How to Create a Feedback Culture That's Measurable and Built on Leadership Behaviors
October 22, 2020
Alexander Schwall, Ph.D.
How can you create an effective feedback culture? And how can you measure its impact to get an ROI on your leadership development?
There is a lot of talk around creating a feedback culture in the workplace, and for good reason. Not only do most people crave frequent feedback, but they need it, too. Why? People need feedback to succeed at work and ascend the proverbial ladder.
And countless articles focus on how to create a feedback culture, with tips like:
- Communicate its importance as a company-wide initiative.
- Ensure employees feel psychologically safe to share and receive feedback.
- Provide a variety of channels for employees to give and receive feedback to each other and the company.
However, few resources address two crucial questions:
- Who should we focus on first?
- How will we know it's working?
How to Answer Critical Questions About Feedback
For many talent managers, that second question can be a big hurdle. After all, a strategic initiative cannot be guided–or funded–by intuition alone. How can they gain buy-in for a process they can’t measure? How can they prove its success without tying it back to key metrics like employee retention or revenue?
Indeed, measurement challenges have left the true power of frequent feedback untapped and underestimated. But you can overcome these challenges.
To address the ‘who?’, begin this journey by focusing on a small group with a big impact: your company’s leaders. Frontline managers, mid-level directors, and senior-level executives set the tone for your organization. And the feedback processes that shape these leaders’ development will have an outsized effect on overall performance.
How to Measure the Impact of Feedback in 3 Steps
Next, we address measurement with these three steps to building an effective feedback culture and then measuring its impact.
1. Decide which leadership behaviors you want to measure. (Hint: draw inspiration from your company’s core values and competencies.)
When competencies are the foundation of a company’s HR processes, 91% of organizations report that their training and development is more effective, and their promotion systems are more fair. So, core values and competencies should absolutely shape your feedback culture. In fact, we can help you translate them into a ‘behavioral blueprint.’ This will help you clarify the leadership behaviors your company expects, supports, and rewards.
When competencies are the foundation of a company’s HR processes, 91% of organizations report that their training and development is more effective, and their promotion systems are more fair.
DDI, Job/Role Competency Practices Survey Report
Think about your company’s core values and leadership competencies. Now, consider how a leader could show one of them in an observable way. For instance, how would someone prove they support a company value like ‘We’re committed to work/life balance’? Maybe they don’t send emails after work hours. Or maybe they encourage teammates to take time off after completing a big project. These are observable behaviors displayed by someone who is committed to their team’s work/life balance.
Similarly, how would someone prove they are good at coaching? Perhaps they share clear performance improvement feedback or look for information to better understand team members’ performance. Remember, make sure the behaviors are observable.
Once you have a map of core values, competencies, and their observable behaviors, you can begin collecting feedback from everyone on how closely their leaders follow these behaviors.
As mentioned earlier, one of the first steps will be communicating the new initiative and its importance to the organization. You can also share how you’ll be measuring precise behaviors that support specific values and skills that are important to the company. For employees and leaders alike, this communication and laser focus will clarify the exact behaviors your company expects, supports, rewards, and measures.
2. Bypass emotional hurdles that can get in the way of good feedback.
Common feedback exercises like 1:1s and engagement surveys can be useful. However, the power dynamics associated with them can hinder their effectiveness. After all, it can be very intimidating for direct reports to give honest, critical feedback to their boss. And peers can be reluctant to give much feedback to their fellow leaders if they feel that it’s not their business.
These complicated human emotions often get in the way of growth, but they can be addressed. By collecting anonymous feedback on the observable behaviors from step one, you can empower leaders with honest, objective insight into how they’re looked at by those they work with most. Collecting and sharing that feedback frequently–e.g., on a weekly basis–enables leaders to understand how they’re evolving over time. This also helps HR or talent professionals measure how their organization is changing.
For example, if Tanya regularly works with seven people–peers, direct reports, etc.–those seven people should submit frequent feedback on how well she, for instance, encourages teammates to take time off after a big project. Each of those seven people should be asked the same questions about Tanya’s observable behaviors. Furthermore, to reduce subjectivity, and to improve participation and secure psychological safety, you should avoid requiring written feedback.
By asking feedback providers to give simple, frequency-based answers like “rarely,” “sometimes,” and “often,” they feel psychologically safe to be honest about Tanya’s alignment to those behaviors. From a measurement perspective, those objective answers can be ‘scored.’ And this allows talent leaders to measure the behavioral alignment of various leaders to specific competencies.
3. Measure the business impact of your new feedback culture over time.
Collecting objective feedback on behaviors opens up a new world of people analytics. With data from feedback on your leaders, you can get answers to questions like these, and more:
- Which leadership behaviors correlate to high employee retention?
- Which behaviors lead to higher efficiencies or productivity?
- By how much did behavior(s) change after the last leadership development program?
- Did a shift in behavioral alignment to core values impact employee engagement?
- Does the same set of leadership behaviors lead to success in every office?
- Which behaviors need to be improved and prioritized? Which should be cut?
And this is where the objective, frequency-based feedback comes into play. For example, if you know your leaders’ average alignment to "valuing work/life balance" is 55%–showing that feedback providers frequently answer "sometimes" or "no" for questions related to whether a leader supports a healthy work/life balance–you could then schedule a leadership training that reinforces that value and your company's dedication to it.
In the weeks following the training, you could track how the feedback changes over time. And the score would likely rise consistently week over week, perhaps averaging 75% at the end of the following quarter. You could then compare how, for example, retention rates changed over that same time frame. Assuming retention improves as work/life balance improves, you could calculate the ROI of that work/life balance workshop.
The Value of a Feedback Culture Done Right
A feedback culture that prioritizes frequent, objective feedback on leadership behaviors ensures core values and competencies are given the right amount of spotlight from the top down. And that’s not all. An effective feedback culture and collection process also ensures you have what you need to measure impacts over time, so you know what’s working and what’s not.
Learn about Leadership Habit Builder.
Alexander Schwall is co-founder and Chief Science Officer at Rhabit Analytics. He earned his Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Penn State and consulted F50-500 companies for years before starting Rhabit with its other co-founder, J. Kevin Kelly. When he’s not helping clients design evidence-based behavioral blueprints, Alexander can be found perfecting his culinary skill set and spending time with his family outdoors.