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Cynefin Framework and the Culture of Feedback

In Company Culture — by Vinod Kumaar

startup employees The Cynefin framework is a way of looking at community dynamics that has more recently been associated with Agile software development. Take a look at the Cynefin framework and you’ll get an idea of an organization’s four domains of work. These domains are: obvious, complicated, complex and chaotic. Many startups fall largely under the complex domain.


Under the complex domain, the relationship between cause and effect can only be viewed in retrospect. People have to probe and learn from their experience, which results in emerging practices that will be unique to each organization. Only an organization that is continually learning can survive in the complex domain.

It’s crucial for employees working in the complex domain to understand every facet of their environment, including customers, colleagues, systems, the market, etc. Feedback helps employees make adjustments that will benefit the organization.

We tend to associate feedback with performance evaluations or 360 reviews. But the most effective feedback isn’t formal, and it doesn’t happen once a year. The best feedback – the feedback that really helps colleagues to better understand their environment – comes during free-flowing conversations. This feedback has to be timely: An employee’s ability to correct course is directly related to the timing of the feedback. The more timely and specific the feedback, the more an employee will learn about their behavior and the resulting outcome.

It’s not always easy to engage employees. Not wanting to upset the boss, they may be overly deferential or stay silent about their observations and concerns. But when these unspoken issues continue to come up time and again, resentment builds. Tensions come to a head, and no one gets the real-time learning opportunities they need for the organization to thrive.

You can mitigate the chance of silence by making clear that feedback and performance evaluations are different. Feedback is the regular observation of one’s behavior and the impact it has on people and the organization. Performance evaluations, on the other hand, usually consist of management using a set of guidelines to grade employees.

So how do you create a culture of feedback? For starters, ditch the term “feedback.” It conjures negative associations that aren’t especially productive for most people. Instead, encourage employees to express their observations in an honest, empathetic manner. Train them to listen to other perspectives without the fear of being judged. In such atmospheres, colleagues will get to know each other well, learn from their mistakes quickly and react to changes better. Above all, your organization’s collective decision-making ability will go up and with it your odds of thriving in today’s dynamic business environment.

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