The School Nutrition Association is moving toward a culture of feedback. By taking steps to help employees communicate better, the group hopes to increase innovation, revenue opportunities, and member engagement.
For many, the work-from-home conditions of the pandemic have brought into focus the importance of an organizational culture that puts employees in position to perform best. One way to achieve this environment is by fostering a culture of feedback, where it was readily given and received, says Rhea Steele, CAE, chief of staff for the School Nutrition Association (SNA).
“With a culture of feedback, you will actually see increased innovation because employees feel safer talking with other employees about how to problem solve, how to address an issue, or even just an idea that they had,” Steele said. “With greater innovation, you have additional opportunities for revenue.”
Steele, who previously worked at an organization with a strong culture of feedback, is using that knowledge to guide SNA. However, Steele also recognizes big changes don’t happen overnight, so SNA is deliberately moving in phases.
First, it moved away from annual evaluations with six-month check-ins to quarterly conversations to help ensure critical conversations are not delayed. SNA is also developing the structural backbone required to build a culture of feedback: strong personal connections.
“We are creating structured opportunities for the staff to hang out and get to know each other while we’re still in COVID, so they can stay connected,” Steele said. “By ensuring the individual human connections between everybody, it’s easier and safer to build in feedback.”
Next, Steele plans to layer in opportunities for feedback with game-based activities. “Structured activities help them get comfortable with receiving feedback first and then approaching somebody else with feedback next,” Steele said.
Eventually, staff will practice giving and receiving feedback, focusing on things like how to provide feedback in a one-on-one situation, how to manage their own emotions and reactions, and how to ensure conversations are productive.
Steel described what this looked like at her previous organization: “We had staff do a practice conversation and practice scenarios to get comfortable with the ideas in a situation that wasn’t actually emotion-driven,” she said. “We were creating a safe space for them to be uncomfortable with something where it didn’t hold day-to-day emotional meaning.”
While a culture of feedback can work for just a single department, it works best at the organizational level where it’s supported by executive leadership.
“This has to be driven from leadership,” Steele said. “The visible actions by the leader are what reinforce the culture. As with any culture change, if you verbalize something but are acting differently, the acting is what is going to rule the day.”
In addition, when leaders aren’t open to feedback, it stifles the process. “Sometimes, when the really challenging feedback comes into the leadership, they want to focus on, ‘Who said this?’ and rationalize or come up with reasons why it doesn’t need to be addressed,” Steele said.
Instead, it’s important to respond to all the feedback. Steele said organizations can share all the questions and responses. Many answers will be easy and straightforward. For tougher questions, she recommends acknowledging the question was heard and setting a later date for response, as leadership formulates an answer.
One reason SNA isn’t trying to rush its transition to a culture of feedback is to ensure leaders are fully trained. “As a leadership team, we want to make sure we are on the same page about how we are approaching feedback and how we are supporting it—that we are consistently supporting this culture in the same way across the leadership team,” Steele said.
For associations looking to implement a culture of feedback, Steele had a couple of recommendations. “Look around to see what elements of this culture already exist,” she said. “Look at those as the baseline and figure out how to become more intentional about those elements. How do we help that happen elsewhere [in the organization]?”
Second, hunt for deficiencies. “Where is the feedback lacking, and what are the opportunities to shift actions or behaviors?” she said. “Where do you have opportunities to shift communication in really small ways but that will lay the groundwork and help you build over time?”
A culture of true feedback transforms an organization. And it will even help your members. “When we wind up in this space, we provide much, much better service to our members, because as we are practicing our culture of feedback inside the organization, we are also doing it with our members,” Steele said.
What has your association done to make staff more comfortable both giving and receiving feedback? Share in the comments.