The Role of Feedback in the Learning Organization

We learn by giving and receiving feedback. As such, feedback loops are integral to Learning Organizations, allowing dynamic businesses to be receptive to change, on an individual, team and company-wide level. The result? Greater adaptability in an evolving marketplace, increased employee engagement and commercial prosperity.

It might not be a new idea, but Peter Senge’s concept of Learning Organizations (from his book The Fifth Discipline) rings as true today as it did thirty years ago. 

The benefits of transforming your business into a Learning Organization are numerous; strengthening team dynamics and productivity, driving future-proofed commercial prosperity and enhancing creative vision on all seniority levels.

Whilst some believe the Learning Organization mindset better suits certain industries — services, for instance, where human capital is by far the most valuable asset — there are undeniably lessons to be learned for every business in operation today. And what’s the secret to making the shift? Feedback. Without feedback — continuous, unabridged and across the board — a Learning Organization cannot thrive.

To start, what is a Learning Organization? And how do you know if you work for one?According to Senge, there are five dimensions or disciplines of a Learning Organization:

According to Senge, there are five dimensions or disciplines of a Learning Organization:

  • Systems thinking
  • Personal mastery
  • Mental modes
  • Building shared vision
  • And Team learning

Let’s unpack each of those in more detail:

Systems thinking

It’s easy to think of businesses as systems; the way a business is built, operates and continues into success or dissolution requires an effective set of systems to be put in place.

What’s not always so readily acknowledged, however, is the many number of systems within a business which work together, day by day, to create an organization which flourishes. These systems interact with one another in often extremely complicated and nuanced ways.

To get an accurate picture of these systems and their interactions, requires a deep understanding of the aggregate, as well as the components — similar to how a doctor perceives the human body. Senge suggests the use of system maps, to illustrate how the various systems within an organization network together. This can also help highlight how, and when, systems need to evolve; when annual review processes can be improved by continuous performance management, for example.

Personal mastery

Openness to learning starts with the individual. If each team member can master the ability to give and receive feedback, respond to this feedback and evolve in a way that enhances their performance, then the organization as a whole will benefit.

Senge explains that this vision should be not only professional, but personal as well; concretely aligning team and member goals and objectives can help support this mission.

Mental models

How do you see the world?

It’s a fiercely complex question to answer because — a lot of the time — how we perceive our surroundings is an amalgamation of conscious and subconscious, known and unknown, inherent and learned behaviors and prejudices. The lens through which we view the world is inherently subjective, as is the thought processes we use to make sense of it. However, that doesn’t mean that we can not change that lens to view things in a different way or from a different perspective. To do so, we must access these mental models in order to challenge and develop them. Without a keen understanding of our personal mental models, we cannot make space for new ideas and changes, and we will continuously fall victim to our own personal biases.

Building shared vision

Leaders and managers must appreciate that their mental models, and their visions for the business, may not necessarily be shared by those in their team. Dictation doesn’t motivate employees; communicating and executing a shared vision does.

And, as with feedback, a continuous approach to vision sharing has best results. Rather than hosting an annual company conference, to talk teams through the new vision for the year ahead, ensure the strategic vision trickles down to each and every conversation and manifest itself in each and every shared goal. Employees who see leaders embody — and personally work toward — the desired company direction, will more easily support the organization in its success.

Team learning

Lastly — and the pinnacle of the Learning Organization — is team learning. When team members think together, working toward common goals, they create a collaborative environment; making way for company wide innovation and positive change.

If you hold a mirror up to your organization, to what extent does its ways of working support these disciplines? Which of the following personifies your attitude to growth: “There has to be a better way”, or “This is the way it’s always been done”.

If it’s the former: your business is already adopting at least some of the Learning Organization approach. If it’s the latter: you may have some work to do, if you want to reap the benefits other Learning Organizations enjoy.

Learning Organizations have three key advantages…

Follow the principles laid out by Learning Organizations, and you should see an improvement in employee engagement — including shared accountability, heightened productivity and minimal turnover — an increase in collaborative innovation and a stronger competitive advantage within your industry.

Employee engagement can be an issue for many modern businesses, and disengaged teams cost US companies up to $550 billion a year

Not only will investing in employee satisfaction and motivation drive profit — an increase of 21%, according to a Gallup study — but it can help increase retention rates too. In a corporate landscape where the most prominent demographic, Millennials, are characterized by their propensity to jump from job to job, this can make all the difference. These improvements amounts to stronger competitive advantage, and in the words of Peter Senge: “The only sustainable competitive advantage is an organization's ability to learn faster than the competition.”

Learning, and learning as a team, is the very crux of the Learning Organization. And at the core of ongoing learning and development, is feedback.

Why feedback has such an integral role

Establishing a culture of feedback doesn’t happen overnight, but it does work to great effect.

Feedback serves as a catalyst for learning; if you don’t ask questions of your organization, and the people driving it, you miss an opportunity for learning and development. As the Johari  window makes clear, feedback from others helps us understand what we don’t know about ourselves.

And as a result, the feedback process can be intimidating.

Giving and receiving feedback doesn’t always feel comfortable, but with the right systems and strategies in place, everyday feedback loops can be implemented easily and adopted quickly, both externally and internally.

Customer feedback improves products and services in a huge myriad of ways — to explain them here would likely be preaching to the choir.

But did you know that 65% of employees would like more feedback than they are currently getting? This is a desire that should and can be addressed.

And you should think about the kind of feedback you provide to your team. Senge himself has a strong view on workplace performance management and appraisal, saying:

“Our prevailing system of management has destroyed our people. People are born with intrinsic motivation, self-respect, dignity, curiosity to learn, joy in learning [..] On the job, people, teams, and divisions are ranked, reward for the top, punishment for the bottom. Management by Objectives, quotas, incentive pay, business plans, put together separately, division by division, cause further loss, unknown and unknowable.” 

Extrinsic feedback — financial reward, for instance — may provide some transient incentive, but if you want to inspire employees long-term, it has to be intrinsic too. Don’t be afraid to tackle emotion; how does it feel to be in the job you’re in? How would you like to feel in the future?

Emotionally intelligent feedback provides ample lessons for the individual and the team.

So whose job is it to push for the external and internal feedback which drives businesses forward?  The CEO’s? The board’s? HR’s?

Whilst leaders have a responsibility to set an example, a feedback culture will only take off if every single member of the team gets on board.

Managers must lead by example, to get company-wide buy in

“You cannot force commitment, what you can do…You nudge a little here, inspire a little there, and provide a role model. Your primary influence is the environment you create.” ― Peter Senge

Put simply: the role of business leaders is to motivate, inspire and embody the principles of Learning Organizations. 

By doing so, you encourage similar performance from the rest of your team. As the famous adage says, “You cannot be what you cannot see”.

Lead by example, and you lead your team toward success.

And how do you do this? Remember that actions speak louder than words; listen to your team, take responsibility for aspects that need improving and — always — be open to learning. 

A leader who is seen to be receptive and responsive to change, inspires a similar mindset from their team. And it’s this open-minded view to evolution that underpins the Learning Organization.

Incremental changes you can make today, to shift into a Learning Organization

We’ve dealt with some pretty lofty concepts in this article, but we don’t want you to be left thinking, “Where do we go from here?” Especially as small steps amount to a great deal in the journey to becoming a Learning Organization.

As well as leading by example, here are some incremental changes you can make today:

1. Hire and inspire for curiosity

In order to learn, we must ask questions. Yet, 66% of team members say they face barriers to asking more questions.

Whether you’re fresh-faced startup, or a long established conglomerate, continuous learning and innovation is required to stay in the game.

In recruitment, screen applicants for spirit of enquiry, rather than hiring purely on qualifications and professional experience. And, once in the team, nurture that inquisitive nature.

And, as we’ve seen, listen to those questions and act on them. Remember: lead by example.

2. Be prepared for failure, and learn from it

When we ask questions, we open ourselves up to improvement, but also to failure. But as we all know, failure has great worth in business; only by failing — and failing fast — do we learn what works and what doesn’t.And this perspective is key in the Learning Organization too.

Don’t be afraid to fail, prepare for it in fact.

Consider it feedback.Using a build-measure-learn loop, regardless of company size and lifecycle, means that if — or when — you do hit an obstacle, you can redesign and push forward with a honed approach.

3. Give timely, intelligent and actionable feedback

As we’ve seen, a Learning Organization cannot operate without continuous feedback.

Some employees shy away from feedback, but usually because the right systems aren’t place to encourage, support and gain value from appraisal.

By making it simpler and more comfortable for employees to provide regular, 360 feedback — for their peers, their seniors and, indeed, themselves — an intelligent feedback loop is established.

How? The in-built feedback tools on Duuoo’s software platform provide this, any many more, features of continuous performance management. 

With reminder notifications, you’ll never forget to store timely feedback — whilst it’s still fresh in your mind — and the smart feedback prompts will help even the most hesitant of team members provide rich review remarks for their colleagues.

Get in touch today to find out how Duuoo can enhance your company’s feedback process and set you on the path towards becoming a Learning Organization.

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