Ep 20: Building a feedback-rich culture: six strategies for success

October 18, 2023

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I'm Sarah — leadership and communication mentor.  I'm here to help you grow your leadership, resilience, and influence. 

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Feedback is a superpower allowing for open, honest and kind conversations, which fuels relationships, learning, and performance. 

But to be effective, feedback must be part of your culture. In episode 20 of the Positively Leading podcast we explore how to make it happen. More specifically, I…

  • Explore why a culture of feedback is needed for learning, growth, and performance
  • Discover 6 ways to build a fabulous feedback-rich environment

Want to boost morale and performance in your team or school? Why not tune in and find out how to build a culture of feedback.

Want to listen? Just click play below!

Prefer to read? Check out the article below.

Building a feedback-rich culture: six strategies for success

There are a couple of questions to consider when thinking about the feedback culture of your school or organisation: 

  • To what extent is meaningful feedback present or missing from your own leadership, your team, or within your school? 
  • What feedback conversations have you been avoiding but you know you need to have? 

Let’s explore why these conversations are so hard to have and how to create a culture where feedback is the norm to enhance performance and collaboratively grow together as an organisation or school.

It’s hard to get feedback right

Ken Blanchard says that feedback is the breakfast of champions, but what happens when breakfast is skipped and you grab a quick (unsatisfying!) mid-morning bite, or when breakfast is a bowl of muesli and what you really wanted was waffles and maple syrup? 

Successful feedback, like breakfast, has to be tailored to what you need when you need it. Feedback is contentious, complex, hard to do, and hard to get right. The risks involved with getting it wrong can have devastating consequences for individuals, teams, or a school – particularly if it’s absent, irregular, or just done badly. In schools, the focus of feedback tends to be on students, but staff also need feedback to learn and grow. When a culture is created where feedback and honesty are valued it can help you boost morale and build a thriving school; there are increases in staff and student performance, satisfaction, and health and happiness all at once. 

If we get feedback wrong (explored in more detail in previous articles) such as when it’s judgemental, subjective, or controlling this can lead to fear, resentment, and the appearance of compliance, whereas what we really want is a culture of growth. Similarly, suppose a feedback conversation is haphazard or wish-washy because leaders feel ill-equipped to have the conversation, despite knowing their importance. In that case, this can lead to teachers feeling stuck with untapped potential. These small errors in feedback conversations can have consequences on a much greater magnitude. Leaders often feel so uncomfortable when thinking about having feedback conversations that they actually say nothing, but instead cling to the hope and belief that things will improve on their own. Without regular, small and meaningful adjustments through feedback, you could miss goals and have a significant impact on student and staff experiences and outcomes. There are many instances where as leaders we focus on systems and structures and design new programmes or models for performance management or even lesson observations, but unfortunately, due to human behaviours and a lack of training on how to give and receive feedback these new initiatives fall short of the mark. We need to build feedback-rich cultures, where we can share, learn and grow together. 

Creating a powerful, feedback-rich culture – 6 strategies

The aim is to build a culture of open, honest, and kind conversations – I call these catalytic conversations; conversations that are powerful, positive and productive. They bring out the greatness in individuals, focus on growth and are had in the context of strong relationships. Here are six strategies that can help you create a feedback-rich culture. 

1) Create an environment where people feel safe to give and receive feedback

This starts with you as a leader, whether as a leader of a whole staff team, senior leader, or middle leader. By asking for feedback, responding constructively towards it, and even rewarding it you start to normalise the process of feedback. Your leadership title alone means that people can feel unsafe to tell the truth so you can’t just ask if anyone has any feedback for you. Your team are unlikely to respond; nobody would want to criticise their boss or be put on the spot in that way. So, how can you consciously set this up in advance? You could ask someone to watch out for certain behaviours in a meeting and feedback to you. There are also two questions you could ask: 

  • What’s one thing I could do differently to be a better leader for you? 
  • How do you suggest I might do that?

These two questions are simple but powerful. They often provide small tweaks that you can implement straight away. This will show that you have listened and that you value the feedback. At the very least, you know what the person in front of you values and needs. If unsolicited feedback comes your way simply listen, thank them, and ask for further information if required. 

2) Build feedback into everything you do with your team

If feedback only comes when it’s corrective it is more difficult to normalise the process of feedback. By making feedback a regular event, with the focus always on learning and growth, it can become a super powerful tool. Try systematically asking for feedback after events and activities either in person or through a quick survey. The key here is that it’s not just the questions themselves, it’s the consistency of asking that builds a culture of sharing ideas and ways to improve. Five key questions which seek strengths and areas of development so that you can learn and grow are:

  • What were our intended results? 
  • What were our actual results? 
  • What caused our results? 
  • And then what will we do the same? 
  • And what will we do differently next time? 

3) Be really clear about the purpose of feedback

A common feedback mindset is to give feedback to fix someone’s problem or to fix a problem yourself. A more effective feedback mindset gives and seeks feedback to improve performance together. Humans are creative and resourceful and when this mindset underpins feedback it supports the development of psychological safety; a possibilities mindset is created, with the understanding that everyone (including you as a leader) is a work in progress. Conversely, when we see people as needing to be fixed or being broken, and they see themselves in that way, no one will see feedback as a gift; this limits learning, growth, and development which should be the intention behind all feedback. 

4) Spot the good

Encourage your teams to spot when someone does something well and tell them with specific feedback. Instead of, ‘Great presentation Sarah, well done’ try, ‘Sarah, you spoke with confidence and poise. The parents were engaged and you handled the question section really well, which meant the parents left happy and confident’. The more specific you can be, the more the praise will be heard. if you catch someone doing something great, let them know at that very moment: stop – dissect it – learn from it.

You might want to take a look at podcast 18 to help with this. The more you’re able to spot the good the more people will feel seen, heard, and grow even further into those strengths; research shows that getting feedback on strengths, rather than weaknesses, can catalyse learning. 

5) Equip leaders and teachers with the tools and strategies to give and receive effective feedback

Leaders are unfortunately rarely trained in feedback and when they are it’s often just in one way to give feedback. Training might include how to observe a lesson and tell a teacher what they did well and what they might need to improve. Here, we’re observing, delivering feedback, and then moving on. However, for feedback to be not just effective but super powerful, we want to build a dialogue, not just give a monologue. This means that all staff need to be trained on how to give and receive feedback. If teachers and leaders engage in a dialogue then they can seek to explore, understand, develop, and co-construct a plan of action. Feedback then becomes a powerful force for learning, collaboration, and culture building.

6) Strengthen the feedback muscle

Feedback is key when building a culture of open, clear communication, boundaries and accountability, and strong relationships. According to Gallup, employees who receive frequent, meaningful feedback are four times more likely to be engaged than their peers and also four times more likely to perform better at work. Timely and frequent conversations help to build and strengthen the feedback muscle. Try my motto: have 20, one-minute conversations, rather than one 20-minute conversation. The time taken is the same, but the shorter, focused conversations will have a much greater positive impact on relationships and results. It also means you can balance feedback over time which ensures there is more appreciative feedback rather than criticism. Remember, research from positive psychology suggests a ratio of 5 positive to 1 negative for us to truly thrive. 

Implementing these six strategies can help to improve team and school capacity as well as promote a culture of learning and excellence. You’ll soon see the difference!

This is the final article in the series on feedback. If this is your first time reading you might also like to explore episode 17 which focuses on reimagining feedback and my core GROWTH principles, episode 18 which addresses how to give feedback that feels good, people want to receive, and that makes a difference, and finally, episode 19 about how to receive feedback. All of which offer strategies that you can implement right away. Feedback is something so many leaders and schools that I work with struggle with, and I hope this series of articles and podcasts helps in some way.