How to Create a Feedback-Friendly Culture on Your Team

Giving and receiving feedback is one of the prime ways that teams get better and better at what they do. If you’re like most managers, though, you probably don’t give enough feedback – and part of the reason might be that you’re nervous about how your staff members will receive it. Moreover, your team members genuinely might not be skilled at taking feedback, which can get in the way of how much of it gets absorbed.

One way you can take that on is by building a feedback-friendly culture, one where people see feedback as a way to get better results and where more feedback gets given. Here are five steps to doing that.

1. Talk explicitly with your team about the feedback culture you want to create. Explain that you want to create a culture where feedback is a normal part of day-to-day operations, not a scary and occasional event. From there:

  • You might do a whole team meeting around the topic, such as reading some articles on feedback (or even this post!) and discussing how they translate into the principles you want to use with your team. One great reading on the topic is the growth paradigm from the book Mindset.
  • Create a shared understanding across the team about what feedback means and why you give it. Managers often assume that people have been taught to receive feedback well – or at least to see it as a helpful part of their professional development – but not everyone has. Talk with your team about points like these:
    • Feedback is for the purpose of building skills and getting better results. It’s not meant to be punitive or personal.
    • While feedback can sometimes make the recipient feel defensive or upset, reacting negatively to it (getting upset or angry or shutting down) makes it harder for people to give you feedback in the future – and since feedback is a key part of how people get better and better at what they do, discouraging people from giving you feedback can really limit you professionally.
    • Feedback is a two-way street; people should feel free to give their managers input as well. People may be skeptical about how this would work, so ideally, give some real-life examples of times you’ve been given feedback from staff and what the outcome was (hopefully good ones!).
  • Consider creating feedback norms for your team. For example, you might create a common vocabulary around feedback. For example, our “SAW” model (share, ask, wrap-up) can be a helpful framework to use with your team. Other norms could include:
    • When giving feedback, people should be specific and timely, explain the impact, and be clear about what they’d like the person to do differently.
    • When receiving feedback, listen with an open mind, ask clarifying questions if you need to, and simply thank the person or let the person know that you heard the feedback and what you will do differently as a result. (The latter might even just be, “I’m going to spend some time thinking this over.”)

2. Systematize mechanisms for giving feedback. The best way to ensure that you’re giving lots of feedback is to build it into the systems you use every day – and you can be transparent with people about the fact that you’re doing that and why.

  • Carve out regular space in your weekly check-ins for feedback, by putting a “feedback” or “lessons” bullet on your regular check-in form so it’s a normal, routine part of what you discuss each week. (See our sample check-in agenda as one way to do this.)
  • Put debriefing meetings on your calendar to happen regularly at the end of major projects. If these aren’t happening, say explicitly, “I really want us to get better at talking through what went well and what could have gone better as we finish projects. Could you take the lead on making sure those conversations happen?”
  • Our 2×2 feedback form can be an easy way to systemize discussion not only of how the staff member is doing but also of how you as her manager could work better with her.

3. Model receiving feedback well yourself. You can’t expect your staff members to welcome feedback if they don’t see you doing the same thing. People are likely to take their cues from you, so be sure that you’re asking for feedback regularly, receiving it with an open mind (watch for defensiveness here!), asking questions to make sure you understand (but watch out for “clarifying questions” that are really explanations/defenses), and thanking people for feedback even if you don’t agree with it.

4. Make sure you’re giving lots of positive feedback. It’s very hard to remain open to corrective feedback in an environment that doesn’t also include a lot of positive feedback. Your staff members are much more likely to be open to hearing what they could do better if they know that you’re noticing what they do well, too. (In fact, one study found that the most effective teams receive an average of nearly six positive pieces of feedback for each negative piece of feedback … while the least effective teams heard an average of three negative comments from their managers for every positive one.)

And just as with constructive feedback, positive feedback should be specific. We see a lot of “good job,” but that’s not the same as clear, specific feedback on what someone has done well. (For example: “The thought and energy you put into revamping our volunteer orientation has made it much easier to get new people to work quickly, and I’ve heard several volunteers say how impressed they were with how much they learned in the program.”)

A bonus to being generous with praise and credit: you’ll probably feel more comfortable giving critical feedback to someone when you know you’ve praised them for all the things they excel at.

5. Don’t forget about relationship-building. Most people take feedback better when it’s coming from a coach or ally – someone who feels like they’re on their side, which can be especially important when you’re managing across lines of difference, such as race, gender, or other identities. When you take the time to connect with your staff on a human level so that your team knows you care about them as people, feedback is more likely to feel collaborative rather than punitive. (We really like the framework of “radical candor” described in this piece, particularly the four-quadrant graph with both a “caring personally” axis and a “challenging directly” axis.)