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Feedback at work

Giving and Receiving Feedback to Develop your Organization

  • 15 March 2013
  • Posted by Marcella Bremer

Why is it so hard to give feedback? Why do we hesitate to say what we think? Why do we stay silent when we’d be more effective if we spoke up? There are many reasons and yet they can be summarized in two words: fear and culture.

Personal Fears

Firstly, many people have grown accustomed to their personal fears, based on earlier experiences with parents, teachers, neighbors, peers and elders. We’ve been criticized. We’ve been told we were no good - or we couldn’t do something. We’ve been hurt and felt incompetent and insecure and not worthy. We’ve internalized some of these voices - and now we live with this inner critic. The worst criticism may well come from inside our own heads, resulting in negative self-speak. It’s this inner dialogue that feeds our fears - fears of not being worthy, of being found out as a fraud, of being excluded, laughed at, mocked.

This fear is keeping us from speaking up. It’s safer to remain silent than to be exposed to the judgement of others - and to get hurt again. Next, if we don’t give feedback, then the others will surely leave us in peace, too. And because most people don’t take this old-fashioned, blunt feedback (or criticism) very well - you might unleash an uncontrollable eruption of negative emotions and effects - damaging the relationship and your own perspectives.

Collective role play: Culture!

Secondly, it may not be a custom to speak your mind. Group culture is very sticky: you’re supposed to copy the group in order to belong - whether you’re aware of it or not. So if you’re the new hire, you’ll first watch to see what happens in meetings. Do people enter in genuine dialogue or debate that leads to new insights? Is it allowed to disagree? Can you offer objections to a new plan? May you ask your boss for clarification? Is it okay to NOT know the answer...? You’ll adapt smoothly, if you want to succeed in this culture. If you’re not the new hire, you may not even be aware of these processes. You simply respond according to the tacit group habits: Never dispute the leader. Never let colleagues down (e.g. agree with what they say). Keep it nice and pleasant. Or: Hide until the meeting is over (in case of low trust).

Shadow Sides of Cultures

The four archetypes of culture from the Competing Values Framework all have their shadow sides. If there’s too much of a feature, it will turn into its opposite.

If you have a dominant Clan Culture, its people orientation that values participation, loyalty and human resources may deteriorate into the shadow side: Keeping it nice and cosy on the surface and NEVER argue. Because we value people, we need to agree all the time. This may lead to stage plays in meetings where people smile and nod - but complain and gossip in the hallways because they didn’t really agree.

The shadow side of the process oriented, efficient and well-structured Hierarchy Culture may be relying too much on position power, official authority (who’s authorized to sign for this budget? who’s responsible?) and formal job descriptions (this is not my job!) and silos. It may lead to hiding in your cubicle and not speaking up when your boss asks something (you fear position power) or shifting accountability to the person who needs to sign for approval and trying to divide and conquer the silos. In this ineffective version of Hierarchy culture, it’s safest to stay mute and fake consent.

In a results-oriented Market Culture that gets too competitive and results-obsessed it may be dangerous too, to hold genuine dialogues and give honest feedback. If I share too much information you might get a better reputation than I do. Or you may pick a fight in the middle of a meeting, damaging my new project proposal. We both compete to get the best numbers and make our departments look good. It is best to not show our true agenda’s and compete to get the largest part of the budget and the honor.

Innovative and entrepreneurial Adhocracy culture gone over-the-top may lead to wild debates about the best innovation, experiment or new venture. In the healthy version “we agree to disagree”: we search for exceptions, objections, pitfalls to solve to improve plans and we collaborate by using constructive criticism - making our new plans reality-proof and ready to succeed. But if we do this too much - we end up as a quarreling squad, bickering over resources, slowing down our innovations.

Healthy Feedback

Generally speaking, feedback can be a part of all four culture types in their healthy versions. There might be a slight preference for true feedback in the externally focused types of Adhocracy and Market Culture, where the WE is less emphasized than the I. These culture types allow more individualistic approaches deriving from their values of innovation and diversification or competition. It’s easier and more functional to agree to disagree.

The healthy version of the more internally focused Clan and Hierarchy cultures allows feedback as well, but tends to emphasize the group or system above the individual. This is where feedback happens - but up to a point.

So why bother? If feedback is scary and uncomfortable and your culture doesn’t support it - shouldn’t we leave it at that? “Aha - we have a Clan Culture so that’s why we don’t say what we think. Let’s stay in our comfort zone.”

But imagine what would happen if you could stop those rituals called meetings and create true gatherings where real consensus is reached...? It would improve plans and outcomes, it would diminish irritation and delay, it would speed up the organization! It would enhance safety and trust - because you could rely on someone’s YES. It would be magic!

Practice in a Change Circle...

Feedback is not so hard to give - if you know how to do it and once you realize its importance and gather your courage.

Do your inner work: look at your ego, listen to those judgmental voices in your head and help yourself become more understanding and mild. Firstly for yourself, secondly for the others. Give yourself some positive feedback. Practice progress and not perfection. You may well be good enough for what you do! Even if you can improve some things, that’s okay. Look your fears in the eye and thank them for warning you. But right now, as an adult, the danger is gone...

Next, work on your culture. Acknowledge where you are as a team: see your shared habits that hinder feedback. Start with the leader. Help them receive feedback and to role model being open for constructive remarks. Continue with the team members. Give each other compliments for starters. Then, move on to giving feedback and suggestions to improve certain things.

One way to move from a stuck, too cozy Clan Culture to a more externally-focused results-oriented Market Culture or a more daring Adhocracy Culture is to work on fears, beliefs and feedback techniques as a team! Together! Practice it. Share it. Open up as a team... And do this with all the teams so the organization has a shared reference. Doing this together in a small change circle of trusted coworkers, people are able to support each other to really commit to this new, uncomfortable behavior. We can even do our inner work in a group - and build our trust and our team at the same time. Next, we can practice feedback together and start integrating it in our daily business. Let’s open up to move forward. Let’s go beyond our fears and egos and develop healthy, open-hearted and thriving cultures.

Want to know more about developing your workplace with learning together in a Change Circle?
Read the book: Organizational Culture Change.

By Marcella Bremer