The right feedback is so valuable. Unfortunately, though, it is often the case that we do not enjoy talking about mistakes. Hardly anyone likes to hear that they have done something wrong or that a technical error has been made. It is also not always easy to stand up and say "I have another idea" or "that won't get us anywhere" in the context of acquired hierarchies and structures. Yet in order to thrive as a company, we must systematically improve and work on ourselves. That is why it's extremely important to put in place a healthy culture of constructive criticism and feedback.
Feedback is something very personal. It is only human to react to it with sensitivity. This openness, indeed vulnerability, applies not only to the person receiving feedback but also to the person giving it, since they are similarly compelled to explain how they experienced a situation and why. For this reason, it is vital to select the time and place for critical feedback with care. I am a confirmed enthusiast for direct and quick feedback. Everyone involved should still be able to recall the situation. Yet both parties should also have an adequately calm space for the conversation; an atmosphere of trust cannot simply be created in passing.
What makes things more difficult is that critical feedback normally relates to conduct that somebody considers to be incorrect. You could also say: it points to an error. What matters here is that the person receiving feedback has no need to fear being penalised for their conduct. Instead, a constructive approach to the incorrect behaviour is called for. There needs to be a shared understanding that we can only get better if we learn from our mistakes. This is dependent on us recognising them. This, in turn, is contingent on us talking about them – by giving each other feedback.
A good basic assumption about fair feedback is that everyone has logical reasons for their own behaviour. Very few people wish to harm others. If we operate on the premise that the person acted correctly according to their own perception and then describe the situation to them in very traditional terms – explain to them what this situation triggered in us and say what we would like to be different in the future, then feedback is not so problematic at all from a technical perspective. By exploring the honest motivations, we can identify weaknesses and challenges and eliminate them going forward. The aim is not to expose someone, but to reflect together on certain conduct so as to improve ourselves in the matter at hand on a lasting basis.
Good experiences are needed to motivate regular feedback. This includes every single instance of feedback being well received and not leading to negative consequences – irrespective of the hierarchical level occupied by the person to whom the feedback is directed. A culture in which what is said by the senior colleague is considered a universal truth that should best go uncontested prevents truly open engagement with feedback and mistakes. On the other hand, all those moments in which I experience how my feedback is received with gratitude and how collaboration subsequently improves make it easier for me in future to provide feedback. Conversely, negative reactions – such as rolling of the eyes, defensiveness or counterattack – cause us to give less feedback.
It is the responsibility of project leaders and managers to set an example and create these positive experiences. Crucial here are empathy and active listening. This means that the feedback recipient consciously takes a step back and gives the people around them the space to express what really matters to them.
If feedback is to become second nature to us, we must practise it regularly in our everyday routine: by having small feedback sessions within the team. By starting with "gentle" feedback and not just criticising but also voicing appreciation. It helps to give feedback in a physical format, face to face in a room – especially where the people do not know each other so well. The role of managers, product owners and meeting moderators is to ritualise feedback and keep on digging deeper: how did you experience the situation? What was your impression of the meeting? What can we do better next time?
The more often we are invited to engage in reflection, the more we are also willing to actively express feedback when we ourselves see a reason to do so. In order to ensure that this happens even in stressful situations, it is important for us to feel trust and psychological security not only on special occasions such as during a team event but also continuously in our daily interactions. In this way, feedback can become an integral part of our daily work routine.
What we need to do, then, is to create an environment and above all occasions where everyone's voice is heard – and not just the voices of those who are "loud" anyway, but those of the employees who handle day-to-day business, who form the heart of the company, who speak with our customers. At HDI we use the annual Organizational Health Check, an anonymous worldwide employee survey, to establish how "healthy" our company is and what adjustments we can make to further improve ourselves.
After all, in a culture that strives for innovation and an agile mindset, the open communication of ideas, impulses and mistakes must be normalised. Genuine feedback that is honest and constructive, that takes place regularly and in the right settings, that comes from the people who are the organisation's knowledge bearers, will ultimately move us forward – in our collaboration, in the level of our performance and as a company.