How to Help Your People Grow: Creating a Culture of Feedback

Jeff Diana by

Too many people operate under the false assumption that the manager is the de facto linchpin to growing and developing the people within an organization. This “Myth of the Manager” overlooks the fact that very few managers are actually equipped or empowered to take on that responsibility.

More often than not, we set managers up to fail by sticking with a system that doesn’t work. We charge managers with making sure their people get the right feedback, have detailed development plans, and progress in their career. We ignore the fact that many first-time (and even second-time) managers already have their hands full learning on the job. Perhaps most importantly, we don’t take into consideration the fact that managers already have full-time “day jobs” getting out their own deliverables and making sure their teams get their work done.

Most managers are simply stretched beyond their capacity, putting out fires and meeting day-to-day deadlines. They don’t have time to single-handedly ensure that each member of their team is getting the appropriate feedback on a regular basis.

Instead of continuing to struggle with this broken approach, we need to develop a “culture of feedback” that frees the manager from being the single channel (and bottleneck) for feedback and solely responsible for the development of their people.

Discover the Culture of Feedback

A culture of feedback sets people up to receive feedback from multiple sources. It gives individuals a place to bounce their own self-improvement ideas off a variety of teammates within the organization so they can find the people who have the specific skills they want to develop and learn from them organically. It’s the difference between a highly tailored and effective independent study program that’s built around each individual’s unique goals and the traditional leadership academy model that throws everyone into a generic development track. We also need to recognize that, despite our rhetoric, each person owns and is accountable for their own growth and development. We have built a system that runs counter to that and says, “Don’t worry, your manager is the key and responsible for this.” It’s time to fix this misalignment.

There are four fundamental areas that a company needs to master in order to create a culture of feedback that empowers their whole organization.

Values

To start with, you need to do something of a gut check on your company values, how you articulate them, and which behaviors you reward. Ask yourself if your company values speak to empowerment, transparency, an open flow of information and a sense of true collaboration. Determine if they foster an understanding that, in order to grow, an individual must have the opportunity to learn from other people. Making sure your company values align with the primary concepts behind a culture of feedback ensures that you’re building on a strong foundation.

Soft Structure

After establishing alignment with values, you can look at how your company operates—the typical flow of information, operating rhythm, ease of sharing, accessibility of information, available tools, your organization’s decision-making process and so forth. Soft structure also includes your actual performance feedback process, which is—obviously—an important element to look at. All of these soft structure elements play an important role in your ability to integrate a culture of feedback into day-to-day operations. Overall, you’re looking to identify opportunities and potential roadblocks. For instance, if your company is more of a “black box,” people will shy away from seeking feedback because they know that information is hoarded. On the other hand, maybe your company has a pretty open communication policy, but no simple way for team members to access the information they need. Each of these scenarios provides clues about the kinds of adjustments you can make to bring your organization into closer alignment with a culture of feedback.

Hard Structure

While soft structure elements are fairly easy to change in the short term, hard structure elements—like the layers of hierarchy—typically present more of a challenge. The more layers of hierarchy you have, the harder it is for information to flow freely. It’s also common in deeply layered organizations for a few individuals at the top to hoard decision-making responsibilities. People can get pretty wound up in their titles, levels, and reporting relationships, so it may take a little more work to untangle from hard structures. But the effort will be worth it if you can remove barriers that inhibit the flow of feedback.

Practices and Tools

The last piece to consider is the kinds of tools you have for accessing and giving feedback and the practices you employ in the feedback process.

Provide feedback in a timely manner.

It’s important to create an environment in which people get feedback in a fairly immediate manner. From how you design your one-on-ones to how you run your team meetings, ask yourself if you’re creating an avenue by which people can provide you with feedback and—just as important—by which they expect to receive feedback from you. The basic tenet is that you want to start with your ad hoc activities—one-on-ones—and then also incorporate things like quarterly check-ins and even project-based feedback cycles.

Create a balance of power.

In a traditional structure, the manager retains a position of power throughout the feedback process. The manager dictates where and when feedback is provided, is the arbiter of which feedback is relevant, and ultimately tells the employee what they need to do and then judges how well they’ve done it. This paradigm goes back to the myth of the manager being the single control point. In contrast, a culture of feedback has a strong element of partnership and power balance. This means ensuring that feedback flows two ways—manager to employee, but also employee to manager—and that all parties engage in self reflection as part of the process. This bilateral approach to feedback creates a safer zone and generates greater trust. It also, as a side effect, helps managers improve their feedback skills because they are regularly receiving feedback themselves.

Separate feedback from compensation.

When you only provide feedback once or twice a year, it’s inevitable that the feedback process will become directly tied to salary. This is the exact opposite of what you want in a culture of feedback. When feedback correlates too closely to compensation, it creates a lot of noise around the conversation. Instead of being able to focus on the actual information being provided, people get distracted by issues of self-interest and self-preservation. Feedback stops being about getting better and instead is about getting paid. It’s important to separate these two things so that one doesn’t contaminate the other.

Skip the general peer feedback process.

Collecting feedback from peers might sound like a good idea, but it almost always results in lower quality feedback and rampant reciprocity when it is part of a formalized full-scale structured process. The quality drops after the first cycle or two simply because people can’t sustain the depth or relevance required to make the feedback valuable. And once people realize that the people they are reviewing will also review them, the whole process becomes a love fest rather than an opportunity to provide constructive criticism that would fuel professional growth. A more effective approach is to use peer review in a more targeted way. If someone is working on a particular skill, ask colleagues about that specific skill. A manager can also ask for more general peer feedback but from a more selective group–maybe three individuals–who can provide insight into the person’s strengths and weaknesses.

Consider implementing feedback tools.

There are a number of software tools that are specifically designed to help manage the feedback process. At Atlassian, we used a platform called Impraise. This tool made it easy for team members to ask for feedback on specific topics and issues from specific people. We used Impraise not only for quarterly check-ins, but also for a wide variety of other feedback opportunities. Our product teams used it to gather feedback after product sprints. Our marketing team used it to collect feedback on campaign ideas and concept releases. Perhaps most powerfully, individuals were able to take feedback from their managers and use the platform to reach out to specific people in the organization to ask for help on certain skills.

Innovation isn’t just about technology.

Truly innovative companies embrace new ideas not only in their products, but also in the company culture that helps create those products. We are so eager to tout the value of the entrepreneur—to put smart people on the job and get out of their way—but then we fall into the trap of employing the same old HR processes, which ultimately constrain the individual under the old-school approach of putting everything on the manager and offering only traditional leadership training.

Adopting a culture of feedback empowers each member of your team to seek out exactly the kind of feedback and guidance they need in order to play a proactive, collaborative and ultimately entrepreneurial role in their own professional development. It’s a win-win, offering each teammate a tailored opportunity for growth and taking undue pressure off your managers. In the end, everyone is better equipped to do their job and move your company forward.

Chief People Officer, Advisor