We have to talk… fostering a feedback culture

What is feedback?

The definition of feedback according to oxford dictionary is described as the “Information about reactions to a product, a person’s performance of a task, which is used as a basis for improvement.“ In this article I am focusing on feedback related to human interactions. We can find feedback within families, friends, at work or even with strangers, for example when you took someones parking spot. Feedback can be verbal, or non verbal, it has many shapes and colors and we all are talking about it on a daily basis. The reflections of this article are just a collection of my personal experiences and I want to encourage you to experiment and apply it in a way that feels right for you.

Why is feedback so important?

As mentioned in the definition, feedback provides an opportunity to improve your own or somebody’s behavior. In the human feedback interaction though, there is a great risk for failure. To keep it simple let’s assume there are 2 main characters involved in our feedback scenario. One person is giving feedback and the other one is receiving the feedback. In reality this process can be more complex. Most likely the 2 people in our scenario have been raised in a very different way, they have different experiences, different values (if they are even aware of values) and probably also different goals. To summarize, both of them may have a different perceptions of the same situation and therefore a different definition of „ the reality“ or „the truth“. What I have experienced many times (and you probably too) is that very often feedback is sent & received without considering the individual background programs, which ultimately often leads to defensiveness, justification and frustration and does not really result in any improvement of behavior.

So how is it possible to get the positive results that are promised by feedback? If used carefully it can be a great way to evolve and to grow and to improve behavior and to create even bigger positive impact. Depending on the roles in the feedback process there are several HOWS we can apply to make the entire process more fun and effective.

The art of receiving feedback

Staying open to challenging feedback is probably one of the hardest things. We all have had conversations and received feedback that we perceived as painful and offending.

When we are feeling emotions of anger, sadness, disappointment or injustice, our autonomic nervous system gets triggered. Hormones are rushing through the entire body, sugar is transported in the muscles, digestion stops, our view is getting narrow and our body automatically responds with the activation of the „fight-or-flight“ mechanism. Although we are „only“ in an office with a colleague and we are not in a life threatening situation, our body still prepares to run away from a predator. Looking back at several situations I think I literally felt existentially threatened sometimes. In our modern society, we got conditioned not to run or fight in these situations. Therefore we often react with other coping mechanisms such as justification and defensiveness.

Have you ever heard something like: „I only micromanage because the team does not deliver good quality!“It’s always easier to blame someone else. The problem in these highly charged situations is, that we are disconnected from the prefrontal cortex, the area of our more evolved and intelligent brain. We basically behave like reptiles. I don’t know about you but I really don’t want to have a feedback conversation with a crocodile.

Next time you are receiving feedback, observe your physical and emotional sensations and be honest with yourself. When you feel a stress response in your body arising you can take a break, take a deep breath of fresh air and continue with the conversation when you have calmed down.

The next step would be to take a more distant perspective. Try to remember that you and the feedback giver may have completely different perceptions. This could be a great way to learn something new. Rather than getting defensive you could ask questions such as „What exactly about my behavior didn’t you like?“.

If you are able to stay open and vulnerable and take feedback with grace and humility you can see beyond your bruised ego and see it as a gift from another person to you to expand and evolve your personality.

The art of giving feedback

Giving feedback is definitely another kind of art and can be as challenging as receiving feedback. Some of us are avoiding any kind of confrontation and don’t want to have challenging conversations while others are lacking empathetic skills.

To be able to become a good feedback giver your intention is key. No one enjoys to be humiliated, belittled or embarrassed. Your intention of the feedback has to be pure, free of anger and clear. Ultimately you have to keep the receivers well-being in mind with the goal to help that person to unleash their full potential.

When you are planning to give feedback take some time to come up with a communication strategy and bring yourself in an elevated emotional state of compassion and care. If you are experiencing difficulties to have a conversation with a heart-based intention, be honest and reschedule your appointment.

While you are having the feedback conversation be empathetic and observe the emotional and physical reactions of the receiver. You have just learned about the stress response the body can cause in difficult situations. If you feel that your conversation partner may need a break to clear the air, suggest to pause for a moment.

It all sounds really complicated right? And there is really a lot of things that can go wrong, but this should really not keep you from giving feedback. Avoiding feedback because it’s challenging is not a good idea. Sometimes we also tell ourselves that it’s not our job to give feedback to this or that person. Somebody else should take care of it. The most effective feedback is a 360 degree approach, neglecting hierarchies and responsibilities. Next time you feel the need for someone else to receive feedback as course correction, take responsibility and do it in the most compassionate way. Please remember that when you avoid to give needed feedback, you are literally stealing an opportunity to improve from another person.

Also don’t forget being compassionate with yourself, in the past you may have been a “bad” feedback giver. But those days are over, you now have all the tools to become a great feedback giver and if something ever goes wrong you still have the opportunity to communicate you regret and ask for forgiveness.

How to foster a feedback culture

What else can we do to create a healthy feedback culture in our environment. We can start by applying the above mentioned techniques of giving and receiving feedback and demonstrate a feedback behavior that’s worth modeling.

You can start expressing your appreciation and gratitude for other people and their work on a frequent base. Doing so has several effects: You start moving your focus on positive aspects of the people around you. If you manage to increase the frequency of feedback and to build a ratio of positive and encouraging comments vs. negative comments to a 10:1 – the negative conversations or comments are not having such a heavy weight anymore. People feel generally more worthy and appreciated and are more open to work on the „smaller“ improvements areas.

Why don’t you set a little goal today. Take a moment and think about all your team members and come up with a positive comment about every member. Share it with your team today!