Most organisations and individuals understand the value and power of giving and receiving feedback. We are aware it builds trust and respect between our employees, customers and stakeholders. We know that great conversations lead to better outcomes and therefore productivity and profit. So we send our people to a training program in the hope they will come back a changed person. Yet we find that our people – and, if we are honest, ourselves – still avoid feedback or handle it poorly.
The history of feedback
The concept of ‘performance management’ was introduced about 60 years ago as a means to determine the wages of an employee based on their performance. It was used to drive behaviours to generate specific outcomes. When employees were solely driven by financial rewards, this tended to work well.
In the late 1980s, not all employees felt rewarded, nor motivated by financial gain alone. Many were driven by learning and the development of their skills. From here, performance management started moving into more frequent monitoring and reviews with a focus on regular feedback outside the formal review process.
As organisations put more regular conversations into the mix, there was a notable improvement in productivity and employee engagement when the conversations were handled well. In fact, the Corporate Leadership Council tells us that when informal feedback is delivered well, it can improve productivity by nearly 40%. Now that’s pretty compelling.
We are now seeing an emerging trend in high-performing organisations where all employees, not just the leaders, are being taught how to give great feedback and also how to receive feedback with equal candour and grace. Organisations that do this are in their ‘feedback flow’.
But there are far too few that are gaining this as their competitive edge. Many are still running training programs in isolation in the hope that it will develop their people and create a new organisation, which is as likely as going to the gym once and expecting a body transformation. When done well, it is a start – and a good one – but a start alone nevertheless. Nelson Jackson was onto it when he said, “I do not believe you can do today’s job with yesterday’s methods and be in business tomorrow.”
So, why aren’t all organisations focusing on improving the feedback skills of their people? In a challenging economy, it’s getting harder to justify training without proving the value, both to the individual and the organisation. This is not as difficult as you might think, but it does require planning upfront to understand what you want to improve and how to measure it.
Another challenge can be getting traction after the training. It can be difficult to keep the momentum up when people are either not motivated or not supported to embed what they have learned. Unless we make people accountable to implement what they have learned, it is likely to be forgotten. We also need to make it inspiring to do so. We want people to know they are gaining time, not wasting it, by focusing on improving.
Training alone is not enough to drive change
We need to get comfortable with pushing through the awkwardness of changing habits and processes to move to a breakthrough in the capability of people and to create improved cultures. Otherwise we have a breakdown and go back to old styles, which often don’t serve us or the business. Many of my clients tell me that they understand the need to push through the awkwardness, but they are not quite sure how to do this. If we want the change to be sustainable and improve over time, then we should consider all the elements to creating a remarkable feedback culture. The following is a high-level guide that takes all of those elements into account.
STEP 1: Plan
This phase is about setting the foundations for a successful rollout. What are the objectives? How do we know the program will address what we need? How can this be measured? Consider qualitative and quantitative measurements. What is the communication strategy? Who are the key stakeholders? Consider pilot programs to test the design.
STEP 2: Learn
For the training component to be successful, you need more than just great design. Hire remarkable facilitators and trainers. Make sure they suit your culture. Consider what methods outside the workshop you have to embed such as coaching, mentoring, online tools, etc. Make the learning highly engaging and heavily pragmatic.
STEP 3: Do
It’s make or break time. Set up systems and processes where people are accountable to deliver on what they have learned. In my space, it is about having the tough conversa-tions. Create lots of space, in and out of the initial training, for practice. Create the right conditions, and this will help people move from awkward to an outcome. If we don’t, then the return on investment is lost.
STEP 4: Review
Too many times, we implement without measurement. Based on the foundations we set in the planning phase, we should consistently measure progress. Then report back to engage people and the business. We also set up ‘remembering rhymes’ so people are able to easily recall what they learned and put this into place.
STEP 5: Rewire
We need to understand what’s working and what’s not and then tweak the implementation and change direction if required. There is no point pushing something that is not at its optimum. In particular, we can do an ‘appreciate inquiry’ to understand what’s working well and amplify it across the business.
STEP 6: Sustain
We shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking we’ve made it and then drop all of our good work. While sustaining suggests a holding pattern, it still requires careful planning to keep people motivated and supported to be the change they seek.
If we really want to create cultures of feed-back, we need to put in place a program to embed the learning. Too often I see organisations miss this opportunity to improve their return on investment, on the dollars spent and time allocated, after the initial training – then wonder why people are not being the change they are looking for.
Changing habits does not happen over-night. It is a planned and considered approach. And it’s not as complicated as we think. When we get clever about how to embed the learning, the change then becomes effortless and the culture is able to self-sustain.
Georgia Murch is an expert in teaching individuals how to have tough conversations and create feedback cultures in organisations. She is the author of Fixing Feedback and a highly engaging speaker. Visit georgiamurch.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.