How to nurture a feedback culture

Feedback is core to our culture and what we do here at Learnerbly. In fact, it’s literally one of our core values — to practice heartfelt, radical feedback. We —and myself personally — have been particularly inspired by Kim Scott’s concept of Radical Candor, which lays out why feedback is so important. But, of course, we also know how difficult it is to practice.

This past summer, as the COO here, I set out to take our feedback culture to the next level alongside our CEO Rajeeb Dey, with the intention of helping our people become more comfortable giving and receiving difficult feedback on a regular cadence.

I approached that challenge like a product developer, and we kicked off with a six-week sprint for our team of 15 based around the feedback app set up by Next Jump, an organisation known for its progressive culture, and featured in Harvard professor Robert Kegan’s Deliberately Developmental Organisation.

I've included our learning playlist about feedback at the end of this piece. If you’d like to read about our process in greater detail, you can see the slide deck I created by signing up for our email newsletter!

Our five key takeaways:

1. Get to really know your people, create a feedback empathy guide

One size fits none in regards to feedback. Find out what your team’s preferences are — how do they like to receive feedback? In person or online? In real time or one-to-ones?

During our internal training session, we asked everyone to share how they preferred receiving two different kinds of feedback: one more personal and behavioural, the other more project-based.
Internal feedback training

One of our core insights was while best practice is receiving and giving feedback in person, people who identified as introverted preferred receiving written feedback over email and Slack, while people who identified as extroverted preferred it in person.

We recorded the entire team’s feedback preferences in a Feedback Empathy Guide through Google Docs that anyone can access. Now, as a part of our onboarding, we ask people to share their feedback preferences.

2. Don’t make it a separate change initiative, embed it into what you already do

I don’t believe in reinventing the wheel. That’s why I knew our feedback app had to be built into existing company habits, such as our Friday company retrospective.
next jump app

Alongside the app, I’ve asked our leadership team to get better at giving and asking for feedback within one of our most important company rituals: one-to-ones. A fellow startup COO recently shared that no one ever said anything during his one-to-ones when he asked, “Do you have any feedback for me?”

Instead of asking a broad and abstract question, I suggested he ask a specific question based on his core areas of development. For example, during one-to-ones, I’ve asked my team, “during one of my 360 reviews, someone said I can be a micromanager. I would love to hear instances when I’ve been a not-so-awesome micromanager, and when I’ve been more of a mentor who pushes you to be your best?”

Asking a general question like, “how can I help,” often isn’t actually helpful as a leader, so next time you have a one-to-one be vulnerable and ask for feedback on an area you know you need to grow in.

3. Be real, share your own stories of hard-to-hear feedback

During our internal training session, I shared one of the most difficult pieces of feedback I’ve ever received.

Last year, a VC told me that I didn’t come across as ‘confident’ during our pitch presentation. After reading this feedback over email, I felt a deep sense of shame over what I recognised in myself, but had been too afraid to share or tackle head on. No one wants to admit they don’t feel confident — especially as a queer woman of colour in tech pitching to a room of hard-nosed, mostly white male investors. Interestingly, this feedback came from a VC with around 50% female investors.

I was lucky. I had a supportive CEO who I could be honest with. Drinking my own Kool Aid, I made confidence a core area of focus for my own personal development. It was the biggest thing getting in the way of my success professionally and personally.

Through careful self-reflection, I broke down what the problem of ‘confidence’ meant in practice. I identified confidence within high-stakes public speaking settings as the context in which it was most critical for my role to feel assured and believe in myself.

With exceptional support from my leadership coach Lynne and therapist Nick, I began a deep inquiry into my psychological fears around failing, fucking up, and not being perfect. Presenting in front of large groups felt as terrifying as when a mugger on Boris bike chased me down the Regent’s canal on a dark, stormy night last November.

I combined this psychological inquiry with practical tools for managing stress and anxiety before a big VC pitch or client presentation — from breathing, to speaking slowly, to creating my own playlist of music that made me feel brave.

One of the highlights of this confidence journey this year was pitching in front of English royal family and hundreds of investors and entrepreneurs as part of Pitch At the Palace. I thought my heart was going to explode before going on stage, but I managed to give a passionate and heartfelt delivery of the Learnerbly story. We didn’t end up winning the pitch, but it actually didn’t matter. I had found a new octave within my voice, hitting notes I didn’t even know I could hit.

It made me laugh that when I shared my story on confidence at the Next Jump session, someone shared, “I can’t believe you talked about a confidence problem — I assumed that too much confidence was the issue before you explained. Great progress.”

When I shared this story with my team, they said, “It was very special,” and encouraged a couple of people to open up around their own stories of feedback. By sharing our own most difficult and shameful pieces of feedback, it inspires people to do the same. And by letting others know our struggles, we can take proactive action on tackling the areas of work and life that are holding us back from being our most brilliant selves at work.

4. Getting feedback can be really hard! Create resilience programmes.

I loved hearing about Next Jump’s Recovery Programmes — or what I like to call Resilience Programmes. When you get a piece of difficult feedback, it’s a like going through a process of grief. You need time to reflect on it, accept it, discuss it, break it down, and action it.

It can be very emotionally affecting, particularly when it’s about areas like confidence or body language that are looked down upon in society and we feel powerless to address.
melissa lwtconf

Without knowing it, I essentially created a resilience programme around confidence. When you’re designing your resilience programme, it’s vital to have a mentor, colleague or friend who gets you in order to help you process the feedback. Then create an action plan in exactly the same way you would a project to help break down the problem into achievable steps.

This is essentially what I did alongside our CEO Raj, my leadership coach Lynne and therapist Nick. They helped me break down the big and scary problem of ‘confidence’, understand my feelings and fears around it and take small steps to working through a big life issue, with check ins along the way.

5. Remember Relationships eat Radical Candor for Breakfast

We’ve all heard that culture eats strategy for breakfast. The same is true for relationships and radical candor.

Despite numerous trainings and deep reflection in the theory and practice of feedback, I found myself recently having a hard time giving a colleague a piece of difficult feedback. While we may theoretically know feedback is coming from a place of heart, it might not feel that way in practice if we haven’t built a solid, trusting relationship with that person.

Trust takes time. As my friend and leadership expert Gillian Davis recently pointed out, “Radical candor doesn’t give you an excuse to be an asshole.” Sometimes people misuse ‘radical candor’ to act thoughtlessly in a ‘no bullshit’ way without considering the detrimental impact on what might already be a fragile relationship with low trust.

Relationships are slowly constructed through common goals, meaningful conversations and shared experiences in and outside of work. Feedback isn’t the starting point, but it can grow and strengthen a relationship.

In conclusion

We’re excited by the progress we’ve made around our culture of feedback in such a short period of time. After six weeks, the level of comfort people felt in receiving difficult feedback went from a 7 to an 8, and the level of comfort people felt in giving difficult feedback went from a 5.5 to a 6.3. There’s still much more work to be done however around building strong team relationships and helping people feel more comfortable at giving feedback.

Nurturing a culture of feedback is like a growing a garden — you have to sow the seeds, let the sun shine, water the soil, give it some fertiliser, water it some more. It requires continuous attention, love and care. But it’s always worth it when you see the flowers bloom.

Our Learning Playlist on feedback

Article: Radical Candor – The Surprising Secret to Being a Good Boss

Ex Google Operations Leader Kim Scott shares her groundbreaking framework on how to give and receive radically candid feedback.

TED Talk: Building a psychologically safe place with Amy Edmondson

Harvard professor Amy Edmondson shares why building a safe workplace is necessary for high team performance.

Article: Instead of Feedback, Try Feedfoward with Marshall Goldsmith

L&D thought leader Marshall Goldsmith explains why feedforward works better than feedback in helping your team achieve positive change.

Article: Feedback fatigue: Too much of a good thing

A great article on how and why giving too much feedback, particularly negative, can tire and burn somebody out — and how to manage that fatigue.

Book: The Chapter on Writing Groups in Bird by Bird

One of my favourite books on writing, with an excellent section on feedback. There’s a brilliant quote from the author Anne Lamott, “You don’t always have to chop with the sword of truth. You can point with it too.”

TED Talk: How to build a company where the best ideas win

Hedge fund leader Ray Dalio makes the business case for using radical transparency and algorithmic decision-making to create an idea meritocracy where people can speak up and say what they really think -- and ultimately create one of the world’s most successful hedge funds.

Tool: How we conduct 1:1s with Nobl

A simple framework on how to have more effective conversations with your team members.