Way back in 1983, Ashford and Cummings (1983) first described the importance of feedback as an organizational resource. 35 years later, the science on feedback behavior is now conclusive: Boosting feedback in your organization is now considered one of the cheapest and most effective ways to boost overall team performance. (1)
Regular feedback increases our sense of learning. It helps us feel valued. It boosts empathy and trust. It provides us with the guidance we need to become better. In short, feedback helps employees thrive. So if this is an accepted fact, why are so many companies, and so many professionals, still not making it priority #1?
Because systems which stimulate constructive feedback are surprisingly difficult to implement.
First, employees need to feel "psychological safety" in order to open up and share their point of view. Then they need to develop specific 'soft skills' to ensure that their feedback is expressed correctly, and received correctly. At every stage, our cognitive biaswill resist this change, defending our ego and raising our insecurities. And even if you do manage to implement a system of feedback, that system must be repeated over time, so employee thoughts and behaviors become a habit, and that habit becomes embedded into the corporate culture.
So how are today's most successful companies developing the proper environment to stimulate constructive feedback? They implement strict procedures to reinforce the following 5 healthy habits:
A Gallup survey found that 67% of employees whose managers focused on strengths were more engaged in their work. IBM’s WorkTrends survey reinforced the importance of positive recognition by showing how employee engagement reduces increases almost threefold (and reduces turnover). This explains why high-performing teams share nearly six times more positive feedback than average teams.
Transparency must start with management in order to 'trickle down' to the team. Be transparent through all the different experiences the company goes through - the good, the bad, and the ugly. It is only through this kind of open and honest sharing that employees will feel engaged. Routinely promote conversations where people feel comfortable expressing opposed points of views. Without transparency, employees feel like they are only a small part of a big machine; they don’t see the big picture and, therefore, they don’t feel important or valued in the organization.
Every employee deserves respect. So it's important that you focus feedback on improvements - and from a non-guilty perspective. This is about giving and getting guidance, not pointing fingers. Encourage non-aggressive communication, and try to explain situations without ego and blame. Gossip and politics destroys teams, and it extinguishes the motivation of those who don't like 'playing the game'. Respect is about assuming the best in people, and keeping the needs of the whole team a priority.
Google spent years on Project Aristotle to figure out what makes a team successful. Their conclusion? It doesn't matter so much who is on the team, it matters how the team works together. Google classified several traits that make a great team, but the most important trait by far was psychological safety – or being comfortable enough to openly share anything with your team. Teams with high psychological safety can rely on each other. They can ask tough questions, exchange feedback, and share new ideas - all without fear of embarrassment or punishment. But safety does not mean “anything goes”. On the contrary, people feel “safe” when they know where everyone stands. Employees must feel secure in their roles, or they can feel threatened, which has a profoundly negative effect on productivity. Read about the importance of "authentic self-expression" in the article Reinventing Employee Onboarding. They explain how suppressing your 'true self' at work (specifically in the onboarding process) costs 'emotional energy', which eventually leads to dis-engagement.
The best environment for a team to form bonds is a relaxed and friendly environment. When teams form tight interpersonal connections during the normal times, they will able to trust each other and perform as a team when stressful times comes.
Feedback is fundamentally about trying to improve people, and improve processes. Sometimes that means challenging and/or changing the status quo. And that can cause problems if these 5 fundamental building blocks are not present. Constructive feedback isn't something that can be forced. And it certainly can't be forced from the "top down". Organizations and managers must create and maintain the regular methods and procedures above to create the proper environment.
Through positivity, respect, transparency, safety, and relaxation, the team will naturally begin to understand that feedback isn't about judgement and ego; it's about everyone becoming a source of guidance for everyone else. It's about boosting the collective intelligence of the group.
Markus Goldhacker, Katharina Rosengarth, Tina Plank, Mark W. Greenlee (2014) The effect of Feedback on Performance and Brain Activation: Vision Research, v. 99, 2014, 99-110
Donald M Prue & John A Fairbank (1981) Performance Feedback in Organizational Behavior Management, Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 3:1, 1-16, DOI: 10.1300/J075v03n01_01
Locke, E. A., Shaw, K. N., Saari, L. M., & Latham, G. P. (1981). Goal setting and task performance: 1969–1980. Psychological Bulletin, 90(1), 125-152.