How to Create a Culture of Feedback

CEO Mentor Tom Brewer is big on feedback — and for leaders, he says, it takes a true commitment.

“The biggest concern for any organization should be when passionate people become quiet. You have to create a culture of openness, where people are honest and comfortable with giving feedback,” he says.

Prior to joining the Building Champions team in 2016, Brewer held a variety of senior executive positions with Ford Motor Company during his near 31 years of service. Most recently, he served as General Manager for Ford Motor Company in the Western United States (WMA), where he was responsible for 165 employees and 450 dealerships.

We sat down with Brewer to talk about the passion for feedback he brought to Ford, and how he used it to build a culture of “Fearless Feedback” throughout the WMA.

Why is feedback so important for teams and organizations?

Tom Brewer: In your personal and professional life, communication is key. If you talk about things, you work things out. And when you have clarity about what you’re supposed to be doing and how you’re supposed to be doing it, you have more confidence in how you deliver.

Nobody’s trying to do a bad job. Nobody comes into the office saying, “I want to do a bad job today.” But if they’re not told when they’re doing the wrong thing or how they can improve, then they’ll go on thinking they’re doing the right thing.

Too often a behavior with a negative impact is not addressed out of fear of how the feedback would be received, trust me, you can (and must) address the issues in a very specific, how to improve manner.

I like to give open, honest and ongoing feedback. When I first started doing this at Ford, people took it hard and as being too critical. They thought their career was going to be compromised until they realized I was doing it to help them and make them better — then they came asking for the feedback.

How did you start building a culture of feedback at Ford?

TB: I have a favorite saying “Don’t shoot the person until you have fixed the process.” So that is what we did, developed a process for open, honest and ongoing feedback.

We took Apple’s “Fearless Feedback” model and I “Fordized” it. We launched it in an All Employee Meeting, having several employees give examples, so it was not just top-down from me. We provided a “Pocket Card” with the “Why” and “How” and started executing the process in all group and 1:1 meetings.

A few of the “rules” and a brief description of the Fearless Feedback process is as follows:

First, you make sure the time and place are right to give one-on-one, in-person feedback by asking the person you’re talking to for permission to share Fearless Feedback with them. Then, you give specific positive and negative feedback, rather than general. Fearless Feedback is focused on reinforcing positive behaviors and redirecting negative behaviors.

Peer-to-peer is most effective. Fearless Feedback creates a culture where everyone contributes and is willing to change for the better. It’s also important to be a “good getter” of feedback. An employee should ask for direct and immediate feedback whenever possible.

Have you ever messed up in the process of trying to give feedback?

TB: We all have — usually because we tried to do it at the wrong time. You need to ensure the individual is ready and receptive, asking for permission is one of the rules. Additionally, a lot of leaders think that providing feedback in a public forum helps set the tone for the entire organization, however, the recipient is usually crushed. Fearless Feedback, being one-on-one and peer-to-peer allows everyone to address issues in a safe environment.

Another key mistake to avoid, providing feedback around rumors, perceptions and bias. Ensure you facilitate all feedback around specific example behaviors that can be seen or heard. Keep the feedback objective, work-related and actionable. Participants should also understand that only managers address certain types of behavior such as disciplinary or performance-related situations.

As you started to implement these changes, what difference did you see in the organization?

TB: Each month, we shared examples of Fearless Feedback initiatives and how it was being utilized in the company. Adoption was slow until everybody realized that they were all helping each other become better. Very few people have been involved in any process of feedback. Traditional top down feedback leverages only a fraction of the skills, processes, and knowledge of the organization’s human resource. Creating a Fearless Feedback culture allows the diverse skills and knowledge to be shared peer-to-peer, which creates an environment in which process improvement moves at an exponential rate.

Fearless Feedback creates many new communication paths and networks within an organization. Employees become closer and build a trust for each other that was not previously there. Since ambiguity is the enemy of execution, having clear, open and honest communication improved accountability and the overall performance of the team. With improved, open communication came a higher level of efficiency. Employees were much more likely to share and collaborate using feedback in a way the entire team would win.

Retention was also a huge benefactor from Fearless Feedback. People stayed because they felt like they were working as a team, trying to help each other. They knew where they stood, and they could be open with one another. It was truly a family like culture.

It’s not easy to build or change a culture, but with a commitment to the right process and great, compassionate leadership, it can be developed. They say it starts from the top — but if that’s not the case in your company or department, let it start with you. Remember, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

Learn more about CEO Mentor Tom Brewer.


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