Stop Teaching People How to Give Feedback

Ben Olds Audacious Ideas, Culture, Guest: Ben Olds, Performance

Want a feedback culture? Join the club. But how does HR help create this? Most organizations start by teaching managers how to give feedback effectively. The logic follows that if they have the skill, then they’ll go around giving all sorts of helpful feedback to readily receptive employees who will use it to improve and pay it forward in a never-ending positive spiral of development and enrichment. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?

Problem is: I’ve tried it. It doesn’t work.

Why not? Because this approach starts in the wrong spot! There are 4 traits that have to exist to have a strong feedback culture, and we typically need to foster each. Harkening back to my consulting days, I’ve of course created a 2×2:

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Most of us start and stop our efforts to build a feedback culture in the upper left. We train people on how to give good feedback, and then wonder why these skilled providers still avoid these conversations like the plague. The reason: the most skilled provider in the world will have a miserable conversation with someone who doesn’t want feedback, and/or doesn’t know how to receive it.

Instead, build your feedback culture in a program aimed at fostering each of these traits in the organization. And order your program counter-clockwise, like this:

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Will to Receive: This requires creating the psychological safety among colleagues to be vulnerable, to admit imperfections, and to embrace learning and improving. We’re typically happy to receive positive feedback, but cringe at the thought of constructive feedback. Educate employees on the value of constructive feedback, and seek out and destroy habits that erode psychological safety. Amy Edmonson’s book Teaming has some great advice on how to do this.

Skill to Receive: Even if we want feedback, we don’t always know how to receive it in such a way that encourages more. We get triggered and defensive if we think the feedback is unfair, inaccurate, or not relevant. And sometimes we forget that getting feedback that is unfair, inaccurate, or not relevant is still really valuable and that we will be better off hearing all of it! Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen have a fantastic book on this subject, called Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well.

Skill to Give: Here is where most of us are quite comfortable. There’s no shortage of experts out there who can teach your employees effective ways to deliver feedback, and it’s certainly an important part of this process (albeit the third—not first—step). Chris Argyris has some good work on this topic, but my favorite is Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Stone, Patton, and Heen.

Will to Give: Finally, you need to foster the institutional desire to share feedback with one another. In steps 1-3, you’ve removed some of the disincentives to giving feedback (the recipient doesn’t want it or won’t receive it well). Remove the rest (e.g., the hierarchy doesn’t allow for it, it’s culturally not appropriate, etc.) and create incentives for it (recognize those who give it, have leaders go out and ask for it, etc.). No book to recommend here—if you’ve accomplished the first 3 steps, this one is easy.

Building in this order should give you a greater chance at creating a feedback culture in your organization. But you still have to do each step well. Got any advice on best practices for each step? Hit me in the comments!

Ben Olds
Ben works in HR/OD at Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, a Cambridge company dedicated to the simple goal of trying to cure cancer… no big deal! Ben’s on his second career, having spent his first in business/strategy consulting, mostly with Bain & Co and Monitor Group, which basically just means he relies on MS Excel to solve virtually any problem he faces. If he’s not coaching or working with colleagues on their approach to leadership, he’s helping teams create effective dynamics or planning a recognition program to motivate employees. And sometimes, he’s chasing his wife around the ice hockey rink in his weekly pick-up game, or playing tennis, squash, skiing, hiking, mountain biking, or anything else to expend his nervous energy!