To discuss the culture of feedback, we should start with trust. Without trust, it’s hard to speak about honest and constructive exchange of information. Trust and effective communication, including feedback, are closely linked to one another. This interdependency means that the higher the level of trust, the higher the openness and willingness to give and receive feedback. And honest communication fosters the atmosphere of support.
In my opinion, this fact is confirmed by Lencioni’s model of Five Dysfunctions of a Team, according to which the absence of trust is the first factor impacting the dysfunctionality of a team (Lencioni P., The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, John Wiley & Sons, 2012). An atmosphere of safety and support in a team or an organisation is the key to further development and achievement of goals.
Analogically to Maslow’s pyramid, trust is as fundamental to proper functioning of a team or organisation as satisfying physiological needs is to humans. The absence of trust leads to concealing errors or problems, not providing feedback or providing it in a destructive manner.
The above-mentioned trust does not equal knowing another person to a degree that allows you to predict their reactions (the so-called predictability trust). It’s about the atmosphere of safety and trust, where people can be honest, admit their mistakes, and be open about their flaws (vulnerability trust), and in return receive help from the team or organisation. Obviously, relations are helpful in building such a workplace, but after establishing an appropriate corporate culture “common past” may no longer be an essential condition to build trust, as it gets replaced by the assumption of good faith. Such a space and the feeling that we can make mistakes or openly speak about other people’s failures or errors gives us some sort of comfort. We don’t have to be best friends to openly speak about it and join our forces to come up with solutions and safeguards for the future.
The culture of feedback is based on the trust both towards other associates and the organisation itself. Together, we have created our values and decided to follow them in our operations. Those values mean that respect and honesty are directly connected with how we perceive ourselves as an organisation, and with what we expect from people joining our team. Building, strengthening, and improving the culture of feedback is a continuous process realised with the use of numerous tools and artifacts.
Recruitment process is the first step where, apart from technical competences, we also check applicants’ openness to giving and receiving feedback. We care about diversity, but the most important thing to us is to be sure that a person joining our team will easily fit into our corporate culture. During behavioural interviews, we check how applicants react to conflict situations, if they are willing to share their knowledge and learn from others, and if they are honest and ready to admit their mistakes or shortcomings. During and after asking technical questions, we share our feedback with candidates, which allows us to see how they react to it and how well they make use of any directions they receive from us. Be sure to read posts from Katarzyna Nowak (IT Recruitment Specialist at RST Software Masters), where she describes how to write a perfect CV and whether it’s a good idea to lie in it, and gives clues on how to prepare for online recruitment process.
The culture of feedback is not something you create once and for all. The atmosphere of safety and openness is always under construction, which requires the use of best practices. These are e.g. Scrum ceremonies, feedback meetings, or dedicated workshops. During team meetings and most of all during retrospectives, our Scrum Masters make sure that there’s always space for delivering feedback. They facilitate the meetings in such a way to make information exchange effective and strengthen the team. We want to make sure that members of our teams have no problem with sharing their successes or failures, knowing that people around them are ready to provide support. That is why we focus our attention on the NVC (nonviolent communication), where “the key is to be ready for a contact and to cooperate with our interlocutor to build space where both parties are listened to and involved.” We organise workshops and coaching sessions in this area to promote cooperation-oriented communication. We make sure that the idea of sharing feedback is present every day.
Space for building relations
Trust is not the same as a relationship, but it’s clear that we’re more willing to trust people we know. That is why we strive to ensure that people in our teams and the entire organisation have opportunities to integrate and get to know one another. We want to strengthen the culture of feedback by facilitating relation building within the company. One of such opportunities were breakfasts, held on a daily basis prior to the pandemic and allowing for spontaneous talks and getting to know people from outside one’s team. Non-project initiatives, such as code-meetings, charity activities, or participation in sports events, work in a similar way. Several times a year, we also organise company-wide meetings, where we meet as a one big team to celebrate our cooperation.
All hands on deck
So, we have tools for feedback sharing, we have opportunities, we have space to get to know each other better, and we have implemented mechanisms to invite people who share similar values to our teams. Mission accomplished. Unfortunately, when facing tons of work, meetings, or tight deadlines, we tend to put all those practices aside. What’s worse, such situations are rather common.
Everybody is engaged in building the culture of feedback: the board, architects, scrum masters, and team members. Every member of the RST crew contributes. This happens both spontaneously in the form of daily feedback and sharing one’s observations, and in a more structured manner with the use of dedicated tools, such as surveys, review meetings, or individual meetings with HR Guides.
One of the tools for sharing feedback in the entire organisation is the annual employee satisfaction survey. Those annual surveys allow us to collect information about the level in which our organisation satisfies the needs of our associates, let us know to what degree they identify with RST values and direction, and enable us to influence the shape of our corporate strategy and undertaken initiatives. Obviously, these annual surveys are complemented by ongoing feedback gathered throughout the year from conversations or themed surveys. Interestingly, the survey form allows respondents to sign their feedback with their name. That’s something difficult to find elsewhere on the market. We managed to build an atmosphere of trust and openness where everybody feels safe while sharing their feedback. In 2019, 109 people took part in the research, and as many as 73 signed their feedback with their names. We hope that this number will increase each year.
Building the culture of feedback requires the engagement of all members of the team and the organisation. Even with the right tools and established practices, some misunderstandings or miscommunications may occur. It is important to learn from those mistakes and continuously improve in this area.
“What one says hardly matters, only the trust with which it is said, the sympathy with which it is received.”
This quote from “The Grass Harp” (Capote T., Śniadanie u Tiffany’ego. Harfa traw, wyd. Czytelnik, 1962) is the essence of the culture of feedback. Regardless of what we want to say to someone, if the feedback is provided in an atmosphere of trust and received with the assumption of good faith, it works as a development tool and supports building strong teams and a strong organisation.