feedback session

How to Develop a Feedback System That Actually Helps Your Team

March 25, 2022 Talent Management
jenn dennard
By Jen Dennard

We can all remember a time when we received some particularly helpful feedback from a teammate. Feedback often sticks with us because it changes how we think or approach different situations, and getting feedback from the people we work most closely with is often the most valuable — they know us and how we work the best.

For any healthy team, building an ongoing habit of feedback helps create a growth mindset for the team and allows you to achieve more together over time.

And yet, many teams struggle to develop a feedback system often entering failure modes of conflating feedback with performance reviews or doing feedback so infrequently that it fails to be useful.

At Range, we’ve invested in building systems to help our team consistently receive feedback and invest in their own growth. Here’s what we’ve learned along the way.

Separate Feedback From Performance Reviews

At many companies, feedback is only given formally as part of performance reviews. Through one lens, this timing makes sense. You’re delivering information to a teammate about themselves. But the goal of performance reviews and feedback are different: feedback is focused on the growth of the individual whereas performance reviews are meant to evaluate whether the employee is currently meeting the company’s expectations for their role — which may or may not align with what the teammate needs to grow on.

Now this is a slightly controversial point, so let’s take an example. Suppose a teammate is doing great at their job, easily exceeding expectations, but they struggle to collaborate with other teams. Now, their role doesn’t really require that cross-functional collaboration, but you know their personal goal is to eventually switch teams — so feedback around collaboration would be particularly helpful.

This example illuminates another aspect that gets lost when we conflate performance assessments with feedback: the employee’s goals. When we focus feedback on performance, we are equating what the company needs with what the employee wants, but those are often different though still aligned. 

Separating feedback from performance assessments is a good first step. This decision doesn’t mean the two processes have to be decoupled in terms of timing — just in terms of the inputs and questions asked to solicit the right information.

For example, at Range, for performance, we would ask a manager or lead to evaluate how well someone meets the expectations for their role and level. While for feedback, we would ask the manager or lead in addition to peers about what makes someone effective and how might they be more effective? These solicit different but related answers.

At Range, we use surveys to solicit the different information. Peers and leads receive one short survey (three questions) about how effective their teammate is, and leads receive an additional survey about whether the teammate is meeting expectations. To help with reducing bias, the manager will also schedule time with any other leads to discuss the expectations or performance assessments, plus they’ll request specific observations and examples to support the assessment. Finally, the manager schedules a long one-on-one with the candidate to discuss the feedback together and identify next steps.

At larger companies, surveys are still effective, as are meeting discussions, but it’s key for leaders to provide clear templates and guidelines for how to fill out feedback and educate the team on giving good feedback. At prior companies, I’ve led training sessions on when and how to deliver feedback — and even how to assess whether feedback is really needed. At Range, we rely mostly on written education as we’re still a small team.

Related Article: Be Purposeful in How You Connect With and Coach Others 

Remember: Make Feedback Accountable

One of our biggest learnings at Range has been that feedback on its own isn’t enough — it has to be connected to goals or it becomes meaningless.

Once a year, each teammate sets personal goals and uses feedback to learn how they are tracking towards those goals. Their manager partners with them to set those goals and to break them down into quarterly milestones they can achieve throughout the year.

We’ve learned that this goal setting process opens the door for more frequent feedback from managers and teammates because it gives permission for feedback. If a teammate is working hard to achieve a personal goal, it feels much easier to give pointers and ideas than to surface that information randomly.

These goals range from very specific goals like ‘become a manager’ to ‘transition careers’ — and this is where separating performance and feedback can be helpful, because it allows teammates to be honest about what they’re trying to work towards.

That said, performance and feedback should inform one another when necessary: at Range, if someone is missing expectations for their role, their primary goal for the next year is to improve performance to meet expectations. It’s when they’re meeting or exceeding expectations that we get to get creative and be open minded about their goals.

Related Article: What 2020 Taught Us About Being an Effective Leader

Build a Cadence of Feedback

Once you’ve decided to invest in a system of feedback, a key question is how frequent? At Range, we collect in depth feedback from multiple stakeholders once a year — more often feels too distracting for the team.

However, by pairing feedback with goals above, we can then set a cadence of checking in on the goals and providing lightweight feedback throughout the year. For us, a quarterly cadence of ‘official check-ins’ and more frequent feedback in 1:1s has worked well. In each case, the direct manager is the person responsible for collecting and sharing feedback. It can be overwhelming for a teammate to receive feedback from many different people, so the manager collects and compiles feedback into one document. In most cases, the manager even includes a personal reflection from the teammate (in other words, their feedback for themselves).

A tip we got from an advisor was to alternate 1:1s where once a month you focus on how the goals are trending and once a month you focus on just catching up and making sure your teammate feels supported.

Whatever cadence you select, consider creating templates and default formats for managers and teams to use — it helps lower the barrier for getting started and creates consistency.

Keep It Lightweight

As you think about these steps, remember that the best feedback system is the one you’ll actually use. Though focused more on performance management, Deloitte applied this principle when developing its system, and you can too. Don’t overcomplicate things to start. Keep it lightweight and simple, and start sharing feedback!

About the Author

Jen Dennard is the COO and co-founder of Range, the team success software used by Twitter, New Relic, CircleCI, and more to keep their teams in sync and connected (even during covid).

Prior to Range, Jen led the organization design team at Medium, deploying custom software and training to help scale the company.

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