The comfort of informality

Imagine a moment you had recently when someone commented on something you did not do so well. What did you feel at that time? What did the person say or do that caused this feeling? For me receiving feedback was for a long time associated with negative feelings and misunderstandings. Yet, today I’m finding myself  on the forefront of creating a feedback culture within NOW.

Giving feedback can be easy, but do we actually reflect about how it is to be on the receiving end? In certain organizational cultures, feedback is a way of telling others how to behave, act or communicate better. In these cases the feedback is coloured by the one who gives feedback: it says more about the person giving ‘feedback’ than about the person receiving it. That is why, feedback is often not free of judgement, assumptions and expectations, causing unease and resistance on the receiving end.
However, feedback is also one of the most powerful tools we can use in collaboration and to grow as a team and organization and that’s why we’re committed to make it work at NOW.

Around twenty people are currently contributing actively to our work. Most of these team members are volunteers and contribute few hours every week to NOW. Not everyone has the same level of involvement or bigger picture and not everyone has the same amount of professional experience. In a team where the different ages range from 18 to 40 years old and where people are from 9 different countries, diversity is a true challenge – especially when it comes to feedback. To add to these challenges each of us works in a different country in the world and in their own time. To face these challenges we are currently developing a new structure to support us in our work and we feel the need to develop a new organizational culture.

Understanding your team members makes it a whole lot easier to work together. Particularly in self-managed organizations, like NOW, without a hierarchic boss-subordinate line, feedback is a key element of progressing as an organization.

In self-managed organizations everybody together decides what best practices are, and how to appoint budgets and responsibility. That needs people that are responsible enough to take the lead on one occasion and follow the lead on another. For this to work well one needs to understand their team members: what makes them tick, what values do they have, what understanding do they have of the shared work. It also takes respect for different ways of thinking and acting. And it helps to respect the varying ways people feel about certain topics, work related tasks, other people, authority figures, themselves et cetera. Practising feedback aiming to enlarge understanding thoughts, feelings and behavior of team members is a powerful way to grow together. That is why we want to create a culture where feedback is welcome and encouraged.

When people want to develop new behavior they tend to look for ‘tools’ to use. And that, I learned, can be tricky. I am referring to the ‘tools’ you can find on the internet like: ‘Always give one negative feedback point accompanied with at least three positive feedback points to level the negative one out’. Wow, I would be challenged to do that! Usually I feel an urge or get an impulse to give feedback. I know it is good to count to ten first, relax and maybe even find a better moment, but if I’d also need to come up with at least three positive things, there is a big chance they will be made up and sound artificial. People will feel that and respond negatively to it. In short, it needs a skillful person to wield a tool effectively. That’s why you have to practice, you’ll find that there are ways of saying exactly what you want to say in a caring and supporting manner. We have to start practising, all from our own starting point.

We have learned that it can be a struggle to create a safe enough environment where people feel free to start give and receive feedback. Organizations that have already been around for years usually have developed a certain culture. And this very culture can be keeping the people from giving feedback or creating the needed safe environment. So we want to avoid this and actively develop our culture.

When we first started feeling tensions and unspoken feelings in our team, we made a very common mistake: We believed that to create a healthy feedback culture, all we needed to do is to plan it. We thought that without a specific space and time, it just wouldn’t happen. But if you plan an official feedback meeting, the pressure is on. And chances are that the feedback will be ill-given and -received and that not everyone will be ready for it at that given time.

I believe a successful feedback culture is built on honest self-reflection of everyone involved. Each team member has to take up the responsibility for this honest self-reflection. That needs both courage and trust of everyone. Courage, while this is a daunting task and trust, while you are showing a vulnerable side of yourself to team members.

That’s why the practice of feedback needs the right setting, the right moment and the comfort of informality. Team members will need to know and trust that all members appreciate each other. While we started creating a setting for feedback we realized, we were not actively practising appreciation. And as said, we made the mistake of organising feedback moments lacking the needed comfort of informality. We learned from that and now want a feedback moment to feel like a moment of growth and not like a moment of judgement.

Right now we are experimenting with ‘keepers’ of our NOW values. Some team members are paying extra attention to our values and behavior that is fitting or not fitting to our wished culture. They are free to speak up about it and everyone knows that they do it in their role of value keeper. Another way we want to build our culture is the implementation of small reflection groups where we do informal reflection and peer reviewing of work and behavior. Here we have the informal comfort and practise active listening and proactive feedback.

So, at NOW, we find the development of our feedback culture both exciting and challenging! But if we are to facilitate our participants learning these 21st century skills in our NOW Journey we want to walk the talk. That’s what we want our culture to be about. We are united by our drive and mission and therefore my guess is that we will rock this!