Fostering a Learning Culture Turns Constructive Feedback into Positive Behavior

The expectation for government HR managers to do more with less isn’t a temporary adjustment. It is the new normal.
Jessica Jones, CivicPlus | May 1, 2018 AT 7:00 AM
Two people interviewing another, while looking at his resume.

Fostering a learning culture takes a great deal of deliberate practice and time. For human resources managers in government sectors, this time and effort can have a particularly impactful return on investment. With a constant need to do more with fewer staff, lower budgets, and less time, putting that time and effort into creating and sustaining a learning culture is one of the most significant ways we can get the best work out of our employees. Within a learning-driven organization, negative feedback is seen as constructive feedback. Moreover, constructive feedback comes from coaches who are there to help employees put their best foot forward and grow to their fullest potential—not bosses evaluating their employees. When our employees grow to their fullest potential, everyone wins.

Traditional Annual Review Processes Hinder Growth and Effectiveness

One important step in creating a learning culture at your organization is to give the traditional annual review process a major overhaul. The problem with once a year performance reviews is their negative effect on both those delivering the reviews and those receiving them. Human resources managers often report that they do not feel equipped to deliver effective reviews. When we only use the skills required to provide feedback once a year, they are not skills we will ever master. So, it is not likely that managers using these systems will improve upon that feeling only completing annual reviews. Employees receiving feedback in the traditional annual review processes often voice concerns that the feedback is not timely does not give them opportunities to improve or collaborate, and creates a feeling of them versus the reviewer. So, why are we keeping these practices that are not truly benefiting anyone?

While these may seem like some very overwhelming problems to overcome, making a few changes to the review process can stir up some very positive results. Here are some key changes to consider:

Continuous Improvement Management Systems in a Learning Culture

Research shows that modern employees are not satisfied with once a year feedback. In today’s fast-paced culture, those review systems do not allow for sufficient growth opportunities, hindering career advancement and overall personal improvement. In true learning cultures, we replace these ineffective systems with regular coaching sessions.

While an annual review meeting might involve a boss or human resources manager sitting down to deliver both positive and negative feedback for a whole year, coaching sessions within a continuous performance management system go more in-depth and are much more frequent. To successfully execute a coaching session, managers must remember to create two-way dialogue. Provide feedback, whether positive or constructive and then take the time to formulate a plan for improving shortcomings and leveraging strengths in ways that bolster your organization’s work toward goals and request the employee’s feedback and assistance. Frequency should be determined by the needs of the employee and his or her growth within the organization, but make sure to meet with all your direct reports at least quarterly.

Prepare for Coaching Sessions in Advance

Coaching conversations are most effective when they have a purpose and a direction. Make sure that you clearly outline the goal of each session before sitting down with your employee. No matter what kind of feedback you are providing, it is beneficial to give specific examples of the behavior or work that was either impressive or needs improvement. Have these specific examples collected and ready to provide during the session. Citing particular examples allows your employee to realize better ways in which he or she can improve through direct actions.

It is also important to prepare the employee for the conversation before starting. When you first begin, briefly outline what feedback you have for the individual and what you would like to get out of the session. Explaining what your end-goal is in the beginning of the meeting will help keep the discussion focused and direct the conversation. This technique can be particularly beneficial if the feedback is constructive. Beginning with why the conversation is important helps prevent the feedback from seeming negative and personal and moves the tone, instead, to one of encouragement and improvement. As time wears on (or if you are working with high performers who have more to leverage than improve), it will also be beneficial to ask what goals the employee has for your regular coaching sessions. The learning culture is a mutually beneficial environment,

Addressing Improvements in Attitudes

In HR, we are often asked how to best address feedback regarding poor attitudes, demeanor, or coworker disagreements. The key with feedback of this nature is to focus on specific behaviors and their effects. For example, it would not be very constructive to state “Your team thinks you are negative.” Blanket statements like this are likely to put anyone on the defensive. Instead, try something like, “In our meeting yesterday, you stated that you were not willing to try a change in process. This comment made your team feel as though you were not willing to help work toward improvement.”

By voicing concerns this way, we make two statements that are facts—not judgments. The first fact is that the specific employee made a statement that they were unwilling to assist in a process change. The second fact is how that statement made the team feel. Regardless of what the employee may say, he or she cannot refute the fact that they made the team feel that way, regardless of their intentions. Then, try following up with something like “I’d like to help you change this perception and overcome your objections to change. How can we do that?” This approach sets the stage for a collaborative solution.

Set a Strategy Together

The key word here and the major difference between the traditional annual review process and continuous performance management is “together.” Instead of laying out what you have observed and simply stating that you expect a behavior to continue or be corrected, it is critical that we collaborate on a strategy for moving forward. Asking for the employee’s assistance in creating a strategy for addressing issues or leveraging strengths creates buy-in from the very beginning and, in turn, more drastic improvements.

Maybe you have told an employee that you need to see an improvement in the quality of reports that they are submitting to another department. You might begin formulating the strategy by telling the employee some of the things you can do to help. Perhaps you can review his or her next three reports and provide feedback or instruct a more senior member of the team to do so. Alternatively, maybe discussing moving the deadline from noon to the end of the day with the other department’s manager might be beneficial. Establish how you are going to support your employee and then ask what steps he or she plans to take to make improvements. Agree upon what actions you both are going to take and then review the results at your next session. This process sets up the expectation that the employee is going to continue to seek growth and improvement and that you are going to support that effort. Together, these steps help set the stage for the beginning of a learning-driven culture.

Establishing a Learning Driven Culture Will Benefit Your Entire Community

When you and your employees are focused on constant learning and improvement, the dynamic shifts from personal need to just get a job done to a group dedicated to the betterment of your community. It is critical for the success of your organization that you foster the growth and development of your teams so that they can best meet the needs of your residents. Providing regular feedback and coaching makes these conversations less difficult and more productive. Be sure to not only include what the benefit is to the employee in your discussions but also how you are working together to create positive outcomes for everyone that you serve.

About the Author 

Jessica Jones 

As Learning & Development Manager, Jessica is primarily responsible for the employee learning, development, and onboarding programs at CivicPlus®. Her expertise in stimulating enhanced employee growth and performance has been influential in helping CivicPlus maintain its annual ranking as one of the Inc. 5000 fastest-growing private companies in the United States. Over the past three years, Jessica has worked to shape the training and leadership development programs at CivicPlus, which have served as key components of the company’s employee retention strategy.

A former department manager at CivicPlus, Jessica’s past leadership experiences have also helped her to gain a comprehensive understanding of the needs of both individual contributors and managers from a training and development perspective. Her passion for learning and commitment to ensuring all CivicPlus employees reach their full growth potential has allowed CivicPlus to continually achieve its corporate goal of retaining some of the best talent in the technology industry.