Ani speaks to Mohit Rajkumar on the building a culture of feedback in an organisation, how to build psychological safety within a team, and how to give feedback upwards.
Anirudh Arvind 0:06
Welcome to Single Steps. You’re listening to A Daffodil for Your Thoughts, a show where we speak to leaders across multiple industries to get their views and advice on prominent theme and topics within the workplace.
Today we’ve got a very, very cool guest, Mohit Rajkumar, who’s the head of HR business partnering at Circles.Life. Super, super stoked to have you here with us today, Mohit. Before I even carry on, how are you? How are things on your side?
Mohit Rajkumar 0:34
Thank you, Ani. Super stoked to be here too. You and I crossed paths, I think, last year, and just thinking to be crossing paths here. But really looking forward to this conversation.
Anirudh Arvind 0:48
Awesome. You are looking great, like in you’re in great shape. How many times a week Pilates, huh Mohit?
Mohit Rajkumar 0:52
I hope you’re not putting it the po- podcast. But yeah, once a week. And you know, working out a few times a week. I’m just trying to keep myself in shape.
Anirudh Arvind 1:02
Great stuff, great stuff.
Mohit, obviously, you’re here today with us to talk to us about the importance of culture of feedback and driving that within an organization. But before I get there, tell us a little bit about yourself and your role in Circles.Life as head of HR business partnering.
Mohit Rajkumar 1:19
It’s been an interesting journey over the last 15 years. To be- to kind of put it very simply, the first half of my working experience was spent in COE roles, doing recruitment, HR operations, shared services. And a majority of that seven years was spent working with Google in the people analytics space. And in that was where I created a bit of a foundation in leveraging data and analytics to influence people’s strategy.
Anirudh Arvind 1:50
Mohit Rajkumar 1:53
And then the last half of my 15 years or so, of course, or have been spent doing business partnering roles. To start off with, got my first stint with business partnering with this Indian unicorn called InMobi. And then moved to VMware shortly after, and spent almost six and a half years with them, doing different business partnering roles, both regional and global. And in my most recent stint with Circles, I head the business partnering function with a focus on supporting the CTO, because we are trying to create a great place to work where we can grow and thrive in and therefore coming up with revolutionary HR practices and processes. It’s something which is what I’ve been focusing on.
Anirudh Arvind 2:40
Cool. That’s a- that’s a lot of credentials, man, really, really quite interesting to see. Obviously, you spend time in some really, I would say path breaking organizations in terms of HR. Google, VMware, are known for driving a very transparent organization and obviously a culture of feedback. So I guess we’re really happy to have you here to kind of break down what that actually is, right? A conversation between two people can trick us into seeing as a product of the relationship between the two, when you could actually just be a product of the surrounding culture. Therefore, how does having a culture of feedback within an organization really impacts people?
Mohit Rajkumar 3:18
So are you trying to understand the context in which that conversation is happening? I mean, could you give me an example?
Anirudh Arvind 3:27
Yeah, so I guess what I’m saying is like, it’s easy to confuse the fact that say, for example, two of us are having a really good conversation. And then we’re saying, “Hey, that’s a really good” but actually, more than just the product of you and me being in a good, close relationship, it’s actually the product of the organization itself.
Mohit Rajkumar 3:42
Alright, okay. So, the organization is a living organism, if I may say so. And what I mean by that is that the culture of the organization is always evolving. What you see in the organization today may not be relevant, or say a few months down the line. So the conversation that you are talking about, you know, certainly emanates from the kind of culture that we would want to establish in an organization. What that means is that, say an organization is going through a phase of practicing financial prudence. Now, if two people are having a conversation about having some kind of a team outing or team building activity that could be relevant at a particular point in time. But say if an organization is going through a lot of stressful times, that same conversation may be seen as blasphemous. And probably can be seen as something which is uncalled for, or irresponsible, if I may say so. And again, the same organization. Just that they are going through a different phase, and which is why the same conversation can be construed and interpreted very differently.
Anirudh Arvind 4:59
Sure, got you. It’s so important, like you say, the context of where the organization is really kind of plays a crucial role in terms of driving that. And I guess, as the head of HRBP within Circles.Life, like, what are you doing to kind of drive this culture of feedback? Are there any initiatives that you’re putting into place to kind of bring this to life?
Mohit Rajkumar 5:20
Yes, we are bringing the culture of- a feedback culture to life at Circles.Life. One of the things that we have started consciously doing over the last three, four months is responding to each of the comments that we receive through our pulse check survey. And no matter how critical the feedback is, sometimes, you know, it could be bordering negative as well.
But we want to consciously build that culture where people are free to ask any and every question. Nothing is off the table, nothing is off the charts. Anybody can ask any question. So that’s, of course, on the product and engineering side. You know, when we talk about the larger organization, our co-founders have these monthly town halls. They have these Monday meetings, companywide meetings, where, again, there’s a lot of updates being shared. But more importantly, there are always multiple forums where employees can come forward and ask both anonymous as well as named questions. And, again, reiterating the fact that I mentioned that nothing is off the charts. So in fact, all the cofounders encourage people to speak up. And we respond to those questions as openly as possible.
Of course, at times, when we see certain themes emerging, we of course, try to address those questions more proactively. But then we also understand that each individual has his or her own journey. And therefore what could be relevant for one may not be necessarily relevant to the other. So from time to time, we do take specific questions which are pertinent to a particular individual. And then we cater to those questions, sometimes, you know, behind closed doors, or in a manner which is relevant to that particular individual.
Anirudh Arvind 7:20
That’s really interesting, right, when you say that you’ve kind of created this culture where nothing is kind of off the table, right, everything can be discussed. But, how do you kind of cultivate that culture from the start? Like, how do you set that tone up from, I guess, the leadership team, considering you would have to build a really psychologically safe environment for someone to voice out any of their concerns, right? So how do you do that?
Mohit Rajkumar 7:46
I wish there had been a magic wand. With that, the job would have been easier. Sure. To be honest, there isn’t one. But few things, at least, that I have seen work, of course, at Circles, as well as in some of my previous organizations like Google and VMware, the first thing is that you walk the talk. People make lofty claims. But if you don’t come through, then the world out there is smart enough to see through you. And I think being honest, being diligent, being forthcoming, in terms of where you are, that is, in my mind, the first step towards psychological safety.
The second thing is that as long as people are not being vicious and personal, all feedback is relevant, in my mind. And as leaders, of course, we need to define what that vicious and personal means. But as long as it is not bordering personal attacks, we need to take it in the stride, sometimes we need to roll with the punches, because feedback can get nasty as well. But we need to keep at it. And you don’t build great cultures overnight, you know. It takes a lot of time, and therefore we need to be at it to be able to create something meaningful.
The third thing, which may sound a little floozy, nonetheless, I will say it, that sometimes it is important to not just keep your hard promises, but also keep your soft promises.
Anirudh Arvind 9:30
Hundred percent, yeah.
Mohit Rajkumar 9:33
And what I mean by that is that the organizations of modern day are moving away from policies and moving more towards guidelines. And therefore, how do you ensure that you create a workplace which operates through those guidelines in a manner that it promotes, you know, the day-to-day psychological safety, the day-to-day needs of the employees. And sometimes kind of think ahead than what the employee may be asking for. So in terms of pre-empting some of those needs, that could go a long way in terms of creating that psychological safety. Because then, even though it may not necessarily be related to what a person can speak, but as long as you’re creating an environment where people feel that the organization cares, that, again, goes a long way in creating psychological safety.
Anirudh Arvind 10:34
Right. And it’s really interesting, man, how you say that there’s both the hard and the soft parts of the conversation that have to be kept. And I think it’s fair to say that at some part, this feedback can get vicious, it can get personal. Some of it could even maybe even sound like an attack at a leader. So how does it work for an employee, let’s say a mid-level employee that’s giving feedback upwards? And then how do you kind of then have the leadership to kind of take that feedback in a constructive manner? I’m guessing, that’s probably a very difficult thing to do.
Mohit Rajkumar 11:09
One, it is. And, two, there are organizations which have confused feedback with performance.
Anirudh Arvind 11:24
Ah, there we go.
Mohit Rajkumar 11:26
In the sense that the moment you take feedback as developmental, it serves the purpose typically that it is meant for. But the moment you start looking at feedback to promote people, to give them more hikes, to give them roles or coveted roles and things like that, I think that’s where you’re losing the ploy. Because feedback should be seen as a means to develop people or develop organizations. And I think that’s something which organizations should consciously do. In fact, there are times where people go about doing 360 degree feedback on themselves. Or an organization conducts a 360 degree feedback exercise for its leaders. Only to realize later that it will be used for something other than developmental purposes. So one, organizations and leaders need to consciously stay away from using feedback for anything other than developmental purposes.
The other thing that needs to be done is that there needs to be a developmental plan for each manager to be in place, which should be based squarely on the feedback that he or she is getting. And that should not be far away from reality. In the sense if the team needs certain things, or there is a certain expectation of the leader or that people manager, and if his or her development plan is far away from what the team needs, or what the organization needs, then there’s a huge disconnect. So which is why I think it is- it becomes imperative for the developmental plan to go hand in hand with the feedback that the manager is receiving.
So I think these are some of the things which we can do, in order to ensure that we create a culture of strong upward feedback. And incidentally, both at Google and VMware, there was a strong culture of upward feedback. And there used to be action plans, in many cases, at least, which used to be based on the feedback that managers received. In fact, some of the better organizations, again, also establish a bunch of standard or core managerial practices. And then the feedback is aligned to those practices that they have identified. Then it makes it simpler for both the organization and the people managers to be able to come up with plans or devise plans, and really determine what are some of those gaps that they need to address and how to do those meaningfully.
Anirudh Arvind 14:08
Right. So you’re saying it’s very important to not just have a culture of feedback, but then to kind of tie that back into what the organization truly needs. Then have HR play that that role in terms of tying development back towards feedback so it’s exactly to what the organization needs. And it’s really interesting how you’ve always kind of said that culture of feedback needs to be tied to an organizational requirement at the end of the day. So you actually see business results. And I guess it’s not so easy to just kind of just come in and sort of say, “Hey, you know, give you a boss some feedback,” cause like, again, if you put yourself in that person’s shoes, they might actually be trembling. And the other person may also be rather intimidating to look at right. So I think that’s there.
Mohit Rajkumar 14:51
And just to add to this a little bit more. I think feedback is, in a way, a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a sense, when people see that others who are receiving the feedback are acting upon it in some way and form, this get encouraged to give more feedback. But this is what I think I was also referring to or wanted to add when I was talking about hard and softer promises. Because in any modern day organization, you wouldn’t come across anything as mandatory feedback
Anirudh Arvind 15:29
Mohit Rajkumar 15:30
But the best way of nudging your employees to give feedback and constructive feedback, is when you start acting upon it. And many organizations also suffer from this syndrome, if I may say so, that everything that gets measured, gets done. That’s not the case. I think, you know, you need to consciously put an action plan in place where you have done the measuring part of it. But you also need to consciously do something about that. And in my mind, I think the latter is more important than just the measuring part of it.
Anirudh Arvind 16:10
Hundred percent. And I guess that’s where you say the sensitivities come into play. And then again, back to the hard and soft metrics are things. But it’s interesting, right? So what can an organization expect in terms of, like, business results when they drive, you know or embed a cultural a feedback? Is it like, you know, better productivity? Or is it a better quality of decision making within the organization? What really kind of, I would say showcases, you know, ROI?
Mohit Rajkumar 16:39
I think one of the metrics that is often being used these days is Employee NPS Score, Employee Net Promoter Score. Many organizations are doing it. Of course, it came from the NPS concept, which is often used for customer experience, and so on, so forth. So that is one of the metrics to look at. And that, in a way, manifests itself meaningfully in multiple ways. You know, one way to look at it is that employees are really engaged and connected to what the organization is all about, right? From its vision, mission, to the role that a person is playing. Number two, it in a way creates a brand or an image for the organization, which is both internal as well as external. Because you can’t expect an organization to have a lousy ENPS and then create a great image outside. So in a way, it works both inwards as well as outwards.
Anirudh Arvind 17:39
Right. Okay. Really cool stuff. So we spoke about, you know, I guess, how you drive a culture of feedback. We spoke about the importance of closing that loop and tying it back towards the development plan. So the results are actionable and it’s relevant to the organization at the end of the day. But, so Mohit, what would your advice be to organizations that you know, are just about to embark on this journey? Just about thinking, how do I get this off? How would they start?
Mohit Rajkumar 18:09
There is no right time to start, to be honest. But one of the things which I consciously believe in that, unlike everything which is going digital, feedback should remain analog. What I mean by that is that feedback should not be restricted to certain forums or points in time. It should be made available to relevant stakeholders throughout the employees’ lifecycle, or basically any and every forum. You know, a simple conversation with two people can be an opportunity for giving feedback—good, bad, or ugly, whatever it is. So that’s one. The other thing is that we need to move consciously away from the telling mode to the listening mode. And which is why I think asking the right questions becomes really, really key for organizations to create that culture of receiving feedback. I’ve still seen leaders you know who, despite the fact that they come across as very seasoned, they fall in this trap where they often ask the ‘why’ rather than the ‘what.’ And I think I would strongly encourage such organizations to consciously focus on the ‘what’ rather than come across as to ‘why somebody said so.’
Anirudh Arvind 19:23
Okay, really cool stuff. So in order to drive this, there’s no perfect timing, like you say. Tie it back into development so it actually sticks. But the most important thing you said was not just going into the talking more, right? Also kind of listen more. And I think the biggest nugget of wisdom there is to focus on the ‘what,’ and not the ‘why.’
Listen, I had a really enjoyable 20 minutes or probably more with you, Mohit. So thank you very much for the time. It was- it was absolutely insightful. And I look forward to doing a lot more of this with you.
Mohit Rajkumar 19:58
Thank you, Ani. Thank you for having me with you.
Anirudh Arvind 20:01
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