Date: April 2019 | Autho(s): Dorette Lochner, FLAG Consulting & Training


The 4 success factors of feedback culture

With more agile structures and fewer formal hierarchies in our client organizations, we observe an increasing need for efficient feedback processes between individuals, teams, hierarchies. Feedback culture is therefore one of today’s most crucial factors in organizational effectiveness. 

For most organizations we counsel there is still significant room for improvement in  feedback culture. At first sight this may be surprising, because the topic of feedback has long been an essential part in nearly every soft skill training for managers.
In particular, conveying critical feebdack in a "constructive" way has up to now been an evergreen among the issues raised in leadership and communication trainings. As a response to this demand a range of formulas have been created to make the elements of constructive feedback memorable for leadership practitioners - STAR, the sandwich model, Boost, WWW feedback and so on.

Such trainings have certainly had a positive effect on the quality of feedback in formalized contexts such as the annual performance appraisal or 360° feedback workshops.
Overall, however, we observe that feedback culture in organizations is still not where it should be.

And this is because feedback culture has not yet been conceived as a system made up of more than the factors that determine the quality of feedback given in formalized settings.

Feedback Culture




I. The quality of feedback given, positive and critical.

E.g. Is feedback concrete and related to observable behaviour and results?

III. The typical response to positive or critical feedback.

E.g. How do supervisors take critical feedback from their associates?


II. The understanding of what deserves either positive or corrective feedback

E.g. Is feedback related to an individual or social reference norm or both?

This has an impact on the frequency of feedback. 

IV. The occasion for, and frequency of soliciting feedback from others.

E.g. When and how often do supervisors ask for feedback?

Factor I: Quality of feedback given:

Feedback can be phrased in a very general and judgemental way, e.g. "good work", "excellent results", "not efficient", "lacking clarity", "poor performance". For sure this kind of feedback is likely to have an emotional effect on the receiver, either motivating or frustrating. But not by a long way is it concrete enough to enable the receiver to do better - in the case of critical feedback. Nor is it concrete enough to help a learner to consolidate a newly aquired behaviour - in the case of positive feedback. And even for the high performer non-specific superficial praise such as "good job" is not overly inspiring.  

Really good feedback has a coaching quality. When giving feedback a coach relates to a concrete situation, describes behaviour in detail and explains the consequences of that behaviour. And in the case of critical behaviour the coach suggests alternative behaviour.

Feedback given in this coaching quality can be a real eye-opener to the receiver, promoting learning processes and highly motivating for associates at all performance levels. As already mentioned there are a couple of useful formulas to structure high quality feedback, such as STAR, Boost and WWW.

Factor II: Occasions/frequency of feedback given

If we question associates about organizational feedback culture they often explain  that they are missing positive feedback; sometimes even critical feedback is experienced as scarce.

The frequency of either positive or critical feedback depends to a great deal on the reference norm for feedback. The reference norm is the standard to which you compare a person’s performance or behaviour.

With a social reference norm only those behaviours that deviate significantly from the average performance of a peer group are seen as an occasion for feedback, e.g. only outstanding performance is explicitly appreciated.
With an individual reference norm feedback is given in reference to the individual's previous performance level, e.g. if an associate has improved from a low performance level to a mediocre level.
Which of the two is the better approach? Well, there is a long history of research comparing social and individual reference norms. And the results are clear: The individual reference norm is much more efficient in promoting an individual's learning process. (Lit: Heckhausen, J. & H. Heckhausen (Ed.) (2018) Motivation and Action, 5th ed.)

Leaders with an individual reference norm detect and appreciate the small improvements individual team members make in their learning process, and this is particularly effective in supporting an individual's learning process. Leadership scholar Ken Blanchard's programmatically titled book "Catch people doing something right" provides further insight on this topic.

You may ask "How about critical feedback?". Well, it makes sense to apply the individual reference norm also to giving feedback on deteriorating performance.

A social reference norm on the other hand is appropriate when you critizise the lack of compliance to agreed rules in your team, e.g. following defined processes, passing on information, sharing resources. In these cases it is important to treat your team members equally. 

With an individual reference norm in mind, leaders find more occasions to give feedback. And they consistently follow up on each individual's learning process by reinforcing positive steps and correcting steps into the wrong direction.
With such high awareness for individual performance levels and frequent feedback based on an individual reference norm, leaders can substiantially increase the speed and sustainability of their associates’ learning.

In general it can be said that we should give positive feedback much more frequently than negative - with a recommended ratio of 70 percent positive to 30 percent critical feedback - at least if we want to support the individual’s development.

For empirical evidence see Ormrod, Jeanne (2012). Human learning (6th ed.).

Factor III: Quality of taking feedback

In most communication and leadership trainings the discussion about feedback culture ends with quality and freqency of giving feedback. However, the way members of an organizaion react to feedback represents at least 50% of an organization's feedback culture. In particular, how supervisors react to feedback from associates has a strong impact on communication culture. How they receive positive or critical feedback can be either encouraging or discouraging, thus determining whether associates will continue to give open feedback or not. Listening to critical feedback, resisiting the urge to explain or justify, admitting mistakes – all this is not a leadership behaviour we frequently observe at middle and upper management levels. Instead, when criticized, supervisors often start to "lecture" and explain their behaviour, all the while assuming that critical associates haven’t understood the nature of the business. 

In addition to this, it takes courage to give feedback to a supervisor; upward feedback has long been seen as inappropriate arrogation. Today modern organizations strive for communication at eye-level but for many of them there is still quite some way to go. 

Supervisors who thank their team members for positive and critical feedback are a rare breed. Those who do make great role models for others in the organziation and enhance the level of trust in the organization tremendously.

Factor IV: Occasion/frequency of taking feedback 

On what occasions and how often do managers ask for feedback? Well, in the last ten years there has been an increase in the implementation of formal bottom-up feedback. Tools like Upward Appraisal and 360° Feedback were designed long ago (e.g. P. H. Thompson, G. W. Dalton: Performance appraisal: Managers beware. In: Harvard Business Review. 1970). Nevertheless, the implementation has taken at least one or two decades. So, it is a promising first step in establishing a feedback culture across hierachical levels, but the effect of such formal feedback will only be sustainable if associates also experience in day-to-day business that their feedback is appreciated. If there is no congruence in leaders' behaviour between formal feedback sessions and daily business, then 360° feedback surveys are going to lose credibility (Lit: M. A. Peiperl: Getting 360° feedback right. In: Harvard Business Review, 2001).

Therefore we conclude that how often supervisors request feedback from peers and associates in informal day-to-day settings is a valid factor for the effectiveness of feedback culture in organizations.

A lively feedback culture is the basis for honesty, trust and transparency. Therefore it is worthwhile to raise supervisors' awareness of the complete set of success factors for a credible feedback culture. Training high level managers in all components of a good feedback culture is a good starting point; making them experience feedback in a facilitated format comes next. Encouraging them to share their stories about their learnings triggers the roll-out in the whole organization. Creating feedback routines, enriching meeting agendas through feedback loops, making regular leaderhip feedback mandatory and revisiting annual appraisal formats all support the implementation in your organization.
You will profit from these initiatives right from the very first step you take.