How Managers Can Make Feedback a Team Habit
Apr. 26, 2023 Harvard Business Review
In our work as career-development experts, we help people develop the skills to succeed in their increasingly “squiggly,” nonlinear careers. One skill that both managers and individuals frequently identify as a priority area for improvement is feedback — how to ask for it, how to give and receive it, and how to establish the principles and practices to make feedback a habit that helps people grow.
The flow of feedback is important for everyone, but all too often, it ends up feeling forced, formal, and infrequent. As a result, people’s development stalls and team growth is stifled. We’ve identified these five common feedback flaws:
- Focus: Very few organizations or teams have a shared understanding of what feedback is and why it matters. When individuals apply their own interpretations, this typically leads to inconsistency and misunderstandings about both the purpose and practice of feedback.
- Formality: When feedback is tied to formal reviews and requires filling out forms, it feels like a box-checking exercise triggered by quarterly or annual HR processes. Giving and getting feedback becomes something people feel they must do instead of something they find helpful and want to do.
- Fear: Fears about feedback prevent conversations from getting started and insight being actioned. Concerns about having difficult conversations can lead managers to water down their feedback communication and deliver unclear messaging. And worries about what people think results in employees avoiding asking for (and being able to act on) the insight.
- Frequency: The day-to-day demands on managers are overwhelming, leading to many missed opportunities for real-time feedback. Feedback therefore becomes an extra task to be remembered and often gets deprioritized during busy times.
- Framing: When feedback is ad hoc and disconnected from people’s priorities, it can feel too generic to be useful or meaningful. Employees are left to connect the dots to their development, which runs the risk that they won’t be able to effectively act on the insight.
To overcome these challenges, managers can take the lead on creating a shared understanding of what feedback is for, increasing the speed and ease of feedback, and unlocking difficult conversations through the art of asking. Here’s how to create a culture of fearless and frequent feedback.
Create a shared understanding about feedback.
If the goal is for feedback to become part of a team’s culture, everyone needs a shared understanding of what it is and why it matters. Without this, managers may struggle to create the commitment needed for feedback to become a regular feature of people’s work.
We aren’t proposing a universal definition of feedback for everyone to use. Instead, we recommend managers involve their teams in creating a memorable description of feedback that feels fit for purpose for the team. Questions to prompt a discussion could include:
- What does feedback mean to you?
- When feedback is effective, how does it feel?
- When does feedback feel forced?
From these discussions, you can gain insight to inform your shared team definition. Here are some definitions we’ve seen teams come up with:
- Actionable insight
- Data for your development
- Perspectives to help people be at their best
- Information that enables improvement
- Ideas to help us to grow
Increase ease and speed of delivering feedback.
Managers can kickstart a new approach to feedback by making it quicker and easier for people to give insights to each other. Here are a few approaches we’ve seen teams implement successfully:
Idea 1: “Brilliant because…”
Praise is an easy place for people to start with feedback, but it rarely provides enough insight for people to action. Feedback becomes significantly more useful when the person delivering it includes more detail to support the recipient’s development. This can be as simple as managers encouraging team members to expand on moments of praise by adding “because” to their response. For example, consider the difference between “I thought that was brilliant” and “I thought that was brilliant because you stayed so calm and composed when someone challenged what you were presenting.”
Idea 2: “Idea-for-improvement” questions
Reframing critical feedback as ideas to improve can reduce people’s fear about sharing what they think. Once a month, managers can open up this conversation by asking their teams for feedback using an “idea-for-improvement” question, such as:
- What’s one way I could help you do your job even better?
- What’s one change we could make to improve our team’s ways of working?
- What’s one thing that frustrates you that you think we should change?
These questions can be added into existing meeting agendas so they become part of everyday ways of working.
Idea 3: “Challenge-and-build” meetings
These meetings are an opportunity for anyone on a team to receive feedback on an idea or project they’re working on. Employees share a summary of an idea and invite people to attend a challenge-and-build meeting about it. These meetings give individuals the opportunity — and the permission — to practice feedback and share their perspective in a way that feels safe, with the emphasis on a project or idea rather than a person. Questions could include:
- What do you like the best about this idea?
- Why could this idea fail?
- How might our competitors approach solving this problem?
Improve the art of asking.
Many people associate feedback with difficult conversations, which means that even the word “feedback” is wrapped up in fear. Managers can reduce that fear by focusing on asking rather than telling, particularly in difficult discussions about people’s development.
When managers start by asking rather than telling, it transforms the dynamic of difficult conversations. These questions might sound like:
- How do you think that meeting went?
- What is your experience of working with that person?
- I know you’re working on your presentation skills. How are you progressing?
By asking first, managers can then adapt their approach depending on the recipient’s level of self-awareness. Feedback follow-up questions that can help someone move from awareness to action could include:
- What could you learn from someone who you see do that well?
- Where’s a comfortable place you could develop that skill?
- What could you do differently next time?