Football dominates our culture this time of year. Here in Atlanta, college football is the topic of almost every conversation from September to January. We all love watching our favorite team play, and we all love watching them win.

Can you imagine what football be like without any rules? If there were no standards for scoring, first downs, or penalties? The game would be absolutely chaotic. In fact, it probably wouldn’t be worth watching.

Rules help give us clear guidelines and boundaries for what we are supposed to do. Without them, chaos ensues.  

When it comes to developing a culture of feedback, you as the leader must define the rules of engagement. You must be very clear as to how people can give and receive feedback, or else it can be more harmful than good.

But before we define the rules, we really should define what feedback is. [Tweet “In leadership, it’s our job to continually define and redefine the key terms that are important to us.”] Without a clear definition, people will be left to make up their own definition. And that is never an effective way to lead.

Feedback defined

So how exactly do we define feedback? Is it just telling something to somebody? Or is it telling something to somebody they can do better? What about constructive criticism?

There are many ways that you can define feedback, but here’s one definition I think works well in any situation: Feedback is telling something to someone that helps them be better next time. It’s delivered in a way that is kind, gracious, and encourages the person to improve.

Noticed what I left out: constructive criticism. As I said last week, I don’t think constructive criticism actually exists. Criticism intends to tear down, so it cannot be constructive. How can you build something up while also tearing it down?

Define feedback rules

Now that you’ve defined feedback for your culture, it’s time to define the rules of engagement.  I’m not going to give specific practices to use; instead, I’m going to outline four main areas for you to consider:

  1. How – How will people give feedback? Will it be over email, or will it be in person? Will it be delivered in a particular way? For example, one company I know has their team give feedback in a very specific sequence. If someone has feedback for a team member, they ask: “I have some feedback for you. Are you in a place to hear it?” This question gives the receiver the chance to wait until they are in a better mental space to hear the feedback. You don’t have to do it that way, but you must define how people will give it.
  2. When – When will people give feedback? Will it be immediately, spontaneously, or will it be scheduled? Clarify when people can give and receive feedback. Let everyone know that it’s OK to receive feedback at certain times. This freedom lets people off the hook from receiving feedback when they are not ready to hear it. Feedback given at the wrong time is worse than no feedback at all.
  3. What – What will be involved in the feedback process? Is it just a problem, or will it include a solution? Feedback without a solution is not helpful at all. But when you bring a solution to someone, or you bring an idea for improvement, you actually build trust with that person. For a deeper look at what to say, see what you can learn from the coaches on The Voice. 
  4. Where – Where will feedback happen? In an office, a meeting, or a hallway? Is there a specific space where it occurs? Maybe your approach is something like this: “We offer feedback anywhere, as long as both parties are in a mental place to have the conversation.” You have to decide what is best for your culture, but defining where feedback can happen is crucial.

What now?

After spending time working through those four questions, you’ll have a solid framework for building your feedback culture. These answers will form the basis for how your team approaches feedback.

Please don’t be the leader who shows up at the next staff meeting with rules for a feedback culture without first talking about the need for feedback. In other words, don’t share the rules without sharing the vision for feedback.

Did you notice the one question missing from the section above?

I left off Why.

Yes, I did that on purpose. Why did I do that? Because you should share the why long before establishing the rules. You should spend time casting vision for the purpose for a new feedback culture.

What kind of things should you include to shape the why? Here are three:

  1. Why is feedback important? If you’re making a culture shift, people need to know the purpose behind the shift. People are more likely to jump on board with a new change if they know the why behind the change.
  2. Why are we focusing on feedback? In other words, what difference does feedback make? Will it help me do my job better? These are the things your team needs to know.
  3. Why will this impact our company? Studies show people are more engaged at work when they get regular feedback from their supervisor. Establishing a feedback culture is the single greatest thing you can do to increase employee engagement and improve performance.

Once you answer these questions, you are ready to begin building a feedback culture. Next week we will look into how you can find ways to give great feedback.

Once you work through these questions, how do you define your feedback culture?