Can you build a culture of candid feedback in your team? Here’s how to start

In a sector devoted to making the world a better place, creating a culture where everyone feels happy is an important priority for many NFP managers and leaders.

But are you being too nice?

If you’re withholding feedback from your team because you’re afraid that being candid with staff would conflict with being nice, respectful and warm, the effect could in fact be that your team doesn’t perform at their best, and they miss out on opportunities to improve themselves and the organisation’s overall impact.

That insight comes from leadership expert Jennifer Porter, managing partner at US leadership consultants the Boda Group.

In a recent article for HBR, Porter explains that while being a kind manager is a great strength – particularly in the context of a not-for-profit – it can potentially get in the way of providing constructive, necessary feedback.

Why is it so challenging to be candid with staff if the culture of your organisation is focused on “being nice”? Some reasons could include:

  • Wanting to spare colleagues’ feelings: Some managers believe they could hurt or upset a colleague with critcal feedback.
  • Expectations of managers: If your organisation expects managers to be poised and professional at all times, the messiness of learning how to effectively deliver candid feedback can be perceived as disrespectful or unprofessional.
  • A lack of role models for feedback: An organisation’s leaders may be constantly positive and warm, but in doing so, they leave out modelled ways to provide negative feedback too.
  • Loyalty towards a ‘nice’ culture: Managers may have pride in their organisation’s ‘nice’ culture – it may have been part of what attracted them to it in the first place. They may reject anything that appears to threaten it.

So in the face of these challenges, how can a ‘nice’ organisation develop a culture of candour and feedback?

While Porter concedes it’s not easy, based on her work with hundreds of organisational leaders, she gives seven steps you should follow:

1. Begin by looking in the mirror

Before attempting to change others, start with yourself. Show your team that you’re committed to shifting the culture by first doing the hard work yourself.

In practical terms, this means committing to being more candid with your team, creating a plan for how this might happen, and then sharing your plan with your staff, and asking for feedback on it.

(According to psychology professor Robert Cialdini, publicly committing to a goal means you’re more likely to follow through.)

2. Request feedback about yourself– then really listen to it

Feedback can be high-level questions such as, ‘What could I be doing better as a manager?’ as well as ‘micro’ feedback, such as asking how you could have better handled a meeting or conversation.

Then, make sure you listen without becoming defensive or explaining. Take in what was said and thank the person for their candour – you can decide what parts of their feedback to act on down the track.

3. Concentrate on being helpful, not on venting

Being more candid in your organisation doesn’t give you license to vent, ‘get things off your chest’ or say whatever you feel in the moment. The aim here is to help your team member to develop and be more effective at their job, not to make yourself feel better.

4. Welcome the discomfort and slip-ups

Make no mistake: learning candour will be uncomfortable to start with. As when learning other new skills, you’ll make mistakes, work out what they were, and then try again. But take heart that you’ll improve over time.

You might also unintentionally create misunderstandings, hurt feelings and other kinds of conflict. But Porter provides some relief in this: discomfort and mistakes mean you’re doing something right, so don’t expect to skip this stage.

5. Own up to your mistakes

While making mistakes is unavoidable, brushing them under the carpet and ignoring their impact on others is not – it’s unprofessional and unkind. Own up to mistakes, explain your intent and apologise for any confusion or upset caused.

Aside from the immediate benefit of cleaning up the blunder, you’ll send a loud message to those within your team that, like anyone else, managers make mistakes and apologise for them.

6. Know when to keep things to yourself

Sometimes, candour isn’t the appropriate course of action. For instance, avoid giving feedback at times when:

  • You’re looking to place blame;
  • You’re emotional, hungry, angry, lonely or tired;
  • It’s focused on personality, not offending behaviour;
  • It’s based on second-hand information; or
  • You’ve already given a substantial amount of feedback recently.

7. Accept that improvement is continuous

Pay attention to and learn from what you’re doing well, as well as any instances in which you find yourself venting, avoiding honesty or delivering feedback clumsily.

Analyse these occurrences and develop strategies to improve, remembering that it’s an ongoing process. You’ll never reach an “end” – but you’ll get better over time.

While improving your feedback skills can be difficult, you’ll better serve your team by being completely honest with them – while still retaining your ability to be kind and approachable.

Have you ever struggled to give candid feedback because your organisation’s culture is too ‘nice’? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below, including any tips on how to overcome it!

Image: Flickr/gsj11berlin

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