My first job out of university was an internship at an organization that ran a month-long international training program. I managed travel details for one hundred delegates from around the world, welcomed them and showed them around the city, and took care of their basic needs so that they could focus on the training. It was an incredibly intense and stressful job. And it was 24/7, as we all lived at a retreat centre for the month. I was brand new to work with a healthy dose of anxiety, and spent the month in a state of overwhelm. I got the work done, but there were definitely some tears along the way.
As the internship was wrapping up, I applied for a permanent role in a different department of the organization and was turned down for the position. The Executive Director of the organization, who I had never worked with directly, gave me feedback about why I didn’t get it. She said I was a good worker, but I didn’t manage my stress well.
In retrospect, she was probably right that I wasn’t ready to step into the higher level of responsibility that the permanent position entailed, but the feedback she gave and how she gave it left me feeling terrible about myself and about the organization.
Two possible paths
The impact of the feedback
What I took away from the ED’s feedback was that there was something wrong with me, and that I had a fundamental flaw that made me an outsider to this organization. I also believed that this was not a place that cared about me as a person, and that I would be expected to meet unrealistic expectations and then would be rejected when I couldn’t.
The potential of feedback in the situation
With a different kind of feedback – one that came with a commitment to employee development – I could have learned skills that would have helped both me and the organization thrive. It would have been very helpful to have received feedback and coaching earlier in my internship – ideally from my direct supervisor – about how I might manage the stress of a fast-paced program, how to know when to ask for help or set a boundary, and effective ways to raise concerns about workload and program issues with the organization.
We also could have had a conversation about my goals in the organization, which would have been a great opportunity to let me know of any expectations I would need to meet to achieve those goals.
This kind of feedback would have set me up to succeed, and would have given them the opportunity to have a qualified internal candidate for the position I applied for.
Why is feedback so important?
Feedback is one of the most important aspects of any workplace relationship.
Feedback offers one of the best opportunities to learn, grow, and challenge ourselves. Through supportive feedback, we gain clarity about expectations, learn new skills and mindsets, build our sense of confidence in our work, and address any misunderstandings or wrong turns.
In addition, we often make choices based on the feedback we receive or that we don’t receive. For example, if someone is unaware that their teammate or supervisor is dissatisfied with their work, there is no opportunity for them to express their perspective or shift what they are doing.
In addition, feedback helps an organization build effective teams, create the culture they want, address small issues before they become big, and encourage creativity and innovation.
If you would like to get better at giving effective feedback, check out Nine Tips for Giving Good Feedback in the Workplace.
Beyond individual growth: becoming a learning organization
In an organization that has a culture of prioritizing learning (a learning organization), people have what they need to grow, thrive, and benefit from each other’s diverse experience, skills and resources.
To be more specific, in a learning organization, leaders prioritize and reward learning, reflection, and growth. The organization focuses on continuous evaluation of what is working well, what could be done differently, and how staff can learn from successes and failures. Learning organizations have a culture that supports everyone to acknowledge what they don’t know, seek new solutions, and take creative risks. Leadership models humility and creates the necessary safety for staff to do the same.
This involves a range of mindsets and behaviours including:
- Ability to adapt to change and explore new ideas
- Integration of learning and capacity building into the day-to-day work
- Feedback is given, received and appreciated in all directions
- Commitment to an environment of “failing forward” where people don’t have to fear punishment if things don’t go as planned
- Willingness at all levels to model humility and curiosity
- Commitment to generative conflict, courageous conversations, and openness to all perspectives
- An appreciation for complex questions and openness to a range of answers to those questions
Most importantly, a learning organization depends on the cultivation of trust, belonging and authentic relationships: key elements of a healthy workplace culture.
Feedback and learning help us navigate change
To innovate and adapt to complex and changing situations, we have to be willing to experiment and fail. When an organization creates enough psychological safety to encourage learning, people are more likely to experiment, take risks, make mistakes they can learn from, and as a result, come up with innovative and unexpected solutions to complex problems.
I’ve worked with many organizations where feedback only happened when things went wrong. In these situations there’s usually not much innovation. People follow the safe route and do what they are told, and the status quo is maintained. In the face of complexity, change or crisis, these organizations tend to stay stuck.
In more innovative organizations, people are encouraged to take risks, try new things, make mistakes, and come up with unusual solutions. These organizations have to build their capacity to evaluate and give feedback. They tend to be better at finding their way through the complexity.
Start by normalizing feedback in all directions
One helpful first step toward becoming a learning organization is to create feedback systems in which everyone gives and receives feedback and has the support to integrate what they learn.
Some of the elements of a healthy feedback system include:
- A normalization of feedback as an opportunity, and a focus on providing at least as much feedback about what’s working well as feedback about what could improve
- Many opportunities for everyone to participate in evaluating how things are going in the organization and with the work
- Clear pathways for people to feel comfortable giving feedback to people with more organizational power, with recognition of the additional challenges of giving feedback in the context of a power dynamic and commitment to making that feel safe
- Relationship building to support people to talk openly with their peers about what is going well and where there are challenges in their interactions or shared work
- Integration of evaluative processes into meetings (eg. check ins) and projects (eg. what went well, what was tricky, what could we do differently next time?)
- Frequent and early feedback so that people always know how they are doing and have plenty of time to adjust if necessary
- Leadership commitment to coaching and support for people to make necessary changes
- Linking feedback to people’s professional goals so that they have the information needed to follow their chosen pathways to success
- Clear processes, supported by formal structures like policies and procedures, for people to challenge feedback and particularly performance assessment when it feels unfair
- An organizational culture that encourages openness to new information that might change people’s perspectives of what is happening or what needs to be done
You might be wondering how to start the process of moving toward such a beautiful future state. This usually requires some capacity building at all levels of the organization.
Possible ways to do this include:
- Create clear processes for feedback that everyone can participate in.
- Train everyone to know how to use them. Often there might need to be specific training for people in formal leadership roles and a more general training for everyone.
- Practice with scenarios and eventually real situations. Get feedback on the feedback.
- Provide one-on-one support and coaching, particularly for leaders, to identify personal barriers to giving and receiving feedback. This might involve preparing for a piece of feedback that feels hard to give, or processing feedback that was difficult to receive.
- Provide ongoing mutual support, affirmation and feedback internally as people become more comfortable with the processes.
It’s a journey and it’s worth it
I love supporting organizations to improve their feedback culture. I have worked with a number of organizations to create new processes and develop their capacity to speak honestly and openly about what is going well and what could get better.
It is an inspiring process.
People move from feeling nervous to speak honestly, to disagreeing and suggesting new ideas openly. When faced with challenging feedback, they move from defensiveness and shame to curiosity about what they might learn and how they might do even better the next time. And everyone shifts from seeing improvement and professional development as an individual responsibility to seeing it as something we all do together to have the teams, workplaces and successes that everyone is motivated to achieve.
But of course this all has to happen in a context that feels psychologically safe enough to take risks. And that is where leadership skills are essential. Feedback at its best is about communication and saying hard things that might lead to conflict, and then knowing how to navigate that. It requires transparency, humility and curiosity. It should be followed with coaching and mentoring and a commitment to everyone’s success. People with organizational power need to be able to look honestly and self-reflectively at their motivations and notice when they might be giving unfair or inequitable feedback, or setting higher standards for some people than others.
It is about shifting the purpose of feedback from getting the organizational goals met to having a healthy, welcoming, open, and engaged work experience for everyone.
Part of creating a feedback culture is supporting people to be able to speak honestly and have couragous conversations. Check out our upcoming learning opportunities for leaders: Building Emotional Agility and Generative Conflict: Leadership Skills for Healthy Workplaces to help you create an environment of honest communication. You can also sign up for the Big Waves mailing list for special promotions and to be the first to know about the upcoming launch of an at-your-own-pace conflict skills training!