Gurleen Baruah, Founder, That Culture Thing

Gurleen Baruah, Founder, That Culture Thing

Gurleen Baruah is a Business Psychologist and the founder of the management consulting outfit called That Culture Thing ( She is passionate about finding solutions to business problems using behavioural interventions. Her approach to problem-solving is to go in-depth of the issue and tackle them from the core.

Having been a part of the Human Capital Consulting space for the last 10 years, Gurleen has worked for brands like OPPO, EY, Mettl Mercer, Larsen and Toubro among others. Her areas of expertise range from culture mapping, leadership development, executive coaching, designing psychometric assessments and specialist training programs.

She likes reading about behavioural economics, organizational behaviour, and culture. Other than that, she likes to travel, listen to alt-rock/chill hop/jazzy music, watch substantial cinema and enjoyS writing.

PS: She’s an MBTI nerd and has a knack for guessing and remembering people’s personality types 🙂

In this Interview, Gurleen shares her views on the impact of feedback in an organization:

What is your view on documenting/recording the feedback process as a part of an organization?

It’s pivotal for leaders and managers to document feedback because it not only benefits the employees but also helps in creating an organised system and a sustainable process that can be followed throughout the organisation.

Documentation allows leaders to organise their thoughts and be better prepared to deliver feedback. It also aids the memory so that you have a clear recollection of an event and the details surrounding it. Since leaders are usually busy and manage multiple people, relying on memory alone is not sustainable.

Here’s a simple model called FOSA that can be used to document feedback:

  • F: Facts: This includes the real data, not opinions but what actually happened. What are the verifiable facts? What happened? Where did it happen? When did it happen? Who was involved?
  • O: Objectives: Objectives state specific expectations for the employee. What do we expect from them? It includes defining a specific behaviour or result for the employee in measurable terms against which you (and they) can gauge performance.
  • S: Solutions: Solutions are ideas and suggestions in the form of assistance or coaching that can be offered to the employees to help them solve the performance problem. Examples can be training, coaching, or providing resources. The solutions offered need to be designed to help the employee reach their objectives.
  • A: Actions: Actions are the consequences for the employees if they do not improve their performance. This is an important component because it communicates the importance of the situation and manager’s commitment to helping the employee resolve the problem. The actions should clearly outline what will happen if the objectives are not met. When reinforcing positive performance, the actions may be outlined as accomplishments or the positive impact that the work had.

This method not only helps guide the conversation but also acts as a ready reckoner that leaders and managers can use before the meeting.

What are the key identification points for good or effective feedback and bad or ineffective feedback?

Here are some of the key identification points for a good/effective feedback:

  1. Motivated employee: The key objective of the feedback is to help employees achieve their goals and get better at what they are already doing. If, after the feedback, the employee feels motivated and enthusiastic towards their goals, then it’s an effective feedback. At the end of the feedback, employees should feel supported and understood by the manager. They should get a feeling that the manager is not their adversary and in fact is always going to be there as a safety net.
  2. On the job improvement: After some time of delivering the feedback, if an employee shows improvement and progress, then it’s effective feedback.
  3. Agreement and problem solving approach: If the employee agrees with certain points or areas of improvement and with the help of the manager tries to arrive at potential solutions, then the process of feedback has been successful. The purpose of the feedback is not to blame any party but to have a healthy dialogue on identifying the issues and solving them in collaboration.

Here are some of the key identification points for a bad/ineffective feedback:

  1. Demotivated employee: If at the end of the feedback, an employee feels unmotivated and angry at the manager or the company then the feedback hasn’t been successful.
  2. Performance issues: If the performance of the employee does not improve after the feedback, and they are committing the same mistakes or errors, then the feedback has not been successful.
  3. Increased gossip and toxicity: If the employee shares bad reviews with colleagues or writes negative reviews on social media platforms and even plans to look out for another job, then the feedback has not been successful.

What are some ways to ensure that post feedback, negative feelings like vulnerability or frustration do not set in among the givers and receivers of feedback, in an organization?

Firstly it’s important to understand that giving or receiving feedback is not a negative event or a fault-finding process but on the contrary, a gift. It helps the receiver grow personally and professionally and for the one providing feedback, is a way of supporting and encouraging the employee to get better.

Here are some of the ways to build feedback friendly culture:

  1. Psychological safety: Many times, leaders and managers accidentally create a fear-based culture where the employee is unable to freely share their ideas, or admit mistakes. Such a culture results in hiding mistakes rather than learning from them. Leaders must create a psychologically safe environment so that the employees freely share their POV and engage in a healthy dialogue or even a healthy conflict.
  2. Change from giving feedback to requesting feedback: In a conventional sense, most of the employees have been taught to give feedback and not receive it. They operate as the source of truth, often judging others. A better way would be to build a culture of “asking” for feedback at all levels. When employees ask for feedback, it reduces the psychological pressure for both receiver and the giver to get and offer feedback.
  3. Focus on future: Many times, leaders and managers focus on what the employee has done wrong in the past. While this is not exactly a bad thing to do, a better way would be to focus the feedback on how the employee can improve in the future and what steps they can take to not repeat the mistakes. Managers need to support the employees to get better and suggest solutions and act as a safety net rather than a hard taskmaster.
  4. Replacing annual feedback with candid real-time feedback: Let’s imagine a person crossing the road and you see a car moving speedily towards the person, would you wait for him to get hit and then tell him there was a car coming his way? No, right? We would let the person immediately know that there’s a car coming at speed and they need to move away. Similarly, managers and leaders need to develop the habit of providing ongoing feedback, more like friendly dialogue so that employees know what they are doing right and wrong and can take immediate action to solve or be more careful.

These were some of the ways to ensure negative feelings don’t creep in and rather the employees feel supported and encouraged.

What are some ways that you think we can ensure that past bias does not impact the quality of feedback?

All human beings are biased and that’s the truth. According to vast research by Nobel Prize winner psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, the vast majority of human decisions are based on biases, beliefs, and intuition, not facts or logic. So the first step is to recognize that we all can be biased.

Here are some ways through which we can keep our biases in check and not let it interfere in the process of giving feedback:

  1. Self awareness: Leaders and managers need to up their game in the ‘self awareness’ sphere and recognize their own biases. One way to do that is through asking for feedback from others or using tools like Johari window. Sometimes, perception is the reality and leaders may not know what others know about them. So, the first step is to know thyself before passing on the judgements for others.
  2. Use objective measures alongside subjective data: It’s pivotal that the organisation has an objective method that can be quantified. After all, what gets measured, gets improved. Subjective comments or qualitative data can be used as an add on but never the primary source of data. Use likert scales or ranking and targeted statements. For example: “Rarely or never misses deadlines.” This is clearer and more objective than a simple, “Meets Expectations” or “Exceeds Expectations.”
  3. Minimise reliance on memory: It’s important to document everything as for managers it’s hard to keep a track for so many team members. A lot of research on memory has consistently shown that our memories aren’t always accurate, especially when emotions get involved (Emotion and False Memory Show all authors Robin L. Kaplan, Ilse Van Damme, Linda J. Levine). One strategy to reduce relying on memory is to take notes in between performance ratings. Raters can look back at their notes to remind themselves of positive and negative performances. This reduces reliance on memory, and ultimately improves the accuracy of ratings.
  4. Use of 360-degree assessments: As shared earlier, all humans are biased in some way. My right way might look different or even wrong for another person. Hence, instead of relying on only one person’s opinion, it’s better to take into account a holistic view using tools like 180-degree surveys or 360-degree surveys.
  5. Embracing and promoting vulnerability: Leaders need to set the tone and normalise making mistakes and learning from them. Mistakes carry lessons and if you don’t try new things and fail fast, you don’t learn. Leaders need to be OK with their shortcomings too and share their mistakes with their team members and encourage everyone to learn from them. Only when the leaders share their vulnerability, can team members share theirs. Basically, leaders got to walk the talk. To quote Brené Brown, the author of Daring Greatly: “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weaknesses.

While there are no perfect solutions to not let bias impact our judgement but these are some ways through which we can at least try to ensure that past bias does not impact the quality of feedback.

How should negative/critical feedback be approached in an organization? Any best practices that you would like to share.

First things first, we have to remove the word “negative/critical feedback” from our vocabulary. No feedback is negative or critical, just constructive. The purpose of the feedback is to help the person get better at what they are doing. It’s a process through which leaders and managers help their team members achieve their goals better.

Here are some of the best practices:

  1. Focus on the future: Feedback must be targeted on how one can improve in the future. We can learn from Spotify on their culture of feedback. They have mentioned in their culture code that 70% of conversations between managers and employees are based on what can be better. Only 10% is spent on what happened and 20% on the present. This approach avoids people focusing on rehashing the past, as most performance reviews do. Managers and leaders must ensure that something productive is coming out of the feedback process. The employee should feel motivated and supported to perform even better. Feedback after all is a gift and not something to be detested.
  2. Clear goals and expectations: Feedback, especially end of the year feedback during appraisal discussions or performance review discussions shouldn’t come as a surprise. If the employee is surprised to hear the feedback at the end of the year, then, unfortunately, the manager has failed as a leader. Feedback should be candid and imparted in real-time. Managers should not wait for the employees to commit errors and then share the feedback after a year on how the employee slipped.
  3. Right intention: Many times managers make the mistake of offending the person rather than supporting the person. Managers must be intentional in ‘why’ they are giving specific feedback. Managers must ask themselves the following questions:
    • What do I want the employee to feel at the end of the feedback?
    • How will I be supporting the employee to get what they want?
    • How can I set expectations clearly?
    • How do I create a psychologically safe environment so that when the employee needs help, they reach out to me?

The intention must be pristine and that is to help the person get better. Once the intention is clear, the feedback conversation will flow like two wise people talking and helping each other. It’s worth noting again that feedback is a gift and not a negative event.

What are the key questions that an organization must ask its employees to get honest feedback about itself?

“Excellent firms don’t believe in excellence — only in constant improvement and constant change.” – Tom Peters

Feedback is critical for both personal and team development. Creating a culture of ongoing and open dialogue is not a choice, but a must, especially in the 21s century where employees are spoiled by choice. Providing an irresistible organisational culture is a competitive advantage.

Here are some of the questions that organisations must ask their workforce from time to time to get the sense of how it’s perceived by the people and what can be improved:

  1. What’s going well at the organisation?
  2. What’s not going well at the organisation?
  3. What makes you stay at the organisation?
  4. What are the potential reasons you might leave the organisation?
  5. How can we support you better?

Other than these organisation-wide questions, managers and leaders from time to time “ask” for feedback from their team members. The questions need not be generic but targeted. For example:

  1. What is it that I can do so that it makes it easier for you to work with me?
  2. Can you share two things I’m doing really well and two areas where you think I can improve?

These questions are great starting points to embrace vulnerability in front of the team. The first one addresses a very sensitive topic: most people find it hard to deal with their boss.

The moment leaders acknowledge that they want to make it easier for team members to work with them, people will know that leaders are serious. By doing so, we are addressing the ‘relationship’ issue (the human aspect) rather than what one can improve as the head of a specific department (the functional side).