One of the most important parts of any company’s culture is the way that feedback is given and received.
Feedback on the shortcomings of a piece of work can be constructive, allowing progress and improvement. But it can also be destructive, undermining employees’ confidence and preventing them from doing their best work.
Given this challenge, many managers chicken out and provide only cursory feedback, avoiding the backlash negativity can bring. But this can be just as destructive in the long-term.
There’s a story about Google executive Larry Page bursting into a room and making a big show of announcing that a set of ads sucked. It’s dramatic, attention-grabbing feedback that makes Page and Google sound like dynamic go-getters.
The problem is that feedback given this way could only work because Google had spent years building up a receptive, communicative culture. And the reality is that a grand gesture like this, for all that it motivated some people in the room, may have demoralized others, and certainly does nothing to build an atmosphere in which people would feel able to calmly and openly discuss their work.
To be constructive, feedback needs to be specific, showing people where to focus their efforts in improving. It needs to focus on the product, not the person, making clear that the employee who did the work is not under attack. People who feel attacked, or who are not given a clear way forward, will become defensive and less open to feedback.
It’s easy to build up such defensiveness, but hard to reduce it. Negative feelings stick with us. It’s only through persistently providing constructive feedback that we can build a culture in which people believe that they do not need to defend themselves, and instead focus on improvement. A single gesture can undermine the trust that such a culture is built upon.
Given the damage destructive feedback can provide, it’s easy to slip into being casual instead. Casual feedback is offhand, vague and often fails to address the problem, leaving it to recur. Worse, it carries an implicit message, one that hits us all subconsciously whether we realize it or not.
Casual feedback tells us that the person giving the feedback doesn’t care. And if you show that you don’t care about the work and what you’re saying about it, then why should anyone else?
So how can you avoid this?
The answer is through encouraging a culture that is open but considerate. You shouldn’t hold back from providing feedback on something that matters. The longer you leave it, the worse the problem will get. But you shouldn’t hold back from talking it through in detail either. Make clear what is wrong with the work, not the person doing it. Give them steps to improve. Talk positively about what can be achieved, instead of tearing their ideas down.
If you want other people to open up and listen then you need to do so as well. Show how you act on the feedback you are given. If what you receive is vague or negative, encourage the person to provide more constructive details. Show that you care.
It might hurt at times. It will certainly be hard. But modeling constructive feedback, and constructive action based on it, is the only way to encourage an open, communicative culture.
Grand gestures make for great anecdotes, but it’s the long, hard work of talking and listening that will bring real improvement.