Everything is (not always) Awesome

Synopsis: Feedback to staff is a critical tool management can use to shape corporate culture 

This year’s Lego Movie spawned the song that has turned into something of an Internet meme. Likely to be 2014’s most cheerful tune, the “Everything is Awesome” song tells us that we shouldn’t worry about the negatives in life, instead we should focus on the positives. While that happy-go-lucky message lifts spirits and is fun, from a business perspective the song’s message is something of a trap that can put you on the path to cultural dysfunction.

In recent months I’ve been writing about corporate culture and have had the opportunity to interview a number of people who’s organizations have either already got very positive cultures or who have successfully made the difficult transition from dysfunction to performance. As always, when interviewing people I listen for parallels in their stories and one such theme that has popped up relates to way in which staff receive feedback on their performance. In most of the functional cultures I’ve been looking at there are robust feedback mechanisms that help staff develop their capabilities and stay focused. In contrast, dysfunctional organizations have little or no meaningful feedback mechanisms in place. While there may be annual performance appraisals, the process is so broken that it is more a perfunctory duty rather than a tool that creates value for those involved. Even though the performance of some individuals or teams may be far from satisfactory, a blind eye is turned to poor performance and management pretend “everything is awesome”.

Perhaps frightened of providing feedback or perhaps just lacking the knowledge needed to give meaningful feedback, dysfunctional organizations forge ahead without providing the critical course corrections, suggestions or advice that could help people perform to their maximum capacity. With a lack of meaningful feedback people naturally assume everything is awesome and sadly, in some cases, the first a person knows that they are not meeting expectations is a tap on the shoulder as they are asked to grab the personal items from their desk before reporting direct to their manager’s office.

While giving feedback to the individual is important for the individual, feedback has cumulative effects that affect the organization’s culture as a whole. Where poor performance is tolerated, and feedback mechanisms are ineffective, there can be many side effects…

  1. Poor performance can become the norm – The bar is lowered as poor performance breeds poor performance
  2. Conflict between those who are performing and those who are not arise as those who are doing a good job get frustrated with those who are not
  3. The stronger performers may become so frustrated that they start looking for more fertile pastures and quit
  4. Product quality can be compromised and customers alienated
  5. Management time is sapped as they fight fires rather than build value for their business.

The challenge for organizations that want to rebuild their corporate culture is that giving feedback isn’t always easy. Few people like delivering bad news and unless done skillfully, feedback can alienate people. For organizations that have turned a blind eye to poor performance for many years, the challenge can be even greater. Any change initiative is attacked by the culture’s immune system and the wall of resistance proves too hard to overcome.

Despite that challenge I think it is important that all managers understand what a good feedback mechanism looks like. Discussions with participants in my research have revealed a number of common themes. Firstly, if feedback is to work, expectations need to be set first. If people don’t know what is expected of them there is no reference against which they can validate their feedback. Essentially management needs to be able to articulate what good performance looks like and how to get there. In addition the feedback needs to be…

  1. Direct – It is actionable and it clearly links to the work. Vague or generic feedback leaves the person without anything to build on.
  2. Timely – The feedback needs to be given as near to the time at which the events occurred as possible. Waiting for an annual appraisal means the trail has gone cold and the context in which the feedback needs to be interpreted has been lost.
  3. From a credible source – The feedback needs to come from someone who has the stature, experience and insight to give the feedback. They need to know their stuff and have the respect of those who are receiving the feedback. If the person providing the feedback lacks that stature their feedback may come across as insulting rather than instructive.
  4. Backed up with appropriate training – While some feedback can be immediately acted upon, other more significant feedback may need to be backed up with proper training or access to mentors who can provide ongoing help and advice.

Feedback is a natural part of the learning process. No one knows it all and everyone can benefit from insightful feedback. The mechanisms used for coaching, guiding, and tuning are mechanisms that management needs to own. Master the art and you have a powerful tool to shape your culture. Fail to get it right and you maybe singing the “everything is awesome song”, but failing to convince your staff and customers that it anything more than an empty platitude.

See also

  1. Corporate culture – The invisible force that shapes organizational performance
  2. Pride of workmanship
  3. Say it with samples

My thanks to those who have participated in my work on this so far…If anyone else is interested in participating in my research on corporate culture please feel free to get in touch…Robert Goatham.