May 28, 2021

Many things stand in the way of creating a culture conducive to giving and receiving feedback. Sometimes, these challenges seem so insurmountable that executives stop trying. It is easier to avoid the psychological and relational risks involved with these difficult conversations. They just say nothing. The organization persists with destructive, passive-aggressive communication. 


Creating a positive feedback culture can be complex and difficult. There are obstacles to both giving and receiving effective feedback. But it is better than the alternative. In choosing not to give each other feedback, we give up on the possibility of greater individual and organizational performance. We also compromise the possibility of deeper and more authentic relationships with each other. 


In a workplace without sufficient psychological safety, “Feedback Givers” may feel anxious. They may fear offending the other person or worry about being misunderstood. Their anxiety may come across through body language and tone of voice, leading the Receiver to be apprehensive about the conversation that is about to happen. Once into the conversation, Feedback Givers may not offer enough specificity in describing the desired change to be helpful. The Receiver may not be clear about the change you are encouraging. “What should I stop,” they wonder, “and what should I start?” 


In this kind of culture, Feedback Receivers often experience and then communicate defensiveness when offered feedback — many experience feedback as being judgmental and critical rather than developmental and helpful. Our defensiveness closes down our ability to listen and absorb the input we are receiving. This tension can increase the Feedback Giver’s anxiety, subsequently reducing their ability to communicate clearly and making them less likely to want to give feedback in the future. “That wasn’t pleasant,” they think. “I’m not doing that again in a hurry!” 


Giving and receiving feedback is like adjusting a golf swing. Experienced golf pros know that small tweaks — such as keeping a slight bend in the knees or keeping the head steady and centered — can make the difference between the ball going down the middle of the fairway and hooking off into the rough. The coaches observe the swing with the naked eye and with slow-motion video in order to give precise feedback to the person they are helping. 


The golf swing metaphor is helpful in a couple of ways. Firstly, it makes the interaction more objective. It is not about the Receiver personally. It is about the behavior — the golf swing. Secondly, the metaphor encourages us to try to get leverage on the challenge by being very specific. We aim for the small adjustments, skillfully applied, that can make a huge difference. “Give me a place to stand and with a lever I shall move the whole world,” said Archimedes. 


Here are three tips to put this approach into practice:

1) De-pressurize the language

To implement these golf swing adjustments, we create lists of “Keeps and Adjusts.” What has been helpful or worked well that you should keep doing? And what might you consider adjusting for next time? 


The goal of this language is to take some of the emotional intensity out of the thought of giving feedback. No matter how well something goes, there will always be things that could be adjusted to make it even better for next time. No matter how badly something goes, there will always be things that went well to be retained for future such initiatives.


2) Remove the hierarchy

We encourage those leading projects to take the lead in convening these “Keeps and Adjusts” conversations. This choice reduces defensiveness by allowing the project manager to invite feedback from a position of power as the person leading the meeting, rather than as the subject of a meeting called by and presided over by someone else — often their supervisor. We often know most of the things that went well and could be done better in our own particular project. By sharing our own lists first, we signal our self-awareness, and we demonstrate our commitment to continual improvement.


3) Routinize the practice

In every project, team members are encouraged to keep track of their Keeps and Adjusts. Afterward, they are invited to share their lists with either a colleague or, with larger projects, the whole team. For example, every event we host generates a list of Keeps and Adjusts. Over time, the projects themselves improve, and a feedback culture is built. 


By routinizing feedback in this way, we come to expect it. Both appreciation of good things and acknowledgement of things to improve become regular occurrences. With this routinization, our anxiety in giving feedback reduces, as does our defensiveness in receiving it. 




De-pressurize feedback, encourage project managers to lead, and routinize the process. By taking these steps, you can work toward a feedback culture and feel the benefits in terms of both performance and relationships. 

Chris White is Principal at Riverbank Consulting Group, and a faculty associate at the Center for Positive Organizations at the Michigan Ross Business School.  

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