How to Create a Feedback Culture That Drives Employee Performance and Development

September 2, 2022 Aaron Kinne

We are awash in feedback.

A cavalcade of daily interactions provides us with multiple opportunities to receive and comment on those experiences. For example, Uber asks you to rate and leave a tip for your driver after every ride.

When you finish shopping, complete this Target Guest Satisfaction Survey and win a $1,500 Target gift card (has anyone actually won this?!?). Loved a movie? Input your positive feedback on Letterboxed. Hated a book? Tell the world your negative feedback on Goodreads.

We are not far from the episode of Black Mirror (Season 3, Episode 1, “Nosedive”) that envisioned a world where your status in society depends on how individuals rate your every interaction.

Of course, the workplace provides ample space to give and receive direct feedback. So how do we create a culture of feedback that can be a boon to the employee experience and not one that seems apocalyptic?

Feedback culture

What is a feedback culture?

As an educator of 28 years, I’ve learned that grading is easy, but feedback is hard. Numerous assignments warrant a grade, but providing targeted communication that justifies my evaluation and offers constructive feedback to help the student develop appropriately is challenging.

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Writing an “F” combined with “This sucks!” doesn’t cut it.

A strong feedback culture occurs when employees feel they can provide input about their work and the organization regardless of their position and role. In the classroom, students can approach every assignment without fear of negative feedback, palms moist from nerves, and discuss with the professor any potential concerns.

However, given the short time we have with students, how can such a culture be developed in a short time (some classes meet for seven weeks or less) in an environment where some do not embrace that approach? In addition, how can it be applied to common work scenarios where the relationship does not end and employees and managers have to work side-by-side after an appraisal?

Feedback culture

Feedback-rich culture starts at the top.

As with any initiative, top management support is critical for setting the tone of a feedback-rich culture. For example:

  • Do leaders see feedback as necessary?
  • Do leaders follow up on the evaluations written and given by a front-line manager?
  • Do they hold front-line managers accountable for poor evaluations that check a box instead of providing actionable items that employees can use to improve?
  • Are they open to criticism from subordinates and do they seek ways to improve the organization?

A leadership team that answers these questions positively is likelier to have a strong, feedback-rich culture.

Clarity of expectations is crucial.

For an educator, one obstacle to faculty feedback culture is unclear expectations. When a poorly designed assignment is given, students will lack the proper direction to succeed, and professors will be frustrated by the lack of quality submissions.

In his session, “Unlocking the Power of Clarity and Performance Management,” Jason Lauritsen highlighted this critical point: “the most foundational question of performance and managing performance is … what is expected of me? What do you expect of me?” Do I know what it takes to succeed? Does the reality of the job and the performance standards I am being judged by meet the job description?

What you are likely to see in the workplace, but are harder to institute in a semester-long course, is setting those expectations collaboratively. Given the limited time, meeting one-on-one in the first week and setting out a detailed performance plan equitable to everyone registered for the class is challenging. Yet, having open office hours and demonstrating a willingness to go over requirements and provide meaningful feedback on how to succeed on an assignment can help.

Feedback culture

Choose your feedback tool.

One of the central tools in education is the syllabus. Lauritsen stated, “the golden rule of management is that if it matters, put it in writing.” For professors, we often phrase this as ‘is it in the syllabus?’

Are deadlines spread out and communicated to students in advance? Does the scoring system make sense and is it weighted and scored appropriately? Do students have a rubric that can help guide the proper completion of a task?

Yet, despite the time, effort, and energy a professor might put into designing and writing down expectations, students still need to read it. In this instance, are there multiple locations where students can find needed answers? Is there a learning management system where they can look?

In a work setting, a tool such as Workhuman Conversations® allows anyone to solicit feedback at any time.

Feedback culture

Authenticity matters.

One of the central questions in the Gallup Q12 Employee Engagement Survey is number five: “My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.” Constructive feedback can fail if employees do not feel seen. In “Messaging and Mattering: How Feedback Fosters Well-being at Work,” Dr. Joe Hirsch identified three critical components of effective feedback; the first of which is authenticity. We want people to feel genuinely good at the end of the conversation.

Too often, when providing feedback, we rely on what Dr. Hirsch describes as a praise sandwich – positive feedback, criticism in the middle, and another positive comment. For the recipient, diminished trust occurs as they feel the manager is trying to hide the truth.

Using WRAP to drive a feedback culture

Instead, Dr. Hirsch recommends a feedback WRAP.

We start with What and Where – the context of why we give feedback.

We then move to Reason – this is an opportunity to show management cares. As Dr. Hirsch described, “I care about you. I care about your work. I care about us. So I want to give you this feedback, and here’s why.”

Third, “A” stands for Affect – we transition from “you did X” to “I feel X.” It moves the discussion from blame to contribution.

Finally, we focus on Prompt – we diminish the power differential between supervisor and subordinate, professor and student, by allowing the recipient to become a partner in the discussion. By receiving feedback in this manner, the recipient leaves the conversation feeling more positive.

Do you have empathy?

The second component is empathy. Dr. Hirsch described it in this context as “recognizing who someone is and honoring the knowledge and expertise and experience that that person brings to the table.”

Like new employees, students may not know much about the subject matter, yet have experienced continuous feedback since kindergarten. So again, it is about honesty and understanding whether they are on the right track.

What feeds the feedback givers?

The third component is energy. Organizations might think that putting the highest empathy person in the position of giving feedback is an asset in a feedback-rich culture. Yet, these individuals often hurt the most after giving constructive feedback, and their productivity suffers. A strong feedback culture allows some recovery time as feedback givers feel empty afterward. No wonder I feel so drained after grading a few papers.

Feedback culture

It’s a two-way street.

In a feedback culture, seeking feedback is just as important as giving it. In “Redeem Feedback in Your Organization, Mindset Methods and Muscles to Get You There,” Laura Grealish and Tamra Chandler emphasized that we are seekers, receivers, and extenders of feedback.

Too often, managers approach the feedback process unidirectionally, providing top-down criticism. Grealish and Chandler emphasized, “if you start to put your energies into building seekers and we move a little bit away from trying to make all managers really good extenders of feedback, if we move into seeking and then we embrace everybody’s ability to do this, we can really start to shift the whole experience that we’re going to have within these organizations.”

For an educator, it means seeking student input during the semester instead of waiting to gather evaluations at the end of the term.

Mel Tucker, head football coach of the Michigan State Spartans, says, “How can a culture be great if people don’t love and trust each other enough to speak up?” When debate is not happening within an organization, it’s an indication that something’s very wrong. “If people don’t feel like they can speak up, it comes down to poor leadership.”

Feedback does not need to initiate a fight or flight response. Through these approaches, a more healthy feedback culture can be achieved.