pill. Our brains want a simple solution that's easy to follow: give your employees feedback at this specific time and place each year and solve all your business problems.

But the truth is this: There's no stone-set rule stating there has to be a separate time for giving and receiving feedback.

At its core, performance management is shockingly simple. It's an ongoing exchange of feedback. A two-way street that's always open. Call it "continuous feedback." Call it building a "feedback culture." Call it whatever you want. What matters is that it's an intentional dialogue — one that spurs people into action.

Like it or not, your company already has a performance culture. And the feedback you're giving (or not giving) could be speaking louder than you realize.

The thing about negative feedback in a group setting

A simple way to get past the analysis paralysis and start building a culture where 'feedback' isn't a dirty word is to get clear on when and how to deliver negative or corrective feedback.

One standout example of a company built completely on the value of candid, team-centered feedback is Pixar.

Pixar President and co-founder, Ed Catmull ran the company alongside Steve Jobs and John Lasseter for decades. Here's what he has to say on the importance of open dialogue.

"A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. Our decision making is better when we draw on the collective knowledge and unvarnished opinions of the group. Candor is the key to collaborating effectively. Lack of candor leads to dysfunctional environments. So how can a manager ensure that his or her working group, department, or company embraces candor? By putting mechanisms in place that explicitly say it is valuable."

Candor is a value held so tightly at Pixar that Catmull and his team created an elite collective feedback team called Braintrust. Braintrust is what Catmull describes as Pixar's "primary delivery system for straight talk". Every few months the team gets together to discuss the movie they're making and get clear on what works, what doesn't work, and why.

Sounds great, right? But here's where it gets hairy.

Business legend has it that Steve Jobs got some of his best ideas from his time working in Pixar's open and creative environment. (Some even credit his groundbreaking "Think different" campaign to the creative storytelling skills he learned while working there.)

But Jobs also had a nasty habit of giving harsh corrective feedback in a group setting — like the time he fired the head of Apple's MobileMe unit in front of a crowd of Apple employees. Group dialogue can be a powerful productivity tool — but only if you're clear on the ground rules.

How to talk about performance as a team

First, know that there are some key moments when it's absolutely critical not to give feedback.

  • When your feedback is more personal than professional
  • When creativity and autonomy matter more
  • When the failure speaks volumes
  • When you just don't have the patience

You can explore each of these circumstances in more detail here, but you get the gist.

If someone makes a mistake and doesn’t know it, that isn’t the time to have a team discussion about collective improvement. Your employees can read between the lines. So don't underestimate them.

Here are some better ways to start and maintain a performance-focused dialogue.

1. Use questions, candor and curiosity

HR leading companies like Asana use questions to help guide conversations, coaching and team-based decisions.

Asking questions, rather than prescribing answers, is a great way to both give and receive constructive feedback in a way that balances the positive and negative and keeps the dialogue focused on finding solutions.

2. Offset negative feedback with peer-to-peer recognition

Peer-to-peer recognition strengthens team unity and gives everyone a stake in the game. And as a major bonus, 41% of companies that use peer-to-peer recognition have seen positive increases in customer satisfaction.

3. Collect upward feedback

Last but not least, show your commitment to the importance of feedback by truly making it a two-way street. Companies like Google have developed a super smart way of approaching upward feedback, but if you just want a simple approach, try the SKS model which simply asks:

  • What should I stop doing?
  • What should I keep doing?
  • What should I start doing?

In a performance-driven culture, feedback is always about a team coming together to improve their performance as a whole and never about what one or a handful of individuals failed to do. Keep your eyes fixed on the bigger picture and your team will do the same.

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