Workplace Culture

How to Create a Culture Where Feedback Actually Helps

Most of us struggle with giving and receiving honest and mutual feedback. In his book, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” author Patrick Lencioni deftly describes how an inability or unwillingness to engage in Honest Mutual Feedback (HMF) leads to poor performance. Lencioni provides some solutions, and organizations such as Pixar, Intel and George Mason University have developed additional techniques. These tools move us beyond our normal relational efforts of connecting, affirming, and determining status. Creating a culture of HMF takes effort, but the pay-off is a motivated, self-managing, and continuously-improving team. Here are seven important steps for creating such a culture:

1. Increase face time – even if the face is on photographic paper

This incredibly powerful fact about human relationships is also the simplest one. Face-to-face meetings, retreats, conferences, eating meals and drinking coffee together builds our trust in each other, leading to an increased fluency in HMF. When people aren’t in the same physical space, you can post staff member’s pictures in newsletters, on the website and around offices: People exposed to a picture of a person before meeting them rate that person as more likable upon meeting. It’s been shown that when people like each other more, they trust more, and when they trust more, they are more willing to engage in HMF.

2. Make HMF a part of your company’s values and vision

It’s a good idea to have Honest Mutual Feedback as part of your organization’s values and vision as HMF fosters a culture of adaptability and primes people to view feedback as constructive rather than negative. A commonly held vision for your organization will help unite your staff, giving them a reference point when practicing HMF.

The simplest way to get people to identify with your organization’s vision, including HMF, is to involve your team members in its creation. When this is not possible:

a. Remind people of the vision.

b. Demonstrate that those who created the vision are credible.

c. Tell success stories of people implementing values and vision (these will inspire).

d. Tell failure stories of people who didn’t adapt to the values and vision (these will teach).

When people believe in a commonly held vision, they don’t object to honest feedback – they believe it will help them achieve the goals they jointly hold.

3. Leadership Must Model

Leaders must demonstrate by inviting Honest Mutual Feedback from people of all ranks. Respond to their comments with gratitude and with questions of curiosity to help you understand them better.

4. Help teams craft HMF agreements

Such agreements often include lines like:

a. We commit to being honest regarding our assessment of each other’s work, not overstating the problem or attacking the person.

b. We commit to not taking criticism of our work as a personal attack, rather seeing it as an opportunity for our own self-improvement.

c. We commit to being just as candid in the room as in the hallways.

d. We commit to regularly checking-in regarding the quality of our relationships with each other.

5. Give regular, data-driven status updates.

When people can hear and see how their actions get them closer to goals, they are energized to both work harder and exchange HMF.

6. Help people feel that HMF is worth the icky feelings

Even when HMF is done perfectly, people can walk away wondering if it was worth the feelings that may still result. As a leader, you need to acknowledge these feelings and provide praise for engaging in tough but courageous conversations. It’s also helpful to remind your staff that this kind of honesty is what creates great teams.

7. Create No-authority Brain Trusts

High ranking staff don’t always want to share everything they think with those under their direction. They know that their opinions, when combined with their authority, can stifle the thinking and expression of the staff members who hear them. High ranking staff often hold back on some of their thoughts, speaking only when they are sure there is a problem. Because of this, much of what experienced people know is lost.

One solution is to create mentorships called Brain Trusts. A Brain Trust is a group of experienced people that staff can go to for HMF. Ensure each staff person can call together a Brain Trust where no one has any power over the person who called the meeting.

Creating a culture of Honest Mutual Feedback is a challenging and worthwhile task. When people feel comfortable enough to practice HMF, they will help each other improve their work performance, and your organization will advance by leaps and bounds.

For more FREE resources, visit our resources page. 


Mike Labun

Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

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