Thoughts about Feedback Culture for Nonprofits in 2023 (Part 1)

Amanda Luzzader

Feedback culture has been a sea change in corporate America.

The term “feedback culture” first entered the vernacular of U.S. business and corporate leadership as recently as 2016 (but probably somewhat earlier) when megacorp G.E. did away with its notoriously rigorous, anxiety-inducing annual employee evaluations. Before 2016, under the leadership of legendary old-school CEO Jack Welch, G.E. famously eliminated all employees who did not score high enough on their annual reviews. While CEO Welch downplayed the so-called “rank-and-yank” system by calling it “differentiation,” the G.E. employee evaluations were roundly despised, and not just by perspiring employees—G.E. managers thought of them as stressful, too, and very inefficient in terms of time and resources management. 

How did feedback culture begin?

The model that supplanted G.E.’s rank-and-yank system was new and revolutionary. It was based on high levels of communication, in which employees were evaluated in real-time throughout the year, and employees were given opportunities to meet goals and improve their performance more organically, as well as being permitted to provide feedback to their supervisors. Not only did this sea change transform the workplace culture at G.E., it was part of the movement we now know as feedback culture. 

This new way of communicating and providing feedback not only saved G.E. massive amounts of time and effort each year (not to mention doing away with what must have been tremendous amounts of employee trauma), it also generated lots of new corporate data, which was useful in many ways that had nothing to do with employee evaluations. Many large corporations in the United States had already embraced feedback culture by 2016, and many, many followed suit afterwards. For example, one boss and one worker exchanging feedback during a single annual employee review session generates an annual dataset that may contain useful information about the employee and their projects. However, in feedback culture, even if that employee and worker increase their feedback cycle to monthly rather than merely annually, their data set is now more than ten times richer, and will probably contain information on many more aspects of project work, goals, and productivity. 

The result has been a sea change in corporate America.

Feedback culture and nonprofit organizations

As it turns out, feedback culture is very much at home in nonprofit organizations. The way nonprofit organizations divide and share labor, and the importance of quick feedback cycles within the leadership of nonprofit organizations, makes feedback culture a very good fit. If your organization hasn’t already adopted feedback culture, this article can be used as a conceptual introduction. Here in the first part of this three-part discussion, we’ll introduce some of feedback culture’s basic principles and underlying ideas. In part 2, we’ll continue the discussion and identify how feedback culture can benefit a nonprofit organization. In the final part of this article, we’ll talk about what feedback culture looks like in practical terms.   

As is often the case in nonprofit culture, in feedback culture, two of the most important elements are communication and trust. Both supervisors and workers must work together to foster both of these elements. Supervisors must appropriately communicate correction and positive feedback, while workers must accept and acknowledge the feedback and reciprocate as needed. Supervisors must trust their workers to do their best and take initiative when appropriate, and workers must trust their supervisors to provide sound leadership and prioritize worker wellbeing. 

When applied in the proper ways and in the proper amounts, communication and trust will then result in a third important feedback-culture element, and one that is well-known and valued by those in the nonprofit sector: safety. In a setting where communication and trust are plentiful, supervisors and workers alike will feel safe, whether being evaluated or expressing their needs and objectives. 

Empathy and feedback culture

Empathy is a word that was probably not utilized very frequently if at all in the halls of pre-feedback-culture G.E., but is likely heard on a daily basis in nonprofit organizations. Many nonprofits subsist on empathy, and some are in the actual business of providing empathy, but in 2022 empathy is also a corporate buzzword. Think of it as the new “synergy,” “leverage,” or “verticalization.” Do a Google search for “corporate empathy,” and you’ll find a remarkable variety of thoughtful articles, blog posts, and advice columns on how to better use empathy in the workplace. However, when it comes to feedback culture, empathy isn’t just a buzzword, it’s a catalyst for rich, effective communication—continuous and real-time feedback loops will work well only if the communication and feedback is open, fair, understanding, and truly intended to help (instead of merely driving employees to do better). Think of it this way—no one wants to take the old model of the employee evaluation and repeat it every year. No, feedback culture is based not only on more-fluid, continuous communication, it’s based on communication that is better, more genuine, and welcomed by workers and supervisors alike.

As we swing into the end of 2022, you might be thinking of implementing or introducing changes in the way you hire employees, train volunteers, or organize project team, and chances are this involves feedback culture. Or maybe you’ve already introduced it but are looking for ways to improve and strengthen it. In the second part of this three-part article, we’ll examine the benefits of feedback culture for nonprofit organizations.

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