Training leaders working to contribute to a high-performing learning organization know that feedback is critical. It has been described as “a lubricant” for employees with the potential to grow.

But the sad reality of many organizations is that honest and useful feedback is uncommon. We have written previously about the six dangerous myths that hold managers back from giving fair feedback to their employees. As a training manager, you have two ways to address these myths and to provide that much-needed lubricant to your organization:

    • Ensure your training content counters these myths and tackles the importance of fair feedback to performance and how these beliefs (and, sometimes, rationalizations) get in our way.
    • Train leaders to create an environment where there is accountability for giving feedback to others, and make sure they understand the need for consequences.

Both of these approaches are helpful, but which is the most effective?

Culture-building in Action

Herminia Ibarra, a professor at the London Business School, says that behavior change should start from the outside: First, you behave based on the type of leader you want people to see you as; then, you become that type of leader.

Working with beliefs can be difficult, because they are deeply embedded. The most effective approach is to describe the behaviors that you want to see (e.g., “Managers provide one piece of positive and one piece of negative feedback at least once per quarter to each of their employees”) and provide a reinforcement system to support those expectations (e.g., “Managers who do so can attend leadership conference”). This process is culture-building in action.

Of course, it’s easier said than done. Akvile Mockeviciute, a researcher at the Center for Feedback Culture at VU University Amsterdam, comments on the difficulties related to building a strong feedback culture in an organization:

“The strength of an organizational culture lies in the extent to which it provides consistency in what behaviors are expected of all employees in the organization. Leaders need to be clear in communicating organizational values and behavioral norms, which may lead to the desired behaviors, as well as emphasize the importance of feedback to organizational success. Because culture is learned among members in an organization, it is of great importance for the leaders to role model the expected feedback behaviors, such as, for example, giving and receiving feedback openly, seeking feedback and providing it both formally and informally.”

How to Start

Why not use training as an occasion to talk about the culture of feedback in your organization? Within skill-building programs, you can start the conversation with managers about how they can build a feedback culture in their team or, if they are senior leaders, as part of a program. This approach will reinforce their responsibility.

With the conversation started, the training can deliver tools and resources to assess the baseline feedback culture in a team or organization and provide solutions to take feedback to the next level. Of course, there is no harm in reminding learners that by creating an environment where feedback is the language of high performance, they build their personal brand as a true talent leader!

Also, challenge your human resources (HR) colleagues with these three questions:

    • If feedback is critical to performance, at which seniority level do we stop teaching feedback to leaders? Why?
    • Why do we want to teach leaders skills, but we don’t address the broader context of the organization’s culture? Much of a learner’s willingness to leverage a new skill will depend on whether or not he or she feels that behavior will be acceptable in the culture.
    • How deeply is our feedback training reflected in the rest of our people practices, including recruitment and talent management, development and engagement, and performance and rewards? Is feedback training simply an “add-on”?

Culture-building is largely a leadership responsibility. But to be successful, it needs to be supported by effective policies, processes, tools and a strong foundation of the necessary skills.