Facilitating Employee Feedback Training

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Are you thinking about facilitating employee feedback training at your organization, either leading it yourself or bringing an external expert? Fantastic. It may be one of the most rewarding experiences of your career.

For your company, it’s also one of the most important. As Dr. Angela Duckworth, psychology professor, MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, and author of Grit, put it:

“I have never actually encountered a company that does a good enough job with feedback.”

Employee feedback training can develop individual leadership capacities, equip teams to leverage their collective genius and be more effective, and allow organizations to better respond to change and be a place where employees want to work.

Unfortunately, very few organizations offer their employees comprehensive feedback training. This is despite both decades of research on the importance of feedback and more recent reports, like this one published at Fortune, which calls it out directly:

“Employees who don’t get clear feedback quit.”

A colorful abstract landscape shows the entrance to a "Feedback Factory" feedback training program.

As we’ve covered in Feedback Tips Weekly posts and in the Constructive Feedback course, part of the reason organizations do not offer feedback training is that they assume their employees already have high levels of feedback literacy. As thought they are all graduates of some imaginary feedback factory where they picked up all the skills they need. Such assumptions ignore the many feedback communication disconnects that exist today and, again, that have been called out in the research for decades.

Professor James Larson wrote this in the Academy of Management Review way back in 1989:

“Therefore, efforts to correct discrepancies between supervisors’ and employees’ ratings are not likely to be successful unless measures are taken to improve the quality of feedback given during everyday work interactions. This might involve training employees….”

Larson described how this training could improve how employees seek feedback, how they give it, and even how it could create cultures with less anxiety and greater flows of helpful feedback communications.

Okay, so where to start? Here are a few lessons I’ve learned from facilitating employee feedback training. May they help as you begin creating your offering:

Dismantle hierarchical feedback norms

Senior leaders may ask you to train people managers on how to give feedback and individual contributors on how to receive it. In my experience, this clear delineation can exacerbate existing assumptions about how feedback works. While you may want to tailor the training a bit in these directions, all employees benefit from understanding all parts of the feedback relationship.

For example, individual contributors can learn to seek and receive feedback better if they understand some of the challenges givers may have. Likewise, those primarily in the position of giving feedback can re-engage their empathy by remembering what it’s like to be early-in-career and on the receiving end of negative feedback.

Create time for feedback practice

While many of the basics can be covered through an interactive talk that allows employees to participate at various points, I’ve found it beneficial to close each session with a practice lesson where participants can flex what they’ve learned while in a safe environment.

I’d recommend describing the practice scenario/exercise, grouping employees into pairs (and moving them into breakout rooms if virtual). After that, I suggest bringing everybody back and then asking a few volunteers to demo how they handled the situation. This will generate excitement, likely some incredible conversations, and opportunities to provide feedback on the feedback scenario.

Leverage the wisdom of crowds

There’s no need for a sage on a stage here. While the facilitator can and should cover the basics, pulling in employee voices is essential. This can steer the conversation down interesting paths, including paths worth a rebuttal. I’ve found that allowing employees to hear each other’s feedback wisdom can motivate and inspire the larger group.

Lastly, I’ll often create a few evidence-based fill-in-blank questions around everyday feedback struggles, like the anxiety many of us experience with feedback. This can help normalize the very human struggles we have with feedback and set the stage for more authentic and vulnerable conversations later in the training.

Make it evidence-based

My presentations include dozens of studies spanning over 40 years of feedback research. Depending on your company’s culture, training on CORE skills like effective feedback communication may be called out as “soft.” In my experience, backing it all up with evidence can lower the judgment and defensiveness that exist within such cultures.

Also, I’ve found that my participants are genuinely curious about the research. Some even wrote to me weeks later to share that they read (and even enjoyed!) some of the research papers I shared.

Create psychologically safe groupings

These groupings have tended to work quite well:

Early-in-career individual contributors

Training here can be particularly effective if these folks are all in the onboarding phase or are onboarding together as part of an internal program. Feedback training with this group can help them dispel myths, alleviate their anxiety, improve their skills, and generally make them feel they are joining a company that cares about their perspective and professional growth.

New people managers

Magic happens here. These managers are the future of your company. They are excited to learn and grow, but many have yet to see healthy and effective feedback relationships modeled for them. As such, they may carry assumptions about how they should enter into feedback relationships with their direct reports. Training them now can pay big dividends as they grow into their role and advance in the organization.

Close-knit teams/departments

These teams may be operationally efficient, but part of their strength in efficiency can also present as a weakness: functional fixedness. As Andy Zynga writes about here at Harvard Business Review, it’s vital to maintain some ability to think outside the boxes we’re in. But as habits build over time, we may lose this ability and, with it, our ability to remain creative enough to innovate.

In my experience, this type of functional fixedness can seep into feedback communications. Through feedback training, these teams get the distance they need to see which communication habits may no longer be setting them up for success.

Executive teams

As Kim Scott, Liz Fosslien, and Mollie West Duffy wrote, senior leaders have a notoriously hard time getting the feedback they need.

“In other words, right when you need it most, getting an accurate pulse on your performance as a leader becomes really, really hard. So how do you get feedback when people are least likely to offer it? How can you solicit actionable, useful advice from your reports? Neither one of you wants to have a hard conversation, but when you’re the leader, it’s your job to overcome that reluctance for yourself and help the other person overcome it, too.”

This can be especially true for executives at large multinational corporations, who often work closely with each other and have for an extended period. Bringing these folks together for a feedback workshop can reignite their bonds while empowering them with the tools they need to create the safest possible containers so they can seek and receive feedback from employees at all levels in the organization.

While many organizations are missing the boat on employee feedback training, many do a remarkable job of collecting and acting on customer feedback. I’ve found it helpful to draw parallels between these two feedback dimensions.

For example, Andy Peebler of Salesforce wrote about how once you receive feedback you should:

“…create ad hoc advisory boards comprised of department leads who will come together to translate customer feedback.”

Love it!

So what might a similar insight look like at the employee level?

Once you receive feedback you should ___.

This is a rich opportunity for discussion. Truth is, many employees aren’t sure what to do after they receive feedback. Some adopt it without question and even if it’s horrible because they think that’s their role. Others aren’t sure how to layer it into their current workflow. And still others don’t give themselves time to process it.

Here’s another example. In this blog post for IBM, Keith O’Brien wrote:

“Organizations can no longer wait for customer feedback if they’re concerned about providing an excellent customer experience.”

100%. Tying it to employee feedback, we could have:

Senior leaders can no longer wait for employee feedback if they’re concerned about providing an excellent employee experience.

So what does this “no longer waiting” look like? This is a chance to provide practical tips while opening up a conversation about what the absence of negative feedback might really mean.

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I hope these tips are helpful, team! I’d love to hear if you’ve incorporated them and how it all went.

If you are a leader just wanting to begin facilitating discussions about feedback with your team, the section beginning at 2:09:34 in the video below may be helpful: