Mentoring: Securing a healthy feedback culture in a modern organization
  • 10. August 2018
  • 7 min read
Mentoring4
Flat hierarchies, a more democratic work culture and autonomous team organization are blessings for a new generation of knowledge workers. But the extinction of hierarchy layers can cause a leadership vacuum and a consequent lack of feedback.

Isn’t it nice working for a company that relies on flat hierarchies? There are autonomous task forces instead of isolated divisions reporting to higher tiers and await confirmation for every action. You get to decide more, accomplish more, learn more and you get to work more freely. In this land of milk and honey, there’s also a menace lurking which only takes noticeable effect in the long run: you might be left without valuable feedback for too long.

Many organizations, especially small and medium enterprises operating in the huge software and web environment, claim to be organized in a lean and agile way, with flat hierarchies. So do we. Over the last decade or so, this enabled a new approach to working and a new mindset in young, talented knowledge workers regarding how they want to structure their life and work.

An open, mostly hierarchy-free company organization that allows for flexible teams to work on problems autonomously can support these people and prompt great outcomes in less time compared to traditional team or department structures. No big news, still worth mentioning for what is to follow.

Securing the pillars of the company.

While this is certainly a development to be happy about, since more responsibility fosters self-driven knowledge building, it may — but must not necessarily — be accompanied by some drawbacks regarding professional feedback by who used to be your product manager, department head or whoever let you know about the quality of what you produced. Or put differently: it’s vital to receive regular and prompt assessment of the way you produce results because it helps you identify the tasks worth addressing to improve personally and professionally.

Even the most self-aware person cannot assume a position other than their own, which will always leave them not recognizing all of their shortcomings…or maybe their potential.

Sure, there’s your colleagues and team mates. But, being stuck in a task together, you seldomly talk openly to them about what really causes a period of stagnation, or allow them to be critical to the point where they identify your weaknesses in a way which makes you want to work on them. At least not in the course of discussing why an overdue feature cannot be shipped yet — these situations simply don’t leave enough room for that. Criticism from your peers in these stressful situations is mostly perceived as an attack and causes the opposite of what it is intended to.

The simple way around this is to create a setup in which critical exchange on work-related topics is wilfully expected.

In our opinion this needs to exceed having everyone heard and encourage them to express their opinion freely. I mean, we do involve each and everyone in developing our company and everyone can easily take a strategic topic and make it their own, consequently having an impact on our company culture. Just as everybody is expected to speak openly in meetings without being shut up by anyone who’s more experienced. But that’s just the company-wide pillar of supporting an open feedback culture. The other one is the individual layer underpinning everything.

No need for a leader to tell you you can do better.

At Railslove we’re organized in task forces that work on projects autonomously. We once started with three co-founders and executives ten years ago, who were actively involved in projects, writing code together with the then smaller team and thus being able to throw feedback around at all times. Two of them have now retreated or partly shifted focus to other projects, leaving us with one full-time CEO, Tim, who takes care of filling the sales funnel while handling loads of other organizational stuff — and gave up most of the coding. This slowly led us to what a colleague once called a Leadership Vacuum. Okay, but what does that actually mean?

Leadership Vacuum describes a situation where employees are in danger of experiencing a lack of systematic feedback and targeted facilitation of personal and professional skills that was traditionally provided by their “superiors”.

This vacuum built up gradually but at one point we became aware of a change in feedback culture that could potentially do harm, not only to each and everyone’s individual progress but, in the long run, also to the company, for the above mentioned reasons. We had to do something about it.

As Tim knew he was not the only one worthy and able of giving valuable feedback, we tried building an active, mututal feedback culture to make up for missing back-channelling as found in traditional organizations. In the beginning I indicated that company culture is changing and while workers are more independent, they also need to develop all new skills — partly assuming responsibilities that were once a boss-thing belongs to these skills. So we clearly communicated the following:

The task of facilitating progress in each and every coworker is in the hands of each and every coworker.

As with thousands of other companies, we are a mix of some experienced seniors and quite a few juniors, most of which are developers but also a bunch of designers, a small sales team, an even smaller marketing team, a couple of students. And all of us with lots of interests, proficiency and more or less on-the-job-experience. Plus — most importantly — very different personal traits and experiences that shape our characters and abilities to cope with different situations. A pool of knowledge and advice that’s waiting to be tapped.

Why not go for a tandem model to let knowledge and advice flow? That’s how we started our internal mentoring program.

Make room for intentional feedback.

The way feedback can happen at work heavily differs. There’s nice feedback burgers, there’s plain criticism and sometimes there’s protectionist whitewashing. All of these can have positive effects if applied purposely and will do harm if absent completely. Although there’s always room for improvement regarding soft skills (like giving feedback in a sensitive way), it’s most important that feedback is actually perceived as providing valuable information.

by Miguel Á. Padriñán Mentoring is not about forcing feedback upon someone, it's about strong relationships and valuable feedback.

In the old days, a higher-tier person would often force their “feedback” on people, with a lot of it still sticking and having people change accordingly — if not always voluntarily and also not always for the better.

Today, for us mostly unrestricted knowledge workers, change and progress need to come intrinsically. We are free in how we work — but regular feedback doesn’t come for free anymore.

To keep organizational effort as low as possible, we just went ahead and created a Dropbox Paper doc where everyone was asked to assign themselves to be mentor and mentee of someone. Regardless of position and experience, there’s no way around being mentored by someone. Ever since, people meet for a morning coffee or breakfast, for a drink after work or just retreat to a quiet place in the office to talk — roughly once a month for whatever time it takes.

The mentoring model provides a great tool for personal improvement and strengthens relationships as well as provides extended insights into the company for everyone. You don’t necessarily tell your mentor about why you are struggling to build a date picker or shipping profiles but about how you feel at work or personally and how this could be improved. We encourage everyone to be as open as possible as long as they feel comfortable.

This really simple method improves relationships between coworkers that mentor each other but also shows all employees in your company that really everyone has the need to talk about certain things. If advice consists of a specific solution to a technical problem, self-improvement methods or just a tap on the shoulder and some kind words…people strengthen each other in multiple ways.

Noone is too cool to be a mentee. Period. And if they think so, they are dead wrong. Go ahead and mentor your way out of the feedback desert.

If you want to find out more about types and effects of mentoring we recommend the following articles and podcasts

Moderne Teamführung und permanente Wissensteilung: New Work im Konzern mit Christian Schmidtchen, Arbeitsphilosophen - Die Zukunft der Arbeit (Podcast in German)

"Improve Workplace Culture With A Strong Mentoring Program", Forbes Magazine

What the Best Mentors Do, Harvard Business Review