How to create a healthy feedback culture
The giving and receiving of constructive feedback should be embedded into workplace practice, but to succeed it requires a culture built on self-compassion.
The importance of developing a feedback culture at work and how it supports professional growth is often discussed, yet still not fully understood.
One of the reasons it’s so hard to achieve is because for many, the thought of receiving feedback elicits fear, a sense of dread, or activates the fight or flight response.
Giving feedback comes with its own set of challenges: how to give it the right way, at the right time, and make it actionable. But what is preventing us from embracing it more fully? Self-compassion might be the answer.
Why is it important to give feedback?
Before understanding how to be more comfortable with feedback, we should cover why it’s necessary to our development. The annual performance review is often criticised as an inefficient process due to its infrequency, creating frustration for employees as well as a sense of surprise.
When people regularly receive feedback this creates more opportunities to learn.
On the other hand by receiving feedback as and when relevant, people are better able to course correct and improve on the go, creating a much more agile workforce. In turn, overall business efficiency increases, driving bottom line results.
When people regularly receive feedback (for example after a presentation, at the end of a project or after completing a deliverable) this creates more opportunities to learn.
They become aware of their key strengths, and areas for improvement, giving them the possibility to ask for help. They can also identify topics where they want to deepen their knowledge to support career growth.
Why do we fear feedback?
While not all feedback is negative, many people immediately imagine the worst case scenario. If we consider the lack of regular feedback it makes sense: as we’re not accustomed to receiving input on our work, the idea of someone having an opinion quickly becomes terrifying.
Similarly if we are not accustomed to sharing feedback, “we become very focused on the risks of having the conversation, to the point where in our mind they outweigh the risks of staying silent”, says Sarah Rozenthuler, author of ‘Life-changing Conversations’.
For a culture of feedback to be strong we need to manage our fear.
Lack of regular feedback can have many negative knock-on effects: lack of self-confidence, imagining our superiors perceive our work as poor(in turn eliciting a fear of reprimand) followed by people being overly cautious and a fear of failure impeding advancement.
Ultimately the cycle repeats itself, whereas for a culture of feedback to be strong we need to manage our fear.
First we need to become more accustomed to having the difficult conversations, and for Sarah Rozenthuler part of this comes through handling the difficult emotions. As she says: “when we’re aware of the difficult emotions involved, we’re better able to prepare effectively and handle what happens”.
How will self-compassion help?
Self-compassion is a way of dealing with setbacks, both personal and professional. Rather than berating yourself for failing, imagine treating yourself as you would treat a friend who told you a story of professional misfortune.
What would you say? You probably wouldn't tell them they'd made a silly mistake or that they could have done better. You would show understanding and possibly help them find a constructive takeaway.
Self-compassion is applying that positive reinforcement to yourself, not beating yourself.
See the bigger picture - no one knew how to do their job straight out of school and none of us are perfect, even top executives are still learning (no-one is born CEO).
As we increase our self-compassion, the better we will be able to accept feedback.
So next time you make a mistake at work cut yourself some slack: don’t immediately blame yourself or apologise profusely, take time to realise that it happens to the best of us.
If we are able to practice self-compassion in our personal and professional lives, we will be less afraid of making mistakes and more comfortable with our limitations. As we increase our self-compassion, the better we will be able to accept feedback.
According to Serena Chen research, people with high levels of self-compassion are kind rather than judgmental about their own failures, recognise failures are a shared human experience and take a balanced approach to negative emotions when they fall short.
Psychologists have discovered that self-compassion is a useful tool for enhancing performance and it is now considered the first step for a‘growth-mindset’, which has been shown to be key for a company’s performance.
Create a lasting culture
In order to create a sustainable culture of feedback, all three elements need to come together: a growth mindset; practising self-compassion; willingness to regularly give and receive feedback.
Only then will the culture become ingrained and long-lasting. What role does HR have to play in all of this? There are several ways they can help:
- Initiate a regular feedback programme in the workplace (ideally as part of the performance management process)
- Teach people how to give good feedback
- Educate managers on how to develop their direct reports, based on the feedback they received
- Encourage a culture of self-compassion, starting from the top