A Culture of Feedback

By on July 16th, 2015 in Industry Insights
TrueAccord Blog

Is feedback recognized as important? Yes. Used effectively? Nope.

Ever hear anyone in the workplace argue that feedback is a waste of time? Me neither. Every company I’ve ever worked for evangelizes the importance of feedback, but how many turn it into an effective tool for employee development?

McKinsey & Company, where I started my career, was obsessive when it came to feedback – given in real-time and at performance reviews – it included one’s superiors, peers, clients, and members of one’s team. In addition to active feedback being a key ingredient of life at McKinsey, time was invested in coaching employees how to effectively give and receive feedback. This dynamic provided a foundation of everyday exchanges of honest feedback.

Other former employers also espoused the importance of feedback, but never spent time diving into what effective feedback looked, sounded, or felt like. Nor did they invest in encouraging feedback on a leader’s performance from that leader’s peers and his/her team. More often than not, review time meant an endorsement from one’s management and other senior, influential people. The result was a culture of leaders skilled at managing up, but less great at collaboration or team leadership. Real-time feedback was rare. (In fact, one of the pieces of feedback I got at a review was that I asked for too much feedback!)

To nurture a culture of feedback in an organization, 3 ingredients are essential:

  1. Feedback should be an integral part of work life. Few companies do this well – it’s not part of many work cultures to take a few minutes after a meeting to provide feedback to an employee, much less a peer or manager. Yet, real-time feedback has many advantages – above all, it tends to be undiluted and tied to specific situations. This makes it easier to consume and act upon. Additionally, it gives the employee ample time to develop and practice a new skill or behavior outside of a scheduled review. Here is a good litmus test for whether real-time feedback is part of your company culture: when a periodic performance review conversation occurs, how much of the feedback is surprising to the employee? If the answer is “quite a bit,” real-time feedback is not where it should be.
  2. Using constructive feedback as a tool requires coaching – it’s not an innate ability. There are many ways to give feedback and skillful feedback is customized for the recipient. In addition to waiting too long to share feedback (as described above), common pitfalls are:
    • Shying away from giving negative feedback – many people choose to only share the positive, implying there are no opportunities for improvement. By holding back on constructive feedback, we are robbing our colleagues of an opportunity to develop new strengths.
    • Glossing over the good stuff – I am guilty of this one myself. In a rush to share constructive feedback, I sometimes don’t spend enough time acknowledging employees’ strengths and accomplishments.
    • Being high-level and vague – giving concrete examples takes courage (and preparation!), and can often lead to pushback (this goes to knowing how to receive feedback). Some feedback leaves out detail, this makes it difficult to comprehend and act upon. Many experienced managers do this because they can’t remember specific cases and haven’t done the work along the way to document examples.
  3. When evaluating performance, it’s critical to invest time and effort in gathering feedback from more than an employee’s manager. Peer/colleague review processes are necessary, but are often tedious, take a lot of time and arguably, slow down the entire organization. (And I personally believe that workflow tools available to facilitate these processes are far from great!) In the current climate, there is real value in making company-wide performance evaluations as simple and brief as possible. As it currently stands, the breadth and depth of feedback is often sacrificed in evaluations and sometimes employers base ratings solely on manager feedback. In cases where peer and upward feedback is part of the process, picking who gets asked for feedback is often up to the employee themselves, making it unsurprising that this results in positive selection. (In this case, feedback is brief, while being overwhelmingly complimentary leading to missed opportunities for employee development.)

The question is then, how to build a culture of feedback that includes principles that lead to effective feedback? At TrueAccord, I aim to nurture a culture of real-time feedback that is integral to the organization. Feedback is most effective when it is actionable; includes coaching in both giving and receiving honest feedback; and welcomes feedback from peers, as well as managers. Enough theory — I’ve addressed the what and why of an effective feedback culture and will elaborate in a future post on how we’re working on this at TrueAccord.

Until then, I’m interested in hearing about how other organizations utilize feedback and what you’re doing to make it a part of your culture. Leave a comment or tweet at me @trueaccord, I look forward to hearing about your successes.

Sofya Pogreb, COO, TrueAccord

Sofya Pogreb brings over 15 years of Financial Services experience to TrueAccord. In the past, she’s advised Fortune 500 clients at McKinsey and Company and headed Risk Management for the Americas region at PayPal. She holds a B.S. and M. Eng. in Computer Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.