One of the big challenges in my career as People Operations Manager was to bring processes that we thought of in the People Operations team to life. To really get them through to the teams and - eventually - let them function in a self-organized way that does not need any reminding and following-up from the people operations team.
The most prominent example for me is probably the implementation of a 360° feedback process which I did several times throughout the past years. However – and I think talking about failures is just much more interesting than talking about success – I have not yet reached the result of a fully self-organized feedback process that did not need following-up and ongoing support from the people operations team. I spent a lot of time reflecting and discussing with people about what was missing or going wrong to find out what was hindering the process of working as self-organized as we intended it to be. These are the lessons I learned:
When you are just getting started with creating a new feedback process, the question is always which stakeholders you include in the process and how much of their time you want to consume. You know how busy everyone is and how you would feel bad taking too much of their time. And after all, you know the topic well, so why not take over most of the work and so it happens that the process is almost completely implemented by the people operations team themselves and you are now somehow forcing it onto the people, even though your intention was a very different one.
One example where it became obvious to me how much some people saw it as our process was shown in the way how some people answered the 360° feedbacks. Even though we asked people to write to the person receiving the feedback directly as if you were speaking to them, some people referred to the person in the third person, as if they would only be speaking to a manager or the HR team. Apparently, it felt to them like the feedback was directed to the people operations team instead of the person directly.
Conclusion: Even if it the intention is good, do not design the feedback process with the people operations team alone and make the people the owners and designers of it as they are the ones who should want to work with it.
People are usually busy in their daily schedule and giving a good and thought-through feedback is time-consuming and it is also something that many people are struggling with as writing a specific and helpful feedback is something that does not come natural to everyone. As long as feedback has a lower priority than other daily tasks, it will be treated as just that.
Another reason for a low participation rate could also have been that some people did not see value in it. This could be due to bad experience with the process, e.g. when they received a very unmeaningful feedback, or many people have even never had a feedback focused on development before, so they just did not experience how valuable it can be. I think people will engage in a feedback process as soon as they see value in it. In my experience, this was usually the case once people received a helpful feedback for the first time. This makes it very important that when someone is using the new feedback process for the first time, they have a good experience with it (in this case good means helpful instead of only positive).
Conclusion: Make very clear that feedback is part of the company’s top priorities and emphasize its importance regularly. It can also help to create some transparency for the teams when and how many feedbacks are coming up in the next weeks, so that they can plan accordingly, maybe even include it in the sprint planning. To assure a good experience with the process, find ambassadors throughout the company who can help share useful feedback. This can be the Agile Coaches as they usually know the teams well and have experience with sharing constructive feedback. As soon as someone did have a good experience, it is much more likely that next time, they will take this is an example and be just as helpful.
One thing that is central in building an honest and open feedback process is separating feedback conversations about development from performance appraisal. This is easy in theory, but more complicated in practice.
One question aligns with this: if you cannot use the 360° feedback about development to assess someone’s performance, do you have enough other measures to know if someone is doing a good job and fulfilling their goals? The answer is already part of the question – in the end it is about fulfilling goals, or put differently, about results. If someone is delivering results, isn’t that enough information? But again, the question comes close: do you even know that? Many companies will know this answer for most of the roles they have but for some it can still be a black box. This topic is quite complex and deserves its own article. In any case, the solution should not be to use the peer feedback that is linked to the development of an individual and reuse it to get an idea of the performance of a person.
Conclusion: The easiest way to start making feedback really about development is to just take away the access to it from people who could use it differently. Requesting feedback and deciding if they want to share and discuss it with someone else in the company like people operations, an agile coach or a feedback buddy should lie in the hands of the individual. Of course, some people might not get a regular feedback anymore because they do not ask for it proactively. However, personal development can only come from intrinsic motivation anyway, you cannot force people to develop. Luckily, most people want to develop and get better at the things they do. If the tools they are given to do so are good, why shouldn’t they use them?
Like with performance appraisal, the feedback conversations have sometimes been reused for other things. First, maybe you just realized that something in the team collaboration is going very wrong and how someone is bringing a toxic energy to the rest of the team. This could be the person receiving the feedback or a third person. The result is the same, that you cannot talk about development anymore because you just found out about a more pressing issue. My suggestion would be to use this as an initiator to ask the question why you are only finding out about this now and why you have not realized it before. There is probably another hole that needs to be filled.
Second, and much more often, is the case that someone wants to use the conversation – especially if it is a very positive feedback – as a salary discussion. This is especially wrong as it will take away the whole focus from development.
Conclusion: Remove all distracting factors from the feedback conversation. After you have created the feedback structure that is fully linked to individual development, you can reflect on all ways that the development feedback has also been used for in the past – like salary negotiations or discussing team inefficiencies – and create spaces where these topics can be addressed, so they do not take away the focus from development: salary conversations in a regular salary cycle, team inefficiencies in team retrospectives or individual 1:1s and so on.
This is something I am quite sad about that I still get to hear this occasionally – even though it luckily does not happen a lot anymore. Unfortunately, even though so many of us work hard on changing this bad reputation that HR used to have, it still happens that people have a feeling of distrust or reservations in cases when HR people are involved in talking openly about their feedback. Some people can get the feeling like they are being monitored or that this is a tool of surveillance. This can show that these people are insecure, and it is important to find out why that is the case. Bad experience in the past could be a reason for this, just as much as a lack of psychological safety in your organization.
Conclusion: If you feel like this is an issue, have an honest conversation to really find out where this feeling is coming from and what you can do about it. Like in point 3 a bold move to go about this is to give the people the full ownership to decide about their own feedback and who they want to share it with.
As mentioned in the beginning, this is all my very personal experience and of course, every company is different. These are some of the lessons I learned and some things that we are now considering designing our own feedback process at agyleOS. It would be great to hear your experience on the topic and I am happy to keep you updated on how the suggestions I made above worked out for us!