Has our inability to give and hear feedback become the silent cancer of our organisations?

In the past 2 weeks I have worked in 3 very different organisations and cultures. One an Executive in the C suite of an organisation in the European Financial Sector, another a Global Organisation seeking to achieve system wide change and a Not for Profit organisation focusing on working with disengaged young people.


Given how different these organisations are in terms of what they do and what they are seeking to achieve, there was one issue that was absolutely consistent and that issue was the big unspoken F word  –




It is by no means new to me that people struggle with feedback – both giving and receiving it.  In particular when it is across different levels of hierarchy.


What struck me during my conversations was that our inability to give and hear open and honest feedback has become the silent cancer of most, if not all, organisations. Part of me wondered if it was the nature of my work that made this issue come to the fore but then I saw an article this week about Labour Party staff who are threatening to strike over what in essence sounds like yet again an inability to speak up, be heard and challenge the status quo.


So what on earth is going on and how do we break this – as individuals as well as organisations?  I believe the route is to focus on two core aspects:


Change how we think about it

Feedback has become such a loaded word and concept – embedded within it are all kinds of beliefs and assumptions. Some of which you will be familiar with and have heard or used before – you are wrong and I am right, you have acted like an idiot on purpose, I have had no role to play in how you behaved, you are aware of what you have done wrong and are just too stubborn to accept it, it is extremely dangerous if you have any real or perceived power over me, you will not be able to change (we all know people can’t change), I am afraid of making it worse, surely someone else has told you this. Given the amount of baggage we hold on to it is no wonder that we relentlessly fail to deal with feedback, or do it well!


I believe the first step to resolving this is to work together on how to conceptually understand feedback and how to work with it, before finding a situation where you actually need to give it. This is not an easy journey and can take time and expertise to navigate; but failure to do so will ensure that you maintain a culture where the lack of feedback is killing your organisation far faster than your competition ever could!


Change how we develop the ability to work with it

Feedback should be a team or group activity not  just an individual one. If we fail to see that it is a result of our interactions with each other (which we all play a role in) that the need for feedback arises, then it will remain a one-sided thorny issue to tackle. Therefore, developing the capacity to work with feedback within groups who need to work together, including senior leaders, is essential. A core aspect of this is to help the group get very clear on the purpose of feedback. A great example of this I recently experienced, from a youth worker in one of organisations I mentioned above was:  “The purpose of providing feedback is plain and simple – it is to ensure that every young person works with the best possible calibre of youth worker. Therefore, all feedback needed to be given and heard with that purpose in mind.”


How would your organisations and life be different if all the conversations that needed to happen just did?


This blog was written by Charles Irvine, Managing Director of Questions of Difference.

A conceptual futurist, affirmatively disruptive philosopher and organisational resultant