3 Barriers to Effective Feedback at Work

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See transcript below for the video titled 3 Barriers to Effective Feedback at Work. Prior to the transcript, you’ll find a gallery of all the primary images used in the video. Click each image to view it in a larger size. The images include:

  • The Feedback Literacy Venn Diagram
  • The Workplace Feedback Categories Diagram
  • The Feedback Growth Pyramid
  • The 3Cs of Organizational Feedback Systems

You can also get all the feedback terms and examples as a PDF here.


3 Barriers to Effective Feedback at Work

Hi there, Team. Cameron Conaway here. Today, let’s cover three foundational but rarely-discussed barriers that prevent us and our organizations from leveraging the power of effective feedback at work. We’ll approach these three barriers from two interrelated angles. The first will be from an individual level, because we know from mountains of research that feedback is vital for our personal growth and for the growth of our teammates. And the second angle will be organizational, because if an organization isn’t successful at seeking and receiving feedback, it likely won’t be around very long.

So here are the three common feedback barriers we will be addressing, starting at the individual level where we all have agency and building towards the larger organization where our agency, when we propel it into action, can create impact:

  • Number 1: Underdeveloped Feedback Literacy
  • Number 2: A Neglected Feedback Culture
  • Number 3: the Lack of an Organizational Feedback System

So let’s dive into Barrier Number 1: Underdeveloped Feedback Literacy. If you watched What is Feedback?, you may recall our definition of feedback literacy. We talked about it as referring to an individual’s understanding of and capacity to effectively give, receive, and process feedback.

But we didn’t address how it’s not only possible, but actually vital to create a feedback literacy development plan for ourselves. Because although developing all aspects of our feedback literacy takes being in relationship with others, we have individual agency, we have the ability to chart our own course for developing in this way.

Let’s explore this Feedback Literacy venn diagram to see how it all works.

As we see here, our feedback literacy is at the core and develops where these three circles intersect. Let’s take a look at each, starting with Intrapersonal. Intrapersonal refers to those skills within our self, or within our own mind. This includes all of those qualities that make up self-awareness, open-mindedness, and emotional intelligence – that ability to skillfully experience and manage our emotional states. As you may also recall from our What is Feedback? video, Intrapersonal would also include the way we talk to ourselves, which would include Self-Feedback… “the feedback in our minds as we critique, praise, and compare our performance.” As you can likely see here, these internal skills and states serve as the foundation for effectively giving, receiving, and processing feedback. For example, if we are overwhelmed with anger… and perhaps especially if we are filled with anger but not aware that we are, there’s a good chance that we will struggle to both receive negative feedback and process how it feels and what it means.

For a deeper exploration of what I mean by processing feedback, see my article in Harvard Business Review on that topic.

Similarly, if your mind is flooded with harsh inner chatter about a mistake you made earlier in the day, you will likely struggle to provide your teammate with the clear and empathy-led feedback they deserve. Improving your ability to recognize, be with, breathe through, and understand the roots of a felt emotion will help keep you receptive and grounded during challenging feedback conversations. The great part with intrapersonal skills development is that there’s no shortage of ways to improve. From practicing meditation and journaling to working with a licensed therapist and a career coach – all can help us gain new perspectives, develop self-awareness, and build the skills we need to effectively navigate and leverage what’s going on in our inner world.

As a point of comparison, let’s now jump over to Interpersonal. If Intrapersonal is within, we can think of inter-personal as meaning between… that is, between yourself and others. So this includes all of the many skills that account for being in relationship with others – including all elements of verbal and nonverbal communication. Not all feedback at work happens while in relationship with other humans (for example, we also receive automated feedback from machines), but much of it does, so these interpersonal qualities are vital for being an effective communicator whether you are giving feedback or receiving feedback. As with intra-personal skills development, you can develop your interpersonal skills. One way is by setting specific goals for the aspects you want to improve and then consciously observing and learning from others. You can also request feedback specifically about your interpersonal interactions. And it’s also possible to improve your skills in this regard by watching and learning from recordings of your performance. As you can likely tell, there are plenty of intersections between intra and inter-personal development. For example, in a communications class I took as part of an Executive MBA program, we were tasked with recording one of our performances. Phew. The first few times I watched my performance, it was actually hard to look at the screen. I was judging myself so harshly – everything from the color of my teeth to the sound of my voice. But we had a self-reflective writing exercise that was attached to this assignment, and this exercise allowed me to slow down enough so that I was able to bring awareness to my harsh inner chatter and realize how it was actually a significant barrier standing in the way of my goal of improving. In this sense, I had to slow down before I could wake up. I wasn’t able to tease out ways I could improve interpersonally until I brought that intrapersonal self-awareness to the monologue going on inside me, and then calmed it down. After that, I was in a better position to view the recording as purely an opportunity to grow.

Lastly, let’s head over to Experiential. This one is simply about the feedback experiences we have across our personal and professional lives. This intersects with intra-personal because experience is what we reflect on and learn from, and it intersects with interpersonal because many of these experiences happen in relation with others. One tip I call out here is that we need not be passive recipients in the feedback process. I’ve met with many folks at various stages of their career who felt that they didn’t have effective feedback relationships modeled for them and therefore weren’t able to get the feedback experiences they deserved. While this modeling is vital – and we’ll briefly cover this in Barrier #2 – getting disciplined about seeking feedback from others can ensure you are at least getting opportunities to flex this Experiential muscle. And, you may find, that the more you ask others for feedback, the more others begin to feel comfortable asking you for feedback… so by you making the first move you create a type of feedback loop for your feedback literacy development. This is one incredible way you can take your individual agency and begin to change the feedback culture.

And with that as a transition, let’s move to Barrier Number 2: A Neglected Feedback Culture.

So one way to think about a culture at work, and in our focus here, a feedback culture, is as the soil upon which effective feedback is either neglected or cultivated. Like the soil of our earth, the culture exists whether or not we intentionally try to shape it, right? So a neglected feedback culture, then, is one that is not intentionally cultivated. To continue with the soil metaphor, in such a culture, weeds and other invasive qualities may sprout. This can include toxic cultural elements, such as managers belittling colleagues rather than providing helpful feedback. In many cases, neglected feedback cultures are actually feedback-averse cultures. By this I mean cultures where feedback is generally avoided, which means employees aren’t receiving comprehensive feedback training and new employees aren’t seeing healthy feedback relationships modeled for them. And if this culture is neglected at the people-level, there’s a good chance there’s neglect at the organizational level, where the organization itself is not effective at seeking and receiving feedback. A healthy and effective feedback culture, however, is built with intention. It’s a garden that is pruned and nurtured and generally cared for – with the result being colleagues at all levels who are number one, working to build their own feedback literacy and number two, feel psychological safe enough to give and receive feedback regardless of where they sit in the organization’s hierarchy. So what barriers get in the way of cultivating an effective feedback culture and, more importantly, what can we do about them?

One barrier, and it may seem like a refrain here, but it’s awareness around the importance of feedback. In my previous videos, I highlighted the overwhelming evidence on the importance of feedback, so I’ll hold on that for now and encourage you to go check out the links I provided in the descriptions of those YouTube videos. One other element has to do with lack of awareness on the categories of feedback, especially because many who are new to learning about feedback often tend to think of it as purely an exchange of information, usually from a manager to a more junior colleague. So let’s address this barrier with a quick tour of the Workplace Feedback Categories diagram which can be a helpful tool because it allows us to step back to see a fuller picture of the various feedback dynamics.

Let’s begin at the top. Internal refers to both the feedback happening internally in our minds and the feedback kept internally in our organization. So if we work down the left side, this covers the self-feedback in our minds, the individual feedback we receive from our colleagues at work, the customer feedback we receive directly from our customers, and market feedback. Market feedback in the internal sense is about the effects on our business that we experience based on what’s happening in the market. For example, even before it’s a major topic of public discussion, we may begin seeing signals of labor market strength as employees seem to be asking for raises at a higher rate than usual. If we move to External at the top right, we begin with Sought. This is feedback outside of our organization that we intentionally seek. So at the Individual level, this could be feedback you seek by asking an industry leader if they are open to serving as a mentor for you. At the Customer level, this could be feedback about some part of your organization that you see posted on public sites like LinkedIn, G2, Yelp, Reddit forums, or elsewhere. Similarly, external market signals could be a result of publicly-known market shifts that maybe haven’t impacted your business yet – such as the Federal Reserve changing interest rates or a tense geopolitical situation that may have an impact on your supply chain strategy.

As you see, there can be barriers at every level here. For example, a company may be one of those rare few who offer their employees training on feedback communications, but they may be missing the boat when it comes to having a strategy for listening to the external market signals that could seriously disrupt their business model. Based on my experience and review of the decades of feedback literature, one way to move from feedback category awareness to real action is to pair our category diagram with a Feedback Growth Pyramid – something like this. Approaching each category through the lens of Culture, Training, and Event can ensure we are addressing each barrier holistically. Culture and Training we’ve touched on, but by Feedback Event I mean real opportunities to engage in various feedback dynamics. In this sense, an event would align with the Experiential section of our Feedback Literacy diagram. For example, a feedback event could be receiving feedback from a manager – this would be an event for both the manager giving and the employee receiving. Here’s an example of one way to pair the diagram with the pyramid. Let’s consider individual feedback at both the Internal and External level. You might come at this with questions informed by the pyramid, such as:

“How might we improve our culture so that employees are getting the effective feedback they need?”

Or…

“Are we training employees across our organization how to seek feedback from those outside of our organization so that they are staying at the top of their field?”

Or

“What feedback training are we providing our new people managers?”

And, last but not least, we could ask:

“What feedback events do our employees have a chance to participate in?”

If the answer to that question is none, or not many, or even I have no idea… one potential solution could be to roll out weekly feedback-oriented check-ins between managers and employees and a quarterly performance review framework to ensure all parties have a chance to give and receive feedback. Another solution could be creating feedback workshops whereby more junior colleagues who have been identified as future people managers could get an opportunity to practice how they give feedback – and to get feedback on how they give feedback.

At this point, if you’re hungry to be more intentional about changing your organization’s feedback culture, I’d recommend reading up on a few change management principles. I’ve included a link in the description to an in-depth page on change management – and, if you’re new to this field and in a hurry, I’d recommend jumping right to the John Kotter framework on that page.

Speaking of change at the organizational level, that leads us to our third feedback barrier: Number 3: Lack of an Organizational Feedback System.

We’ve highlighted the importance of building feedback literacy, and the importance of understanding the feedback categories, but even with all the awareness in the world – it can be a tremendous challenge for an organization to figure out how to collect, classify, and effectively communicate received feedback to the most relevant stakeholders. This is where the 3Cs of Organizational Feedback Systems come into play. Let’s briefly work through this visual.

Step 1 here is about collecting feedback from various sources. One metaphor that may be helpful here is to think about all the tributaries that feed into a river. The goal here is to map out all the most important feedback tributaries and to create a process for how they are being monitored. For example, if we think about collecting customer feedback – those tributaries would include the internal feedback our customers send us privately (and ensuring they have easy ways to do so) and it would include monitoring the most important areas where they are providing public feedback.

From there, we can move to step 2 – which is to ensure all that feedback flows into a central place where it can be seen in aggregate. This could be a Slack channel, for example. Once there, it’s helpful to Classify it. For example, is this External feedback about a particular product or service? Is it positive or negative feedback? You can get as detailed as is helpful here. For example, it may be helpful to note if it’s coming from a Fortune 100 customer who you have a significant deal with as opposed to a customer from a small business who is simply on a free trial. We then move to Step 3, Communicating. Some organizations end at Step 2, thinking that the feedback river is enough, but the river contains everything and can be an overwhelming source of information to the point where it’s irrelevant for many people who are receiving it.

The river metaphor continues here, as Step 3 is about creating feedback lakes from the river, that is, ensuring that the classified feedback is routed to the most appropriate people or teams. As in our example, a batch of feedback from Fortune 100 customers on a particular product could be routed to the product team responsible for that product, to the enterprise technical sales team who can follow up directly with their customer points of contact, and perhaps to the marketing team who can determine if and how to respond to the public feedback.

So, team, that’s a wrap on addressing three foundational barriers to effective feedback at work. We covered a lot of ground here and I hope it was helpful in getting you to step back and see a fuller picture than most of the feedback articles out there provide. I’m always open to your questions and to your feedback and I’m happy to go deeper into particular areas you want me to address in future videos. Thank you, and may you and yours be well.


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See also: What’s the meaning of feedback?

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