No Feedback Culture: Why Your Team Isn’t Speaking Up

🙋‍♀️ This is a cross-post from my newsletter, Leading by Design. If you liked the post below, consider subscribing! I (usually) post two issues per month.

Photo by Katya Ross on Unsplash

Photo by Katya Ross on Unsplash

As managers, we talk a lot about sharing feedback but don’t always align on what it entails. Feedback is more than a manager telling employees how their work stacks up to corporate quality standards. It’s a constant dialogue that fosters learning, growth, and development at all levels.

When feedback becomes an integral part of a team’s culture, it creates an environment where open communication, learning, and continuous improvement thrive. This mindset is what we refer to as a “feedback culture”. A healthy feedback culture promotes transparency and empowers individuals, encouraging them to be proactive in their professional development.

That sounds ideal, right? However, you probably already know building a productive feedback culture is not so simple. There are usually multiple signs your team does not constructively use feedback.

Diagnose your feedback problem

Start by asking yourself these questions to determine if your team has a feedback problem:

  • How often do my team members share feedback in a group setting?
  • Does giving constructive feedback usually turn into petty fights?
  • Do I get feedback from my direct reports?
  • When was the last time that I praised someone in my team?
  • How often does constructive feedback get seemingly ignored?
  • Is feedback a constant process or just a performance review season occurrence?

Have you spotted any patterns? If your answers to the questions above reveal a feedback culture problem, it’s time to put on your manager hat and get to work.

Troubleshoot your team’s feedback culture

Is everyone working towards a common goal?

Feedback always works better when it’s time-specific and task-oriented, so it isn’t easy to prioritise it when everyone works towards different goals. Giving feedback to a colleague when you’re expected to work on reaching a different KPI can feel like overstepping. Employees prefer to stay in their lane and avoid expressing their thoughts, thinking it’s not in their job description. And that’s how the notorious workplace silos are created.

To fix this, you, as their leader, must ensure everyone is informed and aligned about what you’re working on. Use every tool in your arsenal to communicate business goals to your team, explain how their work helps towards achieving them, and repeat until it’s second nature. While collaborating on a shared goal, regularly review the process and iterate according to what the business needs and what your team can deliver. Set clear expectations for everyone’s work and let people hold each other accountable.

Do your team members trust each other?

Psychological safety is vital if you want to create a feedback-rich culture. Working under the fear of facing repercussions when you speak up is a one-way trip to burnout. It’s highly improbable that someone on the verge of burnout will confidently share productive feedback with the team. The most you can expect from them is venting and passive aggressiveness.

Your team members should feel comfortable giving feedback and addressing their emotions, and that starts with caring for each other and the outcome of their work. As their leader, your job is to ensure that there is no blame culture in the team and that no one gets ostracised for offering feedback on others’ work. Start by checking your behaviour first and eliminating any defensiveness when people give you feedback. Trust is easy to shatter but slow to repair; show patience and be on the lookout for hostile behaviour.

Do you give your team members praise?

Some of my clients come into coaching sessions guns blazing, swearing they only thrive when they get negative feedback, urging me (and expecting from their managers) to show them “tough love”. I have to repeatedly remind them that when giving feedback exclusively means pointing out their weak points, this will erode their willpower, and eventually, they will resent their work.

Ensure you and your team understand the importance of well-selected praise and practice it often. Some opportunities for recognition can be achieving a milestone, getting excellent customer feedback, overcoming challenges and offering to help or mentor others. Cultural norms sometimes make praise-giving feel forced and awkward, but you should help your team overcome this idea. Praise is essential for building a healthy feedback culture.

Do you have feedback processes in place?

Sure, you wish your team shared feedback freely, but what channels should they use to do that? If you only share your feedback with them during performance review season, it becomes a once-in-a-year occasion instead of an everyday habit. A healthy feedback culture cannot be based on annual performance reviews alone.

Work with your team to create opportunities for talking on a 1:1 basis. Ask for your direct reports’ feedback and keep your door open for other team members who want to provide their perspectives. Operation-wise, perform regular retrospective meetings after delivering projects so that everyone can weigh in with what went well and what could go better next time. You can also use 360 surveys to gather feedback from all directions and get a more holistic view of an employee’s performance.

Do you recognise and reward effective feedback giving?

If you want to drive real culture change in your team, you should search for the people who already exhibit the desired behaviours you have in mind. People tend to respond better to feedback in the form of “you do this well” rather than “you do this wrong”. Recognising and rewarding the effort of people already contributing to the team’s feedback culture is a significant step.

Little things like Slack shout-outs, taking some time to recognise people’s hard work at the beginning of meetings, or even something silly like a “feedback champion of the month” badge are good ways to make feedback an integral part of your team processes. Training your team in giving feedback can also help you structure your feedback loops to be as concise and helpful as possible.

No room for autopilot

As a leader, working for culture change in your team can often be slow and anticlimactic. You might not see results for months, and if you’re impatient like me, it’s easy to throw your hands in the air and declare that this is how things are done in your team and nothing will ever change.

Screwing up your feedback culture is not an option, though. A lack of feedback exchange will stifle your efforts to help your team members grow. Innovation and creativity will suffer. Resist the temptation of letting things go on autopilot and make it a point to work towards building a robust feedback culture by the end of the year.

Your future self from the next performance review season will thank you.

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