Facilitating a Culture of Open Feedback
Open feedback is a critical but often-overlooked component of high functioning teams. For context, one piece of advice that I’ve frequently given companies of all sizes, from small startup to large corporation, is to hire the right people. However, the end of each hiring process is not the end of teambuilding process. The end of each hiring process is actually just a continuation of the retention process. Each new member of the team has the power to change a company’s corporate culture – for better or worse. These changes can be the result of the employee directly, through work product, and these changes can be the result of the way established team members react to and communicate with their new team member. The success or failure of communication among key team members can foreshadow the success of a project or the effectiveness of an entire department. And one of the largest components of team communication is feedback.
As a founder of a recruiting startup, I’m quite passionate about building a culture of feedback in the workplace. The stronger the culture of respectful feedback, the stronger the team can become. (That’s important to me, because I helped build the team). The role of feedback at work is to encourage teammates to contribute so that the team can create the best possible product. When feedback breaks down, due to a lack of communication or a culture of similar thinking that marginalizes contrarian opinions, not only does the team suffer but the product can suffer as well. People whose contributions are continually marginalized will gradually become less and less involved in team discussions, and will eventually seek to contribute their talents elsewhere.
There’s a risk, however, to asking for feedback. Sometimes people are reticent to provide honest feedback that will genuinely help improve a product or process. This can happen for a couple of reasons. (1) employees may have previously been in a toxic environment that punished honest feedback or encouraged dishonest feedback for political gain. (2) Communication skills aren’t typically high on the list of priorities when managers train their teams. Especially in engineering, soft skills can fall by the wayside when there are numerous, required hard skills that employees must maintain with ongoing training. People aren’t perfect, and facilitating polite but direct feedback isn’t always easy.
An astute manager can spot a breakdown in communication or morale, and then they can take steps to steer the team back on course. If people seem to be reticent to give less than glowing feedback about a product, then the team needs to feel safe giving open feedback. One of the best management techniques for encouraging open feedback is to explicitly elicit opposing views by asking things like “how might this fail,” or “now let’s play devil’s advocate, what could go wrong with this plan?” This creates a safe place to voice contrarian views in a way where they are perceived as helpful perspectives instead of personal attacks. This tactic also convinces the team to think about a particular task or problem from a different perspective. Looking for possible flaws, and improving the product through iteration, can result in a stronger overall product.