Feedback culture: How do we develop it?

Giving feedback, receiving feedback and working on the feedback are perhaps most powerful mantras for improving performance. They are most essential tools, not only for the teachers and students in college campuses, but also for the staff in workplaces, leaders in organizations and even family members at home. Feedback lies at the core of effective communication. It has the potential to prevent conflicts and promote wellbeing of people and organizations. Unfortunately, the power of feedback is not realized. Even when realized, it is limited to developing a few skills rather than as a process of bringing about change. The need of the hour is to develop a positive culture of feedback. Perhaps there is no magic formula to do this overnight. However, it is time to address all aspects of feedback so that we are in a position to promote a culture of feedback at all levels.

What is Feedback? How it differs from criticism?

Unfortunately, in India, most people think that feedback is the same as criticism or leg pulling. From panchayat to parliament, people oppose people, not the issues. The purpose of feedback is to point out what is correct, what is not, and how to improve. It is not to decide who is right or who is wrong. Thus feedback plays vital role in training. It is also helpful in identifying and correcting system failures. It is aimed at ‘fact finding’ and not ‘fault finding’ exercise. It is not intended to judge a person, but to identify the strengths and deficiencies and suggest ways to improve. Unfortunately, a negative feedback especially when it is not solicited, can cause misunderstanding and spoil interpersonal relationship, leading to a great damage to the organization.

Looking at the current scenario in education or workplaces, we can hardly see any successful implementation of feedback. In most educational institutes, the communication is top down. The so called ‘mission, vision, goals and the targets’ become the matters of display in the cabin of Principals and CEOs, without any clue about their implementation and follow up.

How to give feedback?

The basic issues are how to give feedback, when to give feedback, how to receive feedback and how to work on feedback. The rules of the game suggest that feedback should be a two way process, a dialogue, rather than a monologue. It should be brief, to the point, specific and non-judgmental. It should be sandwiched with strengths and limitations. Feedback should be constructive. It should be descriptive rather than prescriptive of solutions. The person should be allowed to take a decision. Feedback should be given as early as possible. ‘Justice delayed, justice denied’. Most importantly, feedback should be given only after preparing a person to accept it, otherwise, the person is likely to defend his/her action and you will be wasting your valuable time. You will also lose a good friend or a colleague. If the feedback is negative, never give it in public. Call the person privately, and use your best ‘empathetic listening skills. Show your genuine concern about the person, and finally propose a few ideas for improvement. This is not a one shot process. It requires a support system of mentoring. It is different from teacher-centric or boss controlled relationship marked by hierarchy.

Even in mentoring there are challenges, especially when the mentor and mentee differ in their attitudes, values and practice. In such cases, both should accept their differences and develop empathetic relationship which paves the way for further growth. This process can be facilitated by the organizations by creating a healthy, informal, yet congenial atmosphere beyond the campuses and workplace to develop bonhomie among the staff. What really works is casual, informal chat, encounter over a cup of coffee, a walk across the garden, or enjoying a movie together. It can promote trust and love for a long lasting relationship.

How to Receive Feedback?

Receiving negative feedback can be upsetting. It requires courage, tolerance and a receptive mind. Never take a defensive stand when someone gives negative feedback. Listen with rapt attention. Thank the person and keep the feedback in your pocket. If you think there is something fishy about the genuineness, reflect on it later and check with other sources to assess its value and assimilate judiciously.

The task of promoting a culture of feedback is therefore, a long drawn agenda. It needs to be addressed collectively by all stakeholders. In situations like India where professional hierarchy dominates all walks of life, it is difficult to change the mindset of seniors who enjoy hierarchy and juniors who are dependent on it. However, a proactive role on part of the top leadership with their role modelling can be a game changer. In order to support and monitor feedback system you need a structure. The best thing is to include feedback as a part of quality assurance (QA) system of an institute. In fact this movement has already started, thanks to the accreditation process. However, voluntary participation of staff, rather than as an assignment forced from top can really make an impact. One can also think of incentivizing good feedback. Building trust among all stakeholders, open-mindedness, spirit of team work, and collaboration would go a long way in promoting feedback culture. Faculty development plays a key role in such efforts. At the core of such a movement lies ethical leadership which believes in wellbeing and collective good.

Final note: Feedback is not a new concept to India. One of the earliest quotes on how to give feedback comes from Manu Smriti “ Sathyam bruyaat, priyambruyaat, nabruyaat, sathyamapriyam”(Manu Smriti 4-138), which means “Speak truth, speak in a pleasant manner, do not speak bitter truth”.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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