How Most Teams F*ck up Their Feedback Culture


How Most Teams F*ck up Their Feedback Culture

June 18, 2018

Bulldog Drummond Practicing Uncommon Sense

We’re a team of business leaders, design thinkers, writers and brand strategists committed to doing things in uncommon ways. We’re curious about the people and places around us and fascinated by the search for what’s next. 

I hold a firm belief that people try to do their very best with what they know. Other than a very small percentage of genuine psychopaths that find their way into workplaces, the overwhelming percentage of people you work with want to do a good days work, alongside good people, belonging to a good workplace culture.

And yet, we still find ourselves referring to the abysmal state of workplace engagement. Gallup reports a staggering 87% of people aren’t engaged in their work. Sheesh. Nearly 9 in 10. And climbing.

So where does the intent of good (good work, good people, good culture) go? How does good turn into to bad?

There’s certainly a raft of variables that contribute to the malaise, including poorly chosen motivation structures, mountainous layers of bureaucracy and non-existent role clarity, but I’m going to suggest one trumps all others. The big daddy. 


If we sit and drew up a list, we could genuinely count just a handful of teams and hardly any organisations who do feedback well. But there are a few rare ones. Hard to find, but they’re out there.

Unsurprisingly, these same teams are without doubt the most engaged, most productive and most innovative teams I have worked with. In short, they are superstars on almost every measurement. Because they dug in. They did the work where it counted. They ‘got’ feedback.

So where do most teams get feedback wrong? Glad you asked.

The road most travelled (in the wrong direction).

There’s two key areas where most teams, albeit with the best of intentions, don’t just fall a little short, but are way off track.

1. They fundamentally haven’t understood what feedback is, and why it matters.
2. Because of this misalignment of purpose, they employ substandard practices to drive feedback (because it doesn’t drive itself*)

*and never will, because it’s off-kilter.

So let’s take a stroll into the first key area around what feedback actually is. But first, be warned, this may sting a little.

Most people like the concept or ideal of feedback, but won’t commit to the practice of it. Truth.
We say we’re looking to improve ourselves through feedback but we’re actually much more interested in strengthening our confirmation bias than wading through the tough work (toughest work) of what feedback actually is;
An exchange that results in sustainable or improved outcomes.
And yet, most aren’t seeking this at all. They are after justification or vilification through confirmation rather than a true exploration. Geez that’s a lot of ‘ations, isn’t it?!

Confirmation bias is arguably our most prevalent, and certainly most studied cognitive bias we know. In simple terms, it’s where we seek information to consolidate a pre-existing worldview or opinion we have on something.

In the pursuit of feedback, most people carry one of two beliefs they then seek to use feedback to reinforce;
a) I’m awesome and everything I do is top shelf, or
b) I’m hopeless and everything I do is rubbish.

So if say, Tina decides she wants feedback on a project, yet all she is doing is using it as a vehicle to confirm her existing belief system, then we’ll see her filtering the information (no matter how well crafted) through one of those beliefs. Her boss might be challenging her to improve, say, her design thinking, but rather than stay focused on the opportunity for improvement, she’ll process the information into less helpful areas.

First, adjust those beliefs (then make confirmation bias work for you).
To do feedback really well is to embrace a worldview that everything is adjustable. That nothing is as bad or good as it seems…it just is.

Rather than get obsessed with trying to justify or confirm your pre-existing thinking, get obsessed about life improvement. If you bring that filter to the table, then your ability to give and receive feedback is eminently improved straight away.

So let’s now move onto the mechanics of feedback—or at least the broken parts of a big machine.

Struggling structures you should stop.

The second key area where feedback fails (far too often) is by leaders and teams employing underperforming structures and processes to paper cache over the rampant confirmation bias that we haven’t dealt with.

Let me run through a few common ones that are cleverly sold by consultants and app makers, but contribute to the larger problem.

Anonymity Anonymous (AA).

There should be a 12 step group for leaders, HR and OD practitioners. Meetings would start with something like.

Hi, I’m Kevin and it’s been 90 days since i last used a suggestion box and I’m thinking about ending our subscription to the Wah-wah Pulse-check survey (polite applause ensues)
My first 90 days hasn’t been easy. The first step was admitting I was powerless when using anonymity, and that our feedback culture had become unmanageable.

Look, if I didn’t have to worry about a semblance of word-count decorum, I’d spend the next 10,000 words painting a picture why anonymous feedback is like putting a band-aid on cancer.

So i’ll make it brief. The cornerstone of feedback is a conversation. That requires two or more people. Being grown ups. Engaging with each other. ‘But people are too afraid to speak up’ you might cry. Then I’d suggest the only person in this situation that lacks courage is the HR crew who won’t take action. Whether it’s a pulse check survey, 360 degree exercise or wider engagement surveys conducted through anonymity, I’d suggest you’re better off without them and the sooner you dig in for the tough road of building an open feedback culture, the better off you’ll be.

Pursuing quality over frequency.

Again, going against the very nature of how feedback (a series of conversations designed to produce adjustments in behaviour) far too many people try to have less conversations, and do them super-well. We design flashy performance management frameworks and systems, drop a bunch of cash on feedback apps to rate each other, or set up two-hour long agendas to work our way through so nothing is left to chance. And it doesn’t work. Why?
Because feedback works best when it’s a continual conversation rather than an intermittent one. Understand this;

Feedback is a culture not a tool.

But when we’re fearful or lacking confidence in handling a situation we can tend to default to process, but it ignores a driving principle in good feedback cultures.

Frequency trumps quality. Yep. Smaller, imperfect yet regular conversations are how we build trust. It shortens the feedback loop and allows us to be more agile and figure out where we’re not aligning and where we’re getting it right. Think about it. The deepest, most trusted relationships in your life were constructed around lots of small conversations with plenty of ups and downs. You didn’t get married and agree to just have a monthly status report where you’d table all the things that annoyed you about your relationship did you? You worked it through. You took the time. And sadly, for those who didn’t they joined the statistics of marriages that failed.

The last structure we see that is rife in many workplaces again, seems well intended but invariably leads to greater pain than it tries to solve.

Gathering evidence before acting.

Seems fair enough right? Don’t go off half-cocked. Document. Prepare your case. Then present it to them. This is the oft-delivered advice from HR practitioners the world around, scarred by too many industrial relations claims. But it’s deeply flawed.

Y’see when someone (in most cases a boss) prepares evidence it removes the most valuable foundations that great feedback cultures are built upon.

Immediacy. Speed. Shortened feedback loops.

The teams that are best at feedback don’t ‘save it up’ or stockpile it for the perfect moment. They have it regularly and in real time. Not only does it remove our ability to be agile in feedback, it also makes one party feel well prepared and the other party conspired against. Not the ideal environment for a open feedback session, would you agree?

So ditch the copious note taking between feedback sessions. You don’t need to build a case, you need to build regularity. It’s the hallmark of the best.

So there you have it. Some feedback on your feedback culture. If you’re wanting to improve the way you do feedback in your team, first, examine your belief systems around feedback. Make confirmation bias work for you instead of against you. Second ditch the structures that compete against good feedback. Carve time and space to step into the tough stuff.

You’ll be glad you made the investment.


Original post.

Bulldog Drummond Practicing Uncommon Sense

We’re a team of business leaders, design thinkers, writers and brand strategists committed to doing things in uncommon ways. We’re curious about the people and places around us and fascinated by the search for what’s next. 

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