HR Leaders: Does Your Culture Offer Feedback That Gets Results?

We were recently asked by an SVP of HR to help bring a feedback program inside a growing technology company. This HR executive was tired of having people leave because they didn’t really know where they stood, or depart because they simply never heard anything positive about their performance. She knew feedback could be a tool that motivated and developed others. She was focused on 3 key things:

  1. Getting Senior Leaders to role model it—by not just delivering and receiving it well, but also by seeking it themselves
  2. Creating a program whereby people could learn how to deliver it well, and practice learning how to ask for it
  3. Finding a way to demonstrate how feedback creates a culture of accountability, transparency and hope for the future

Feedback? Just say the word to leaders and they cringe, or even roll their eyes. Ten years ago when we started training leaders on the benefits of feedback, we would hear the groans, and wonder why does feedback get such a bad rap?

Just recently, we asked a group of 60 leaders in an all-day training program, “what do you think when your boss says “I want to give you some feedback.”

93% of the group said: “It’s going to be negative.”

Was it really this simple? Yes and no. Sure, most of the time people fear feedback because of the simple fact that it could be negative. But that’s not all, there are other reasons why feedback is feared and avoided. People have experienced the following:

  • Unjustified emotional hijacks—lots of leaders can tap into the time their boss missed the mark, was unjustified in his/her criticism, or even went on an emotional meltdown with screaming and threats
  • Clumsy, awkward delivery with vague tones that leave a person wondering what just happened? Am I on warning or was that a pep talk?
  • Lack of timeliness of feedback—so many people fear BOTH receiving and giving it that they delay it and by the time it’s delivered, it’s no longer relevant or the resentment is at the boiling point

Is it really all about just giving and receiving?

Much in the literature is built around how to give feedback well. When giving it, a person needs to:

  • Be prepared with specific behaviors and times
  • Be timely, and do not delay or wait until “performance review time”
  • Find time to deliver it informally and formally
  • Recognize it does not have to be negative—recognition of a job/task that is well done goes a long way
  • Offer hope by focusing on the future versus mired in the past
  • Be clear so the person clearly understands the feedback
  • Take into account the way the person would want to hear it, recognizing the difference in the learning styles of different people 

Giving feedback that produces new skills, better behavior, and sustained, positive results is not easy. It requires something from both the person delivering it and the person receiving it.

So how does a person, on the receiving end of feedback, role model the behavior needed for positive reflection and growth? The best reactions usually include:

  • Effective listening and taking notes
  • Asking clarifying questions
  • Recognition that it may be hard to hear what is being said and asking for time to absorb it is appropriate
  • Acknowledgment of one’s feelings is important—feedback can catch people by surprise
  • Appreciation—most feedback deserves thankfulness as it takes courage on both parties to have these conversations

Getting feedback right whether you are delivering it or receiving it is very important, but if organizations want to really create cultures of transparency, humility and accountability, they need to have leaders at ALL levels go out of their way to seek feedback for their performance improvement. For this reason, we add what we think is the single biggest way to truly leverage feedback in any organization. You create a culture where people want to seek feedback.

“Followers who tell the truth, and leaders who listen to it, are an unbeatable combination.” – Warren Bennis