Feedback Is Fuel for Learning Cultures
The topic of feedback is so important, so foundational, to building a healthy learning culture, it demands a chapter of its own. You must establish a feedback culture before you can achieve any of your goals around learning outcomes and impact. Feedback is the foundation for understanding your own L&D needs and figuring out how best to satisfy them.
The good news is that many companies are already evolving their approach to feedback, and millennials are responsible for driving the change. Millennials are asking for feedback and career development.1 We should celebrate this. Companies need to value employees who embrace personal growth, pursue big professional goals, and want to understand their career options.
We all need both space to reflect on our own growth and safety to ask for feedback from others. This concept brings to mind a popular quotation (and book title) from executive coach Marshall Goldsmith: “What got you here won’t get you there.”2 That’s because the work landscape is always changing. Colleagues come and go. Old strategies and approaches may no longer be relevant to today’s conditions and objectives. Wherever you hope to go next—with your current employer or another company, in your current role or by pivoting to a different function or team, on your current career trajectory or jumping to a new industry—you’ll need to be intimately familiar with your strengths and areas needing improvement. Together, these strengths and weaknesses are the engine that will take you from here to there.
Engines need fuel to operate. The true path to career development is paved with feedback cycles. We need these constant inputs to keep growing and avoid boredom, like filling up the tank with fuel. What’s tricky, however, is creating the conditions in your workplace that will make feedback loops take root, so that people don’t fear or dismiss feedback but, instead, ask for and apply feedback constantly.
Fundamentals of a Robust Feedback Culture
For too many of us, feedback has purely negative connotations of harsh criticism and a focus on past performance. I’m 91on a personal crusade to change this and get people to see that feedback is fuel when it is goal oriented, lesson based, and intended to drive growth and future performance.
As a Udemy instructor with thousands and thousands of online students, I have received my fair share of customer feedback. But I’ve also leveraged my access to this huge “focus group” to ask about their experiences giving and receiving feedback. These students are from all over the world, of all ages and job titles, at every stage of career development, and in organizations large, small, and in between. The trends I’ve found are telling. Generally speaking, people’s best feedback moments were:
■ Constructive—honest, tough messages but with the recipient’s best interests at heart
■ Perceptive, allowing recipients to see themselves in a different way and have real direction about where they should be learning and growing
■ Connected to a specific behavior and attached to actionable advice
■ From a direct report—it can be lonely at the top and hard to get honest insights from people you manage
■ Applicable to both professional and personal life
■ From sports or classroom mentors—and people almost always say they’re still in touch with those influential coaches and teachers
In his beloved last lecture, the late Randy Pausch, PhD, spoke directly to this need for us to hear honest feedback.3 Two of my favorite quotations from his talk are, “When you’re screwing up, and nobody says anything to you anymore, that means they’ve given up on you,” and “You may not want to hear it, but your critics are often the ones telling you they still love you and care about you, and want to make you better.”
What’s Been Your Experience Around Feedback?
There’s no way around it: when it comes to good feedback, people have to get away from being “too nice” or afraid of hurting people’s feelings. However, they also have to commit to sharing only constructive feedback if they truly care about helping someone improve. And they need to receive feedback with gratitude for the person who cared enough to tell them something difficult.
This doesn’t happen by magic. To remove fear around feedback loops (and make them helpful, not hurtful), we need to develop an organizational capacity for psychological safety, and that’s rooted in the work of the L&D team. We are uniquely positioned to help people build up the “feedback muscle,” as I think of it, so they’re conditioned not only to receive feedback well but also are proactively seeking it out. With proper training, everyone can get comfortable with two-way feedback cycles to the point where your culture celebrates feedback instead of fearing it.
Understanding Fixed vs. Growth Mindset
Receiving feedback well has got to be one of the most underappreciated and overlooked leadership skills. People think they’re better at it than they really are, or they avoid it altogether. But if someone can master the art of receiving honest feedback graciously, they will be unstoppable.
I love the work Stanford University professor Carol Dweck has done around the concept of “growth mindset,” which she defines as the belief that “your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.”4 She writes, “In this mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development.”
Organizations can reap considerable benefits by nurturing a growth mindset in their people. According to the NeuroLeadership Institute,5 in cultures built on a growth mindset:
■ Workers have 47 percent higher trust in their company.
■ Workers are 34 percent more likely to feel a sense of ownership and commitment to the company’s future.
■ Workers show 60 percent stronger agreement that their company supports risk-taking.
The opposite is the fixed mindset, wherein your abilities and intelligence are what they are, no matter how hard you work at them. They’re innate traits you can’t change (Table 5.1).
You can understand why I espouse the growth mindset; we can all grow and improve. Feedback is the mechanism by which you can discover where those growth opportunities lie—but you’ve got to be open to it.
Randy Pausch’s words, again, apply here. As he said, when people give you honest feedback, it means they care about you and believe in you. So, you should believe in yourself, too—that is, you should cultivate a growth mindset.
Constructive feedback isn’t about telling people what they’re “bad at” and expecting them to “fix” it. The objective, along with driving business performance, is to maximize strengths and encourage people to become their best selves. Neither is honest feedback the same as a performance review. Learning, feedback, and reflection should coexist and happen continuously, not according to a company-mandated schedule.
It’s normal to fear hurting people’s feelings, especially when you’re going to have to continue working with them every day. On the flip side, you may have encountered someone who had no problem being constantly critical while overlooking the good work people were doing.
Either way, most of us have strong feelings about feedback. And, maybe, you’re also carrying some baggage from bad experiences you’ve had giving or receiving feedback. Regardless of what happened in the past, your growth depends on your willingness to try again. You cannot predict what will happen in the future.
You could also be a feedback hero for others, giving them priceless insights that stick with them over time and help propel them forward in their lives and careers.
In a work culture that celebrates personal growth and supports individuals in achieving their goals, people should feel safe sharing honest, constructive feelings with colleagues. They should also have time and space to think about feedback they’ve received and what they can do to improve.
How do you prefer to give and receive feedback? What about your direct reports, your manager, and your peers? It won’t come as a surprise that most people want constructive feedback delivered in private, but preferences aren’t as consistent around how they want affirming feedback. If you don’t know the answers, just ask.
When Someone Is Resistant to Feedback
No matter how fair, diplomatic, and respectful you are, some people simply don’t respond well to constructive feedback. 96The answer isn’t to go silent on them. Training can help feedback receivers learn not to react defensively or feel attacked. This comes with developing the right mindset and understanding that personal growth is usually uncomfortable.
You need to work on building trust, and that starts on day one, long before you ever get around to a feedback conversation. When you’ve established trust, it may still be hard for people to hear tough feedback, but they will know you have positive intentions and are sharing these thoughts because you believe in their ability to grow and improve.
A few tactics you can follow will make the experience more comfortable. For starters, consider the language you use. Even the word feedback can trigger people and make them tense in anticipation of hearing something bad. Choosing different words—for example, changing “I have feedback for you” to “I’d love to share some additional thoughts”—can make a real difference.
The best way to get someone comfortable with feedback is to make it part of the regular routine. Separate it from stress-inducing events like formal performance reviews, and engage in feedback discussions on a frequent, regular basis so everyone gets accustomed to giving and receiving. When people are blindsided by feedback, they tend to develop a fear and aversion to this unknown thing that could be lurking around any corner. If you normalize feedback as just another aspect of your working relationship, it becomes as benign as any other scheduled meeting.
And I know whereof I speak. I spent a decade as a classroom teacher, and when I transitioned to being a corporate trainer, all of a sudden I had a boss (and many others) observing me at work. Not only that, but we sent out surveys after every workshop, so I was getting feedback from dozens and dozens of individuals all the time. This was terrifying. I had never been under such close scrutiny or received regular scores on my performance. I dreaded sending those surveys at first.
But guess what: feedback is now my “drug” of choice. It isn’t always easy or pleasant to read what people think of me, but it always gives me valuable food for thought and makes my work better. In fact, I wish I had asked for more feedback from my school students.
Another thing that’s happened is that, having received a ton of feedback over time, I’ve learned to evaluate it better. I know I don’t have to accept every comment I receive. That’s an empowering feeling.
There are countless ways to go about spreading the message that feedback is fuel, but it has to be foundational to everything else in your learning culture.
Best Practices for Receiving Feedback
■ People generally mean well. Assume good intentions, be open to someone else’s perspective, and have an attitude of gratitude.
■ Accept other people’s information as valid, whether or not you agree. Their perception is worth consideration. Don’t immediately jump to defend yourself or push back by making excuses or blaming others. Ask for specifics and clarification to understand someone else’s point of view.
■ Seek out more information, and don’t be shy to ask questions. You don’t necessarily have to act on every piece of feedback, but give it an honest appraisal. If there are other explanations or mitigating factors, don’t feel guilty if it’s really not feasible for you to act on someone’s feedback.
■ Create space for feedback. Get used to it, prepare for it, ask for it, and set the framework. For example, have your manager give it in weekly meetings, so you know when to be ready for it, where you stand, and what’s expected of you next.
■ Know what you want feedback on and help your manager(s) and peers give it to you. Send questions in advance, such as, How do you envision our team working together? What could I be doing better? Am I prioritizing the right things? Where should I escalate or not? Am I doing the right amount of work?
Best Practices for Giving Feedback
Where: When you can, have feedback conversations face-to-face. Don’t wimp out and hide behind email or chat. Not only is it a bit cowardly, just think about how often misunderstandings happen in those channels—and how easily avoidable they would have been with a conversation in person. Tools like Slack might be great for quick exchanges, but it’s no place for sensitive, nuanced discussions. I remember one manager who tried to deliver constructive feedback to a direct report via Slack, and there were so many other messages, emails, and in-person interruptions occurring at once, the direct report totally misread his manager’s words. Even worse, he reacted reflexively by telling his teammates he was “getting in trouble,” which got the entire team chattering, and then the manager had a bigger problem on her hands.
Electronic communications are convenient, but they’re minefields for feedback conversations. You’ll save yourself a lot of grief if you and your teammates get comfortable having quick, in-person chats when a performance issue arises. Have your meeting via video or a voice call only when it’s absolutely necessary, such as for a remote employee.
When: As soon as possible. Don’t store up feedback and wait to dump it all at, say, a periodic performance review. Feedback needs to happen as part of your ongoing routine, so establish regular feedback cycles and allow enough time for questions and follow-up discussion. Schedule weekly (or whatever makes sense) one-on-one sessions with direct reports and use the time to expand beyond status updates; be proactive about sharing and soliciting feedback. Ask, generally, how they’re feeling about their work, their development, and their interactions with the rest of the team, as well as what they need from you that they’re not already getting. When done right, the rest of the conversation won’t feel intimidating or intense, and no one will walk out frustrated or surprised. And encourage your direct reports to do the same—ask them for feedback if they feel they’re not already getting what they need.
There’s always debate around the best time to deliver particularly difficult feedback. I don’t like doing it right before someone goes on vacation or he or she is about to give a presentation. Having a tough conversation first thing Monday sets people up for a bad week, and doing it last thing Friday sets them up for a bad weekend. Find a fair middle ground with enough room for the recipients to absorb and reflect on what you’re telling them and to reach back out afterward 103if they need to. As with everything in life, moderation is key. Keep track of how often you’re giving feedback to ensure you don’t stray into micromanager territory.
How: You want to create value for the feedback receiver, so come prepared. Be specific and own the feedback, rather than hiding behind generalized statements such as “some people say . . .” or “everyone thinks . . .” Be authentic and respectful. This shouldn’t be about making demands, doling out punishment, or giving ultimatums, so be sure your intended message is getting through. Ask questions and make it safe for the recipient to speak freely and openly. Then, when you make an action plan together, you’ll feel confident you’re on the same page, and you’ll both feel comfortable with what happens next.
The Darker Side of Affirmative Feedback
It seems like it should be easy, right? Commend someone enthusiastically on doing a “great job,” and they’ll be nothing but thrilled. Maybe. Can you be sure they’ll know exactly what you’re referring to? Or might it be heard as vague and empty cheerleading? That’s why you need to get beyond simple praise, so people see the impact of their positive behaviors.
In addition, listen to recipients and hear their side of the story. You might discover that “great work” is taking a hidden toll. Your high performers might be suffering from burnout, or they actually hated the particular project where they excelled.
I once worked with a stellar new hire who had been rocking it in her first months on the job. I lavished her with praise, then asked how she was feeling. As it turned out, the reason she had been so efficient and productive was that the work was largely similar to her old position, and she was feeling a bit frustrated. She had joined our company because she wanted to learn and grow. She wanted to take on more challenging projects, but her colleagues were afraid of overloading their new teammate. After our conversation, we talked about other areas where she could get involved and contribute.
The Big Takeaway
We all need to be exposed to lots of feedback and learn to get comfortable giving and receiving it. This is just one of the countless “soft skills” in high demand today, alongside critical thinking, conflict management, and relationship building. We can all get better at these skills, regardless of where we are in our lives and careers.
But good feedback doesn’t just happen. You need to create the right environment, make a habit of it with regular feedback loops, and work together (giver and receiver) on action plans for moving forward.