Culture’s Cogs – Feedback

Synopsis: Feedback is the mechanism that keeps a culture alive… 

This post is part 4 in the Cultures Cog’s series of posts. Click here for – Part 1

In the two prior parts of this blog series we looked at the role “imperatives” and “expectations” play in giving rise to a culture. In this final post we’ll look at how feedback is the link that keeps a culture alive.

Feedback is the interaction between people that tells them whether or not expectations are being achieved. Feedback can either be positive (you are meeting the expectations of the culture) or negative (you’re not meeting the expectations and hence there is an issue I need you to be aware of). Feedback is a natural part of human interactions. It can be verbal, it can be communicated through body language or it can be communicated through the actions we take or chose not to take. Sometimes it is overt, but often it is more subtle. Anyone who has ever been married knows that feedback is more complex than simply the words being said.

In a business context, when we think about giving feedback many people think of the annual performance appraisal. This ritual of the modern business is well intentioned, but the implementation is often fatally flawed. The feedback provided is often provided long after the events being reviewed actually occurred (many companies only conduct an appraisal once a year and there is no feedback in the intervening period). It is not unusual to find that the person giving the feedback was not closely involved in the work and not in the room when the key events took place. Furthermore, in some organizations real issues get glossed over or sugarcoated for fear of upsetting people. Many professionals I’ve spoken to about their annual appraisals feel that process is pretty much useless. A perfunctory duty that managers grind through. At best benign and at worst a mechanism through which dysfunction is fuelled.

Using feedback as a mechanism to shape a culture requires the feedback to be much more immediate, contextually linked and dynamic. It needs to be a part of the daily interactions between leader and team rather than an annual ritual. A smile or congratulations when something is done well or a glance or appropriate comment when something is wrong are often the building blocks. Returning to the example used in my prior post about closing the door at the start of a meeting (as a way of setting expectations that people will be on-time), a well timed glance from the leader when someone does come late is often all it takes to reinforce the message (not just to the person who is late, but to everyone else as well). If a person is continually late (and there is no valid reason), the feedback may need to be structured using an escalation of action each time the issue comes up; 1) a glance, 2) a casual comment, 3) a more pointed comment, 4) a private conversation to communicate the issue directly and agree a strategy to overcome the issue. For more on giving negative feedback try the following post – Everything is (not always) awesome.

Although the word feedback often conjures up images of criticism, positive feedback can actually be the more powerful tool. Congratulating people when they do something well or fulfill an expectation makes people feel engaged rather than alienated. One of my clients switched from a negative feedback model to a positive one and instantly improved results. As a manufacturing organization, safety needed to be an engrained part of their culture. Prior to the switch the organization used a safety manager who trolled the factory floor looking for people violating safety standards. Following the switch, senior management took a more active role and each manager was required to find examples of safety being done right. Each manager was required to make sure they were on the shop floor on a regular basis and when they saw something being done right they were under direct instructions from the CEO to go over and praise the workers involved. That simple switch made senior management more involved (which is necessary if a culture is to be propagated) and built more positive relationships between staff and management. Yes the safety manager would still intervene if something was being done wrong, but the frequency with which intervention was required dropped significantly.

Although we often think of feedback as being either positive or negative, there is a third form of feedback that can be even more potent; disappointment. As a general rule human beings like to live up to expectations and if we feel that someone is disappointed with us, it can have a powerful effect (especially if we respect the person). While criticism can antagonize people, when done well the use of disappointment can spur people into changing their behaviours. One relatively dramatic example of a senior leader expressing disappointment is the Samsung example from 1993. Having developed a new cell phone that was ahead of its time, then Chairman, Kun-hee Lee, sent samples to his business contacts as gifts. On hearing from them that some of the phones didn’t work, he personally visited the factory, went to the warehouse and tested sample phones. To his horror many didn’t work. He ordered the entire stock to be removed. He summoned the board of directors and the staff to gather outside the factory. He had the entire stock (all $50M worth) burned in front of everyone. The feedback was pretty brutal, but very clear: I’m disappointed, shoddy work will not be accepted. To this day, Samsung still leverages that incident to help shape their culture (Samsung Performance – see page 5) and over the years Samsung has rapidly expanded, while managing to retain it’s reputation for high quality.

Although Chairman Lee’s style would not be appropriate for most organizations, he illustrates how real leaders recognize that shaping culture is their responsibility. If the leader abdicates that responsibility, then the organization’s culture is rudderless and lacking in core values. His feedback may have been shocking to those present, but that shock was exactly what he wanted to achieve. While the more typical Project Leader may not be in a position to use shock tactics in the way Chairman Lee did, the need to provide feedback is a core function for those trying to instill their imperatives into a culture.

In this series of posts we’ve looked at how culture’s form and how effective leaders influence culture. The three interacting cogs (imperatives, expectations and feedback) represent a set of living behaviours that at times require subtly and at times draw upon more overt action. When executed skillfully the values of the culture can be formed in positive ways and once that has been achieved a true leader can leverage that into the desired results.

See also:

  1. Culture’s cogs – The first post in this series
  2. Culture’s cogs – Cog 1 – Imperatives
  3. Culture’s cogs – Cog 2 – Expectations

Additional posts that touch on related themes and ideas

  1. Pride of workmanship – A look at how putting the focus on quality also drives employee morale.
  2. Everything is (not always) awesome
  3. RIP ideas – What happens when a culture goes stale