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How to Build a Culture of Collective Feedback: the 5 Shifts Required

Collective feedback replaces blame with shared accountability. Stop trying to fix people. Focus on improving the team instead.

By Gustavo Razzetti

September 1, 2021

Focus on the team, not the individual

Smart managers love talking about how to give feedback to an employee. But most don't know how to provide collective feedback – to help the team learn and grow as one.

Organizations often use feedback to fix individuals. Instead of focusing on outcome improvement, they want to fix people's characters and behaviors. It's no surprise then that employees hate performance reviews – 89 percent of people are NOT looking forward to their upcoming review, according to a study by Francesca Gino.

Providing feedback shouldn't be solely the leader's responsibility. Every team member plays a role in helping the team learn and grow. When practiced as a team – and frequently – feedback can become a gift that everyone wants to receive and give.

Collective feedback gives your organization a tool to help teams get better results.

The Feedback Fallacy

For years, managers have been taught to praise or criticize just about everything their employees do.

Feedback has become a corrective action – a tool to fix people.

In this Harvard Business Review article, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall describe the feedback fallacy – why feedback rarely achieves what it's meant to.

The authors invite us to challenge established feedback dogmas.

The most revealing? Telling people what we think of their performance doesn't help them thrive and excel. Research is clear: telling others what they should improve actually hinders learning.

Current feedback practices are based on three theories that most managers accept as truth. However, as the authors point out, those concepts are wrong.

The theory of the source of truth believes that others know your weaknesses better than you do. You need your colleagues to tell you "where you are."

The theory of learning operates under the belief that your colleagues should teach you the abilities you lack. Feedback helps you develop the skills you need.

Lastly, the theory of excellence assumes that performance is universal and describable. Once defined, it can be transferred from managers to employees. That's why organizations view 360-degree performance reviews as the cure for all ills.

These three theories have one thing in common: taking our own expertise as a given. They assume that our way is the only way. That's why most managers think their recipes can cure everyone's flaws.

Citing multiple studies, Buckingham and Goodall debunked the three. The most significant insight is the realization that we are unreliable raters of others.

Research shows that more than 50 percent of your rating of someone else reflects your characteristics, not theirs. For instance, men tend to give female employees softened, less candid feedback because they perceive women as less confident. This blocks their self-assessment and improvement.

Focusing on what people do wrong doesn't help either. Criticism creates a fight-or-flight response. Rehashing a colleague's flaws doesn't enable learning; it impairs it.

Research shows that we aren't motivated to change when we receive criticism for past behavior. We simply shut down and become defensive.

Feedback also fails when it comes from a place of fear, judgment, and separation.

Effective feedback requires addressing what's working, not just what needs to be fixed. Employees at Sun Hydraulics use four simple steps to frame performance discussions positively:

  • State an admirable feature about the employee
  • Ask what contributions they have made to Sun
  • Ask what contributions they would like to make at Sun
  • Ask how Sun can help them

Rather than a tool to tell people what you think about their performance, feedback should help build a culture of learning and growth.

Collective Feedback: Focus on the System, Not the Individual

In my previous post, I discussed how managers are myopic about increasing performance. When something goes wrong, they try to fix the person. They focus on the tree, not the forest.

Bad cultures can turn even the most enthusiastic people into frustrated employees with a poor performance.

Usually, low individual performance is the result of a flawed system. Collective feedback can help you uncover the mindsets, rules, or practices getting in the way. Sometimes, minor tweaks can go a long way.

Google research, for example, shows that moving a person from one team to another dramatically impacts their performance.  

Fearless organizations manage performance primarily at a team level through collective and peer-to-peer feedback. It's a responsibility shared by all. Feedback is intentionally non-judgmental and given in a spirit of open exploration and acceptance.

A culture of open, transparent feedback creates ownership. It shifts the conversation from "How can I play better?" to "How can we improve as a team?"

That's the principle behind the All Blacks' high-transparency, high-accountability culture. The New Zealand national rugby team players review their own performance holding each other accountable with facts or data. There are no hard feelings. Feedback is about what's best for the team.

Collective feedback helps improve both the team and work. Stop trying to fix people. Instead, build a culture of learning and growth.

A Gallup poll found that 87 percent of young employees value growth and development opportunities. Unfortunately, only 39 percent feel that they learned something new on the job in the past month.

Collective feedback creates regular opportunities for learning and career development.

Aflac regularly assembles ad hoc teams to get in-depth feedback around a customer incident. Participants receive a package that includes a write-up and transcripts of all communication with the customer.

Laree Daniel, chief administrative officer of the insurance company, poses three questions to the team:

What worked well?

Where were the gaps?

What can we do better?

Collective feedback replaces blame with accountability. As Daniel told HBR, "This isn't about blame and I'm not scolding anyone. I am the facilitator and I make it a neutral environment." During these sessions, employees have epiphanies, uncovering better ways to assist clients.

There are many ways to practice collective feedback. Your team can practice it all together, in smaller groups, having one team giving feedback to another team, or individuals providing feedback to each other in the open.

The Five Shifts to Build a Culture of Feedback

Here are the five shifts required to build a culture of collective feedback based on my 4-year research:

Shift #1: Replace annual performance reviews with casual, regular feedback

Performance reviews are slow, expensive, and time-consuming. Even worse, research shows that they don't improve behavior. On the contrary, they make people feel intimidated, promoting toxic behaviors.  

Cargill, the US-based agriculture and food organization, needed to engage and motivate its 160,000 global employees. The external environment was also becoming more complex, requiring the company to become more agile.

In response, Cargill implemented an Everyday Performance Management (PM), a feedback system that incorporates encouragement, coaching, and ongoing conversations between managers and employees.

By shifting from annual reviews to regular feedback, Cargill improved performance by nearly 40%. Almost 70% of Cargill employees now feel valued and appreciate their culture of feedback.

Shift #2: From giving to requesting feedback

Most managers were raised to give feedback, not to receive it. They operate as the source of truth, often judging employees. Not only do they fail to change people's behavior, but to learn themselves.

Patagonia eliminated performance ratings and implemented a system of continuous feedback and quarterly check-ins. However, the most significant change was to encourage managers to be receivers, not givers.

The outdoor clothing and gear company realized that wise leaders receive more feedback than they give. They focus on what they can improve rather than on what others should do.

As Dean Carter, Patagonia's CHRO, explains, "We've learned that when you give someone unsolicited feedback, basically nothing happens. But if you request feedback, the person you request it from is more likely to request feedback themselves. They're likely to request feedback from three other people."

Patagonia has created a culture of collective feedback by training managers to ask for feedback rather than provide it.

Author Sheila Heen said it best: "The fastest way to change the feedback culture in an organization is for the leaders to become better receivers."

Shift #3: From top-down to peer-to-peer feedback

As companies adopt new ways of working, top-down feedback practices are losing relevance. As more teams adopt agile and self-organizing models, the role of the manager is becoming less important in reviewing people's performance.

Not only can your colleagues provide a more accurate picture of your work than your boss, but peer feedback boosts employee performance, according to Gartner.

At Fitzii, the recruitment software company, employees highly appreciate the self and peer-review process.

Annually, every person completes a self-assessment, focusing on two things:

  • Past year performance: accomplishments, learning, and mistakes
  • The specific areas they'd like to get feedback about

Self-assessments are then shared with all Fitzii team members who review the content before answering these two questions:

  • What did your colleague do well? –  the one thing you most value about working with them
  • What feedback would you like to give that could best help them grow or improve? (in the areas that they are interested in hearing about)

Feedback is not an objective truth, but a perspective. Peers are encouraged to write in "I" language. No numerical ratings or rankings are used – peer feedback captures how they have been inspired, touched, or hurt by their colleagues.

Shift #4: From closed and individual to open, collective feedback

Collective feedback is an effective way to create a culture of learning and growth. By focusing on group behavior, you encourage collaboration and cross-fertilization of lessons learned.

Team feedback creates a sense of shared accountability. Collective feedback encourages people to lead as one rather than blaming each other.

At Morning Star, for example, each team prepares a presentation for their colleagues every year where they candidly share what went well, what didn't, and what they plan to do in the year ahead.

Everyone's expected to talk openly about their accomplishments and mistakes. Presentations are carefully prepared and can last hours. Tough questions are part of the norm, especially for those teams who haven't performed well.

The purpose is to improve the performance of each team (tomato sorting, packaging, administrative, etc.). Open, collective feedback helps teams get back on track. Most importantly, everyone can learn from each other regardless of doing different work.

Shift #5: From rehashing past issues to designing the future

Feedback tends to rehash past issues. That's why most people resist it. Instead of learning from mistakes, feedback becomes a constant reminder of our errors, making us feel unworthy.

What if we could use feedback to jump into the future rather than being stuck in the past? Or, borrowing from Marshall Goldsmith, let's replace feedback with feedforward.

That's exactly what Spotify does. As Johan Sellgren, Global HR partner, explains, "We try to hold individual 'development talks' twice a year where we address the future, the now, and the past."

The digital music service organization applies the "70/20/10" formula. Feedback conversations should spend only 10% on the past, 20% on the present, and the remaining 70% on the future.

It's not that Spotify doesn't believe in learning from the past. However, the company prefers to relentlessly focus on the present and future. At Spotify, feedback addresses development, not judgment:

Where are we and where do we want to go?

What do we need to do/ improve to get there?

Building a Culture of Collective Feedback

A culture of collective feedback focuses on the system over the individual. It encourages people to focus on the shared outcome rather than whom to blame.

If you want people to collaborate, to act as a team, shouldn't they practice feedback as one?

Regular, peer-to-peer, collective feedback is less invasive. It invites people to request feedback, not just give it. Also, it moves the team forward, focusing on what needs to happen versus rehashing what happened.

Collective feedback replaces blame with shared accountability. Stop trying to fix people. Focus on improving the team instead.

Learn how to build a culture of feedback. Join our Fearless Culture program or reach out to discuss how we can help your team practice feedback as one.

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