How leaders can create a positive feedback environment

The dynamics surrounding feedback giving are fascinating! It’s a high-stakes moment where the delivery is often as important as the message content getting it wrong can have devastating consequences for the individuals involved and their ongoing relationship.

Research shows that people managers often fear the process (even when the feedback is positive). They tend to soften the message or avoid the conversations entirely1

Despite the difficulty many individuals face in giving and receiving feedback, for leaders especially this is an essential skill, and one of the major contributors to business agility. Following JCURV’s annual State Of Agile Culture research with 2,000 professionals, we found that leaders abilities in giving and receiving feedback was the single most important determinant of an agile culture. 

The ingredients of a successful feedback conversation are well documented. The setting needs to be right, ideally somewhere private. Timing needs to be considered people need to be in the right frame of mind but don’t leave it too long! In fact, positive feedback is best provided approximately 24 hours after the feedback trigger as you’re demonstrating the significance of the feedback by reflecting on it a day later. Constructive feedback should be given soon after the trigger, once both parties are in the right frame of mind for a reflective conversation. Never attempt to give both positive and constructive feedback together (except as part of the formal performance review cycle) to avoid muddying the waters. Remember, no-one actually wants a feedback sandwich, the positive feedback is often inauthentic, and recipients are typically awaiting the constructive feedback with bated breath the concept is a myth! 

A green background with the words she leads change

The feedback sandwich provides very little nutritional value, no-one benefits. 

Even though the process of feedback giving is relatively straightforward it’s not rocket-science to deliver a message in a clear and respectful way people often struggle because we create unhelpful psychological barriers for ourselves. Perhaps this is why recent research has found that two-thirds of American employees experience no recognition nor praise at work2

We set ourselves the challenge of uncovering what leaders can do to encourage constructive feedback environments where individuals feel comfortable seeking and receiving feedback. The key findings are presented below.

What can leaders do to create positive feedback environments

An under-researched topic is what leaders can do proactively, to create an environment where feedback giving becomes natural and comfortable, for the benefit of giver and receiver. 

Extensive research by Susan Ashford3 and colleagues has shown that feedback seeking behaviour, i.e. proactively asking for feedback, provides leaders and team members alike with the confidence to be transparent and share their observations. Role-modelling by leaders is key, seeking feedback is just as important as giving feedback, as highlighted in the SOAC research. Those leaders who display humility by regularly seeking feedback from the team are the ones who create a trusting environment where team members feel comfortable sharing feedback and in turn, ask for feedback themselves. This point was reinforced by a respondent in our primary research, who stated: 

If more senior people in the business start asking for feedback more regularly and openly, it will make people feel they could voice feedback more easily. If someone is constantly asking, you feel more confident to start the conversation. Ultimately, you develop a trusting relationship where you’re more open to any feedback the leader shares with you.

When leaders role-model the change by seeking feedback themselves, there are 4 ingredients for success: 

  1. Create an environment of Psychological Safety and trust: Since Amy Edmondson’s early research into psychological safety, much has been documented on the importance of developing an environment where employees feel safe in taking risks, expressing ideas and concerns and feel able speak up where they have questions or make mistakes. This environment is a precursor to employees feeling comfortable sharing observations with one another openly and transparently, without fear of repercussions. 
  1. Consider your timing and motives: If you’re only seen to ask for feedback at performance review rounds, others may take a more cynical view of your motivation for feedback seeking. Are you genuinely looking to learn, grow and change your behaviours, or are you looking for praise to pad out your performance file? Perhaps the best opportunity to ask for sincere feedback is immediately after team performance reviews have concluded, so employees can be honest and feel less concerned about how their feedback might come across to you. 
  1. Ask open questions: people have many reasons for seeking feedback; the wording of your request influences the feedback given. You may have observed those who only ask for feedback immediately after successful events, sometimes highlighting how hard they’ve worked to solicit a positive response: You know how hard the team and I have worked on the presentation, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how it went.  The richest feedback will come from those that are asked in an open, broad and reflective manner: I want to discover how I can become a stronger leader, do you have any observations that you can share with me?
  1. Respond appropriately, show gratitude: It’s surprising how many leaders ask the right questions in the right way, following the first 3 tips, yet fail to respond in a way that demonstrates humility and gratitude. It takes a lot for employees to share feedback, particularly upwards or peer-to-peer. Feedback is a gift, so take time to acknowledge the feedback and thank the feedback giver for their observations. Ask for examples if you need more context. Avoid the tendency to be defensive you may not agree with the comments and that’s fine. Not all feedback needs to be internalised and acted on (although we’d encourage you to be self-reflective on every point raised!). If you simply reject the feedback or instinctively defend your strong track-record you can guarantee you won’t be getting rich and meaningful feedback from that individual again in future! 

We wish you every success in your feedback journey. Role-modelling the change by asking for feedback yourself is the starting point for creating a strong feedback environment which benefits everyone. As a bonus, you might well learn something about yourself along the way! We certainly hope so. 

About the author: Ben Hutchinson is a director and enterprise agility coach with JCURV. He has specialised in cultural and behavioural change over the past 15 years. Ben gets his passion and energy from seeing teams change their ways of working and improving trust and transparency in the pursuit of great outcomes! If you’re wanting to change the effectiveness of your teams, please don’t hesitate to get in touch: [email protected].  

References: 

1Rath, T. & Clifton, D. (2007). How full is your bucket? Educator’s edition: positive strategies for work and life. New York: Gallup Press. 

2London, M. (2014). The power of feedback: Giving, seeking, and using feedback for performance improvement. London: Routledge. 

3Ashford, S.J., De Stobbeleir, K. and Nujella, M. (2016). “To seek or not to seek: Is that the only question? Recent developments in feedback-seeking literature.” Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 3: 213-239.