Opinion: Creating a culture of feedback in three steps

by Dom Thurbon08 Jun 2016

As a principal or deputy, evidenced-based, comprehensive feedback is a powerful lever to enhance culture and performance within your school. Dom Thurbon provides a three step process to get feedback happening in your school: make it easy, remove risks, and create an inspiring “why”.
Why Feedback?

Today’s leaders in education face a wicked set of challenges that compel them to think differently about how they structure their schools and manage proliferating demands.

These demands are diverse – from disruptive technology, to regulatory shifts surrounding teacher development and accreditation, to heightened parental expectations. Yet they all pose the same underlying challenge for school leaders: to make change happen.

Change in teaching practice. Change in culture. Change in behaviour.

Research tells us that in the classroom there are few, if any, more powerful tools for improving student outcomes than feedback. We extend this idea to the organisational realm and argue that within schools, there is no more powerful tool of change than feedback.

A culture of feedback is a leader’s most important ally in making change happen in their school.

In fact, based on our experience of building some of the largest behaviour change programs in the world – working with nearly a million people a year in around 15 different countries – we would go so far as to suggest that change without feedback is impossible.

In this article, we share three things that we’ve seen help develop a culture of feedback. These are our answers to the question: “how can we, as school leaders, make feedback happen?”
  1. Make it easy
“If change is hard, you’re doing it wrong” - Kaizen saying

When trying to create behaviour change, perfection is the enemy of progress. Too often we see leaders focused on building the perfect system but actually creating complex and too-difficult solutions. When it comes to solution design, the question should not be ‘what is perfect?’, it should be ‘what is easy’?

If we can make the desired change easier than the status quo, we don’t need to convince anyone of anything. No one had to run a culture change program to get people onto Facebook. It was such an easy process – in fact, it made staying in touch with friends so much easier than the status quo that people flocked to the system.

If we can make doing feedback easier than not doing feedback, the same will apply.

School leaders need to pick feedback tools that have ‘easy’ built into their design principles. They must avoid DIY solutions that overwhelm the time of key people within the school (such as the patchwork quilts of SurveyMonkey, Google Docs and Excel spreadsheets we see all over the place!).

And they should make it easy to say ‘yes’ by making it hard to say ‘no’. That is, feedback should not be optional. There is no such thing as an ‘opt-in’ culture. By making feedback an expectation, we remove opt-out as an option.
  1. Remove risks
“We have nothing to fear but fear itself… and being fired, I guess” - Overheard at a feedback launch session

Recently we reflected on insights shared by nearly 100 different institutions that we’ve helped to implement feedback systems. The two objections most commonly raised by staff at the outset were: (1) We’re afraid the feedback will be used against us; and (2) We’re too busy for this.

Whether or not leaders view these concerns as valid, the reality is that they exist. Thus to build a culture of feedback, these concerns must be managed from the outset.

Two strategies can be highly effective in managing these fears.

First: we must make feedback safe. This often means putting aside philosophical beliefs about whether teacher feedback should be public or available to their leaders.  It means adopting the pragmatic approach and making feedback confidential, only for the recipient. At least in the early stages (because as culture evolves, this can change) this is an effective way of reducing or eliminating the perceived risk that feedback will be part of a punitive system of summative performance appraisal.

Second, with reference to the “too busy” objection, deploying feedback systems that are fast and simple plays a key role in facilitating change. Avoiding systems where teachers have to write their own questions, or trawl through Excel spreadsheets to understand their quantitative feedback, or struggle to interpret poorly designed graphs, facilitates adoption.

These things might sound basic, but a cursory glance at many schools’ approaches to feedback shows that some of these fundamental design principles are missing even from schools that have been doing feedback for quite some time.
  1. Create an inspiring “WHY”
“Those who have a ‘why’ … can bear with almost any ‘how” - Victor Frankl

Dr Peter Fuda, one of the world’s leading authorities of leader-driven transformation, argues that leaders must balance burning platform with burning ambition.

Showing deficiencies with the status quo (the ‘burning platform’) won’t compel people to embrace change.

We must also articulate an inspiring and emotionally engaging vision of the destination – one that makes people want to go on the journey (the ‘burning ambition’).

Leaders are an organisation’s most powerful storytellers. To create a burning ambition to adopt feedback, leaders need to craft and communicate compelling stories that show people why feedback is important.
There are many ways of doing this.

We can hold up champions who represent the type of change we want to see; people who are already on the journey. We can create a story by letting these people tell their stories.

We can build symbols of our progress or the change we’re trying to make. Think about a charity that has a big thermometer that fills up as donations are received – this is a great symbol of progress. What could your symbol be?

Steps in the right direction.

One approach stands above all others in creating a powerful story. Leaders can go first. If we really want to inspire people around feedback, we can role model the expected behaviours ourselves and be the first to adopt and welcome and respond to feedback.

After all, there is nothing more inspiring than a leader who holds themselves to the standards to which they hold the team.
For leaders striving to embed positive behaviour change in their school, Educator Impact provides innovative professional development programs that fuel a culture of feedback and empower educators to grow their professional practice. For further information, please visit educatorimpact.com