Originally posted by Mark Gregory, at Almanac.
Imagine staying up until 3 am tracking down and fixing a bug, and this is the feedback you receive: “Wow, you are super determined! But you have trouble prioritizing your time. You are burning yourself out on a bug that, for a reason, had been in the backlog for six months. It doesn’t really matter.”
That was the brutally honest message Ryan Sydnor’s manager at Bridgewater Associates sent to him in his first couple of weeks at the company. The experience opened his eyes to the power of constructive feedback, but emotionally it was hard to digest.
Later, as a startup’s technical lead, he felt his growth plateaued due to receiving primarily mildly positive feedback that told him he was doing well, but it lacked actionable ways to improve himself or the quality of his work.
A Cornell Tech merit scholar, Ryan met Richard Hill during his MBA program, and they bonded over their past experiences with feedback. They hacked together the first version of Grow on their winter break, went on to win the prestigious Startup Award at Cornell Tech, and are now helping 900+ teams across 62 countries grow together. Grow is making the culture of feedback at work easy, high-quality, and private.
Developing a culture of feedback at work is more important now than ever before given most business operations are happening virtually. Giving high-quality feedback helps people feel connected, appreciated, and safe despite not being physically in an office. Almanac sat down with Ryan to understand how he helps organizations create high-performing, distributed teams.
The Feedback Framework
Businesses often cite feedback and radical candor as ideal values they’d like to see their employees embody – but very few live and breathe their stated values. It’s not surprising – helpful feedback is hard. This difficulty is compounded by many leaders who struggle to set up a psychologically safe environment, which means people are often afraid of the repercussions of sharing honest feedback.
Leaving feedback to yearly performance evaluations means that you often only have the time to include highs, lows, and recent events (availability and recency biases). Despite the biases, these evaluations are still used to “accurately” evaluate an employee’s promotion potential and compensation changes. It’s no wonder that employees dread these time-intensive, inaccurate evaluations – which leaves them dreading feedback more broadly.
Many people are surprised to learn that a culture of feedback at work can be positive and appreciative. For example, “We think you are great” or “Thanks for getting that in on time,” often provides people with a sense of recognition and belonging. However, appreciative feedback often lacks context and advice on how to improve.
The book Thanks for the Feedback outlines three types of feedback:
- Evaluative: Assessment of your performance (often a numerical grade like 3.5 out of 5).
- Appreciative: Positive feedback to recognize and encourage.
- Coaching: Helps you grow your skills based on your strengths, preferences, and goals.
Grow has made it easy for people to coach one another with high-quality feedback. Grow helps you highlight what others are great at, reminds you of their goals, and then helps you write your feedback to help people achieve their goals.
How to give feedback
Think of yourself as a coach. People get coaches to help them lift with proper form or to improve their golf swings. Coaches constantly give feedback like: “Move your hips to the left,” or “Shift your weight to the right,” and people take their advice without getting defensive. Why? Because the person’s goals (get better) are aligned with the coach’s goals (create a winning team).
Many people fail to incorporate the other person’s goals when providing feedback. High-quality feedback that actually inspires change requires:
- Understanding your teammate’s feedback preferences
- Understanding your teammate’s goals and where they’re trying to improve
- Understanding how those fit into your team’s goals
Example: Your teammate has had several weeks of poor performance. Before hopping into a conversation, make sure you:
- Approach the situation with curiosity.
- Listen to understand.
- Assume they want to do the job to the best of their ability.
Script: “I’ve noticed you’ve missed deadlines on projects X and Y over the past few weeks. Based on what I know about your strengths in reliability and what I’ve been observing, there’s a disconnect and I’m a little confused about it. Can you help me understand the situation from your perspective?”
Grow’s feedback profiles make it easier for you to have these sorts of conversations because people’s goals and feedback preferences are at your fingertips as you write feedback.
How to request feedback
Requesting feedback shows others that you’re open to hearing their perspective. This is an important step you can take, especially if you’re in a leadership role, to help people overcome the social barriers that may prevent them from giving high-quality feedback. There’s a lot of power in requesting with specificity, responding with open-mindedness to understand the other person’s point of view, and then following up.
Low-quality request: You’ve probably had somebody in your life say “my door is always open.” Most people struggle to respond to such an ambiguous request for feedback.
- This often leads to feedback that will be too general to learn from.
- This doesn’t provide people with a memorable prompt for them to give feedback after a particular point in time
High-quality request: “During the presentation today, when I was explaining topic X, did the visuals on my slide back up the point that I was trying to make, or were they confusing?”
- You’re allowing people to focus on a particular moment and say yes or no, which helps spark a conversation.
- Once the conversation is sparked, you can ask more detailed questions. If people are confused ask them “What was confusing?” or if they thought it was great ask, “What specifically did you think was great?”
Consistency is key
Over time feedback conversations and building a culture of feedback at work can help you build trust and self-awareness as long as you:
- Show people that you’re open to hearing their perspectives and listen to understand
- Internalizing what people say by making sense of it and changing your behavior
- Follow up with them and let them know the impact of their feedback
These three things show people that you are receptive to what they have to say makes them more likely to give you honest feedback again and again.
One thing to be careful of is your immediate reaction when you are receiving feedback. It’s normal to resort to defensiveness – you can catch yourself doing this if you begin justifying what you did, rather than asking questions to understand their perspective. Responding this way can give the impression to the person giving you feedback that you’re not actually open to hearing their perspective – making them reluctant to have a difficult conversation again.
Building a Feedback Culture
I primarily think that building a culture based on feedback shouldn’t be the goal. The word feedback is not even in Grow’s vision or mission statement.”
Our vision is to create cultures of safety and transparency where individuals grow rapidly, teams collaborate effectively, and people get more done together. A Gallup poll demonstrated that building a culture of safety and transparency increases companies’ profitability by about 10% and increases retention by about 15%.
Feedback is a key lever you can pull to build this type of culture because it helps people build trust. Unfortunately, the way most organizations provide feedback actually erodes trust.
Keep feedback private
Conventionally, written feedback in the workplace is available to managers, HR, and executives as a tool to evaluate people. This surfaces conflicting incentives that hamper growth. If someone likes you and knows that their feedback could help you learn and grow but might negatively impact your compensation and career – they’ll amp up the positives and tone down the constructive criticism.
At Grow, we strongly recommend giving feedback privately. We’ve experimented with allowing managers or executives to see the feedback contents and have seen that engagement plummets because people don’t feel safe when they feel like they’re being spied on.
Make feedback happen
There’s almost always a gap between your ideal and actual self. You want to have that feedback conversation, but you’re too busy today. Grow has thought a lot about how to make your 5-minute breaks into opportunities to share feedback and grow your culture of feedback at work.
Grow encourages their clients to start by giving positive feedback to people on their team. Feedback should be positive about 85% of the time according to the ideal praise to criticism ratio found on high-performing teams. Positive feedback helps you establish trust and normalize the behavior of exchanging feedback. This way, when you have constructive criticism to share, feedback conversations are just a regular part of your day-to-day.
Quick and Easy
Grow makes feedback quicker and easier than what you’re used to by giving you feedback templates (because we’ve all felt uncertain about where to begin when looking at a blank page). Grow is also integrated into the communication and collaboration tools you use every day – like Slack.
Grow makes a culture of feedback at work part of your routine through timely nudges. For example, you can create:
- A one-time nudge to check-in on the action items from a recent 1:1
- A recurring nudge to the team every Friday at 10 AM to take 10 minutes for feedback
- A nudge at the end of the day reminding me to share feedback after my meetings