A good feedback system is an absolutely critical aspect of a functioning organization. At a macro level, when companies don’t do feedback well, pockets of disagreements within organizations grow, causing resentment, distrust, and ultimately organizational failure. At a micro level, feedback is the only way to achieve true personal growth. You are not objective enough about yourself to grow effectively without external feedback.
"If you avoid conflict to keep peace, you start a war inside yourself." -Someone wise
If feedback is so critical to a company's success, why do so many companies fail at it? In our experience, they fall short in three main areas: training to give feedback, training to receive feedback, and making it part of the culture. Ultimately, giving and receiving feedback is just hard; it often triggers painful emotions. The alternative, though, is failure. There's no such thing as a workplace without feedback. If you're not hearing "bad news," people are too afraid to give feedback to you and each other.
Giving and receiving effective feedback is a skill like any other, and it needs to be part of your on-boarding training if your team is going to be any good at it.
Fortunately, there are some excellent resources like Nonviolent Communication and Conscious Leadership that provide a good structure to do it.
- Feedback should be given in private and regularly (i.e., weekly) at a time when someone is expecting it.
- Use Radical Candor, care personally, and challenge directly. Beware of ruinous empathy (see Common Management Mistakes).
- Feedback should come from a place of love and good intentions.
- Feedback should be specific and avoid sweeping statements, judgements, or labeling (e.g., avoid saying "I think you're lazy").
- Feedback should be in a nonviolent communication format (provided below).
The key to giving feedback is to prevent activating people's “lizard brain” and provoking a feeling of anger or fear. Base emotions, like fear and anger, are powerful; once invoked they cloud higher-level thought.
The good news is there's a simple way of communicating feedback that avoids provoking anger and defensiveness. First, ask "is now is a good time for you for some feedback?", assuming yes proceed with:
"When you do specific action, I feel emotion because the story in my head is fear.
Ensure that specific action is a fact, something that a camera would record. Emotion should be a core emotion, like anger, sadness, or fear. Don't avoid being vulnerable when describing your fear, make it as real and raw as possible. But also bear in mind that this is just a story in your head—other people may see situations differently and have different stories.
Wait for a response. It's important that whoever you're giving the feedback feels heard, and has a chance to clear up any stories you may have about them. Repeat back what they say to prove you've heard them. Then, end with a request:
"My request is ____. Can you do that for me?"
So, a full example might be:
"When you didn't write any tests for that pull request you submitted last week, I feel fear because the story in my head is that you don’t place enough value on testing, and that without tests we will introduce bugs that will upset customers, affect revenue, and ultimately destroy our chances of creating a successful company. .... My request is that you write tests for every pull request you submit. Can you do that for me?”
It is just as important to give positive feedback as it is to give critical feedback. You will find that some people need more positive feedback than others, and some people love public praise, whereas others don’t.
As with critical feedback, keep your praise specific. Otherwise you run the risk of operating in the quadrant of manipulative insincerity (see Radical Candor), which your report is going to see through.
"When you did specific action, I felt joy because the knock-on effect for the company meant ..."
"The research shows that people generally are more likely to act on specific positive feedback than on any other type of feedback. I liken feedback giving between two people to building a bank account. You’re depositing specific positive feedback into the account so that you can make a withdrawal when you need to and still stay in the black. You never want to be in a relationship with someone where the negative feedback outweighs the positive. The research shows anywhere from 3 to 5 positives to every 1 negative is the optimal ratio to maintain healthy relationships and get people to act on your feedback."
— Abby Reider, LifeLabs learning
The reason why you feel that knot in your stomach whenever you are about to receive feedback is that your ego views it as an attack, provoking a fight, flight, or freeze response. Your ego thinks you're about to be killed—it's no wonder you feel nervous!
The key is to learn to evaluate ideas objectively and view feedback as a gift. Now this is easier said than done, and will require constant effort and practice. We definitely recommend reading the two books mentioned above, but here's a little shortcut.
When people are giving you critical feedback, as soon as they're finished, repeat back to them what you heard. Say “What I'm hearing is XYZ. Is that right?” It is important that the person giving feedback knows that you're hearing and listening to them. Not only will this mechanism do that, but it will also ensure that you have some breathing time to think. Keep asking, “Is that all?” and repeating back until you're sure you've squeezed every last ounce of feedback out of them.
Now, take that piece of feedback and take a second to think about it objectively. Be curious, run through the possibilities. Even if you don't agree with all of it, or with the format in which it was delivered, are there aspects of it that you can take to improve yourself? If you accept the feedback, suggest an action to resolve it. Thank them—giving feedback isn't easy, and by doing so, they've shown they care about you. You don’t have to accept all the feedback you’re given, but at least give a good explanation why not (and be curious to how the opposite might be true).
As a manager, it is your responsibility to set a good example and ensure that giving and receiving regular feedback is part of our culture. We do not leave it to an annual performance review. People should not be in the dark all year as to their performance. Furthermore, tying feedback to compensation is the best way to politicize it.
There is a simple way to achieve this: make it part of your team’s weekly one-on-ones. Have a structured section at the end of a one-on-one for mutual feedback giving. Make sure that it's a requirement of all your managers, and ensure that it's recorded somewhere (we use Asana). To re-iterate, giving positive feedback is just as important as critical feedback.
Lastly, publicly seek feedback from your team and discuss it. It sets a good example and demonstrates you're willing to be vulnerable and committed to growing.
"The leadership team gives me written feedback at our meetings, which I take and publish to the entire company. I address the feedback and discuss ways I'm trying to improve. Not only does this demonstrate a degree of vulnerability, but if people see that you view feedback as a gift, they will start doing likewise." - Op
While we have tried to instill a culture of mutual feedback-giving at Clearbit, we have struggled to elicit critical feedback given upwards from a report to their manager. Although this is understandable, it's far from ideal. Feedback is critical for the growth of both parties.
We are tackling this in a number of ways through training, anonymous feedback, and surveys, but it is an ongoing effort.
As a manager, you need to ensure that your reports feel safe giving you feedback, and that it’s worth their time. Trust builds over time. If your report sees you react positively to critical feedback by taking action, they’re more likely to give you more in the future. And they’re more likely to be candid.
It’s important to close the loop on critical feedback you’re given. If you decide to act on it, do so quickly and update your report at the next opportunity. If you don’t decide to act on it, explain why. But whatever you do, don’t treat feedback with silence.
At Clearbit, we have a culture of giving and receiving feedback, because it's one of the best ways of promoting self-growth. Ideally we can always put our name to feedback, but it's also important that we have an outlet for anonymous feedback. This is useful because:
- It allows us to collect feedback in aggregate and survey employees
- It lets people be candid when they perhaps otherwise wouldn't
- It encourages us to focus on the message, not the messenger
We use TinyPulse to survey everyone by email weekly. We encourage everyone to fill out the survey, we look at it every week, and the results go directly into practice. We also periodically publish the aggregate results.
Every response submitted to TinyPulse is anonymous, and messages are viewable only by the Leadership team. The only breakdown we see is which department the respondent is in.
Every month we ask the question “How happy are you at work?” You can think of this as an internal NPS score, and we use this to track team happiness over time. This gives us an early warning indication to issues (like scaling too rapidly).
Generally, when there is a significant issue, we do an all-hands results evaluation with the results and proposed solutions. For example, a survey showed that one of the most draining aspects of Clearbit was ineffective meetings. In response to this, we created a new meeting structure (see Running Meetings) and stricter policies as to when meetings can be created.
Questions we’ve asked in the past include:
- What is the most challenging aspect of giving/receiving feedback at Clearbit, and how can we help the company get better at it?
- Do you feel like you have the opportunity to reach your full potential at our organization?
- How can we improve our remote work culture?
- How can the leadership team improve?
- What are Clearbit’s blind spots?
- Do you know what is expected of you at work?
- How do you feel about Alex's performance as CEO? What are some areas he could improve on?
- What did you like best at your previous employment that you'd like to see implemented here?
- How likely are you to refer a friend to work here?
If you find that answers given in anonymous feedback surprise you and don’t reflect one-on-one feedback, it may indicate a lack of receptivity to feedback from your leadership, or a deeper issue.