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Why hard feedback is so important

Feedback is the lifeblood of a healthy company. It informs employees, fuels productivity, and helps managers establish credibility. But there are several obstacles to a healthy feedback culture. Hard feedback is one of the biggest – something even the best leaders sometimes avoid.

Without that feedback, however, an organization can suffer. It’s vital to provide honest, at times difficult feedback that provides key insights to employees about their performance, establishes a consistent, values-driven culture, and rewards people for their efforts. Keegan Walden, Torch COO, recently presented on the importance of a healthy feedback culture, with tips on how to encourage managers to give hard feedback and what those conversations look like.

Watch the Replay of Torch COO, Keegan Walden discussing how to build a healthy feedback culture –>

What an Unhealthy Feedback Culture Looks Like

A healthy feedback culture is one in which every team member feels comfortable giving constructive positive or negative feedback to any other team member without fear of retaliation. It sounds simple, but even an otherwise strong organization can struggle when it comes to feedback. Unhealthy habits develop such as:

  • Yes Feedback – Teams start to only feel comfortable giving positive feedback, making it unclear to people when there is a problem.
  • Zero Feedback – Managers stop giving feedback at all. This creates challenges in professional development, and it becomes impossible for everyone to know what they need to work on.
  • Weaponized Feedback – Perhaps the worst result of an unhealthy feedback culture is when feedback becomes weaponized. People avoid conflict for so long that it boils over in the form of unconstructive negative feedback, damaging morale and undermining the culture.

For healthy feedback to become a core value in an organization, there needs to be trust. The giver needs to trust that the receiver will listen and be open and curious about the feedback, and will not react defensively, and that ultimately, they will consider changing their behavior based on what they hear.

The receiver of that feedback needs to trust that the giver has their best interests at heart and genuinely wants to help.

Unfortunately, trust like this is increasingly rare in the startup community. Even more than trust, though, there is a growing generosity gap. This is the tendency to be more generous in evaluating ourselves than we are in evaluating others. In areas of trust, feedback, conflict and repair, leaders in tech companies frequently rate themselves higher than others around them. It’s a growing barrier that makes it that much more difficult for tech leaders to both receive and give constructive feedback.

How to Build a Healthy Feedback Culture

The first step in building a healthier culture around feedback is to close this generosity gap, which starts with understanding why such a gap developed in the first place – the answer, in most cases, is defensiveness. Leaders need to become examples for their teams in this and start by recognizing the subtle ways that they promote the generosity gap by being defensive with each other and with others.

Hard feedback plays an important role here – both in accepting it from others and providing it to employees. Good hard feedback is information that flows between two people that the receiver accepts and learns from. It is designed to maintain a healthy, open relationship, and it validates the feedback process in future interactions – instead of creating pain that both parties will seek to avoid in the future.

And yet many managers avoid providing it because their own personal experiences receiving feedback were bad, or because they have a fear of conflict and they don’t want to trigger it in these conversations.

Some of the best ways to invest in cultivating a healthy feedback culture, include:

  • Being attuned to the goals and needs of employees
  • Speaking directly to individuals
  • Using I-messages
  • Use non-hyperbolic language
  • Defining the problem and the solution
  • Talking about behavior, not attitudes

Without the right approach, however, it’s easy for people to become defensive. People’s defenses can be subtle and are often triggered by different things. They might respond with their own criticism, contempt for the giver of the feedback, stonewalling in which they don’t listen at all, and general defensiveness.

In a strong feedback culture where these relationships are prioritized and the process by which feedback is given is thoughtful and intentional, this kind of a defensive response is less likely.

Taking the Next Step with Hard Feedback

Teaching feedback skills to management to reduce hidden opportunities and focus on best practices can help build trust and improve relationships with all employees. Coaching can be a powerful tool in building confidence and having productive, hard conversations. 

Download our guide to Building Leaders At Scale to learn more about the benefits of coaching and how it can build a more robust, healthier culture of feedback.