How River Island created a feedback-friendly culture

Oliver · 27 Feb

Scrapping traditional performance management in favour of a more feedback-friendly approach is a tough task. But one that can yield big results. We caught up with someone who's been there, done it and got the buy-in.

Successful communication is what got humans where we are today. Our ability to give and receive constructive criticism lets us organise and progress towards bigger and better things. It’s little wonder then that behind most successful people, teams and organisations is a considered approach to feedback.

While this may sound obvious on paper, it’s all too easy to elude the task of giving and receiving feedback on a daily basis because it takes effort, and demands a degree of emotional intelligence.

Honest feedback may cause a few uncomfortable conversations at first, but this in itself demonstrates value and trust. The candid dialogue empowers both managers and employees to put forward their best ideas and hone each other’s performance.

The problem with annual reviews

Forward-looking HR teams have been busy scrapping the annual review process in favour of something more fluid and collaborative for a while now.

When check-ins are few and far between, the opportunities for managers to shape employee behaviours and drive performance are limited. Whereas continual and ‘in the moment’ feedback strengthens manager-employee relations and supports rapid development.

River Island is three years into a transformation from a traditional performance management approach towards a coaching style of support and feedback. Nebel Crowhurst, Head of Talent at River Island, said the principle behind the change is the notion that meaningful conversations should be happening all the time, rather than solely during the end of year appraisal.

“It stops the last minute scrabble for evidence and paperwork,” she explains, “as well as the harsh deadlines often set by HR that dictate when appraisals and development conversations need to happen.”

This approach gives more ownership to both line managers and employees, and enables performance to be nurtured more attentively.

Upending the status quo

Cultural change takes time, especially when the thing you’re trying to change has likely never been questioned. Successfully shaking up the way people interact with each other requires continued support. By guiding both line managers and employees through the process, River Island's HR team has improved the way the organisation operates, as explains Nebel. “People are working in a way that’s far more empowered. There's less of a mindset of directive management and more collaboration.

“There's much more open conversation taking place in the business. And when managers are having one-to-ones with their people, the discussion isn’t simply about the task in hand, but also the happiness of the employee. This has had a knock-on effect to general wellbeing.”

Getting stakeholders on board

For most organisations, creating a feedback-friendly culture is a radical step. And as with any organisational change, you’ll need to secure the buy-in of all involved.

As an entrepreneurial spirited and family-run business, change agents within River Island were perhaps better placed than most to spearhead the movement. But it wasn’t without challenges. Nebel explains how River Island’s performance management transformation required numeric evidence, from outside and inside the organisation. “We looked out at the external landscape and what was going on in other businesses.

“We looked at what was and wasn't working round our own performance management approach – and the evidence and data that demonstrated this was the case. We then suggested a new way of working.”

Nebel puts the success of the transition down to the fact the organisation was brave enough to operate in a less rigid way. However it’s also important to stress that the change isn’t set in stone – it isn’t about changing one process for another. Everyone involved should be ready to learn and adapt, and make continual improvements to the way they communicate.

Tracking improvements in performance management

Democratising feedback is about improving performance management. While a longer term measure of success could be individual career development, HR and line managers must first study personal goals and employee engagement. In line with dropping the rigidity of annual reviews, to do this they must think beyond the yearly employee surveys.

Engagement or pulse surveys enable users to input questions specific to the initiative they’re reviewing. Nebel explains how River Island introduced a series of questions to help determine how opening up its feedback culture impacted engagement and performance.

“We’ve been tracking measures around general employee engagement and also feedback indicators,” she explains. “Specific questions are aligned to performance management and our new approach, meanwhile others explore how people feel about the developmental feedback they receive from their line manager. There are also questions around the effectiveness of one-to-ones and the quality of career development meetings.”

Learning from feedback

These markers have already revealed a rise in employee engagement, something Nebel puts down to River Island's openness to change. “We have begun to prize learning. We now recognise the value in taking time to develop employees, role modelling and encouraging teams to continually develop their skills.

From an attraction standpoint, Nebel points to the importance of company culture in the current climate. “If we're able to externally show that our culture supports career development and that we put our people at the forefront of the way we operate, then we have huge competitive advantage.”

Nebel believes that to maintain this feedback culture, HR needs to become an expert communicator. “Part of our role [as L&D and HR professionals]," she says, "is being able to demonstrate that value and the impact our work is having on the business. Often people who are more focussed on the numbers of the business do not see the correlation between the positive impact of coaching and bottom line results. HR and L&D need to demonstrate the value of culture.”

Last thing...

The move towards a feedback-friendly culture must start from the top. Managers should encourage people to ask questions and speak up. HR, meanwhile, need to teach the organisation that feedback means constructive guidance, rather than criticism.

When organisational goals are shared and everyone knows the value of their individual contribution, motivation and trust are boosted.

To hear more from Nebel on creating feedback-friendly cultures, come along to our webinar on Thursday 15th March at 1PM. Register here to listen live, or to receive the recordings.

Feedback culture

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