Building a Feedback Culture at a Startup

Creating a thriving feedback culture is beneficial – nay, crucial – within a startup. In a recent meeting of climatetech CEOs, I was asked to share my journey in establishing a feedback-centric environment during a particularly challenging time while leading a previous venture. Following is a summary of this discussion about the actions I took, the results, and key learnings along the way (sometimes only in hindsight).

The Fish on the Table: Unveiling the Unspoken

This previous venture’s team was full of high performers who craved feedback. However, the sudden shift to remote work during the pandemic made organic feedback more challenging. An expression we often used at IMD was that withheld feedback is like a fish under the table: if you just leave it there, it begins to stink! You have to put the fish on the table by offering direct, helpful, and ideally real-time feedback to your teammates.

Unfortunately, as teammates strived to be proactive about offering feedback in our new environment, several missteps were made. I found myself losing a lot of time to facilitating discussions between team members who had offered well-intentioned feedback to each other, but who had been hurt or offended by suboptimal communication.

It became evident that developing a feedback culture would not “just happen.” We would need to define the feedback culture of our aspirations and work proactively to develop it.

Psychological Safety: The Foundation of Feedback

Psychological safety is necessary for any ambitious, risk-taking startup to flourish. Moreover, a psychologically safe culture is a necessary antecedent to team members feeling comfortable offering – and receiving – constructive feedback.

The good news is that psychological safety can be measured. Using pioneering research from Amy Edmondson, we began anonymously surveying our team on a monthly basis to assess whether we even had the right environment to begin working on feedback. This also gave us the ability to track trends over time, reinforce areas where we were doing well, and identify / address areas that could use improvement.

Next, I had to lead by example. A startup’s culture is driven by its leaders, so I began proactively, intentionally leading with vulnerability. There is a lot of pressure on a startup CEO to be chest-thumpingly crushing it all the time, but instead I shared with the team my professional anxieties and even challenges in my personal life. Here I was trying to normalize not having all the answers all the time, and give others permission to communicate that as well.

More than just leading by example, I tried to create opportunities for others to follow that example. We began overtly celebrating failures (and the learnings that came from them) with an event called Failure Friday. I would go first, and then the dam would open up, as we all shared the many ways we had failed (and learned, and rebounded) that week.

Learning: As the saying goes, what gets measured gets managed, and measuring psychological safety is in and of itself a signal to the team.

Learning: There is no need to reinvent the wheel. We started by building our own psychological safety survey in Qualtrics. Later we discovered that some software – like Culture Amp – already has psycholigical safety built into their engagement assessments.

Delivering Feedback: A Delicate Art

In a global, multicultural, and multilingual team, with communications challenged by the pandemic, we sought to be very careful about how we delivered feedback, and settled on several rules:

  1. Ask before delivering feedback. It may not be a good time for the other person, which could render the entire exercise counterproductive.
  2. Be direct. No sugar-coating, like the terrible compliment sandwich.
  3. Follow a well established formula: “When you [BEHAVIOR], it makes me feel [FEELING] because [TANGIBLE IMPACT].” This formula focuses on the behavior, not the individual, and provides examples of clear impacts on the person’s feelings (which are always valid) and their work. There are many such “feedback formulae” and I’m not sure this is any better or worse than the others, but we were more interested in beginning to experiment than we were in agonizing over some [likely mythical] optimal formula.
  4. Always offer feedback sensitively, and in the spirit of aiding others – never while mad, never in retribution.

Learning: engage the team in building consensus / co-developing these guidelines rather than developing them in a vacuum and imposing them on others.

Receiving Feedback: Embracing Growth and Development

Feedback is a two-way street and how is is received is just as critical to its effectiveness as how it is delivered. Here again we settled on rules to address the remote, global, multicultural, multilingual communication challenges:

  1. When someone asks to give you feedback, check in on your emotional state. If now is not a good time, you can decline – but it is up to you to schedule another time for it.
  2. You may ask clarifying questions when receiving feedback, but not challenge or justify your actions. If you feel a response is necessary, you must schedule it for after you have had time to sit with the feedback.
  3. After receiving feedback, make time to sit with it and process it.
  4. “Thank you for the vitamin.” There is a saying that feedback is a “gift,” but I find it to be much more of a “vitamin” – it can be hard to swallow, but it is good for me! To recognize the positive intent of someone offering feedback, we ritualized the recipient’s response as, “Thank you for the vitamin.”

Learning: high performers often focus on critical feedback, but it is important to receive positive feedback with the same intentionality.

Building the Feedback Muscle

Establishing a feedback culture in this challenging environment would require deliberate exercise of the techniques above. We chose to crawl-before-we-walked by starting off with anonymized 360 degree feedback for everyone, including me. This was not a performance review; it was expressly to help us all improve as teammates. We gave the 360s high priority, carving out time for each teammate to take the survey, process their results, debrief together as a group, and debrief individually with their manager. Here again we began with a bespoke survey in Qualtrics and eventually migrated to using Culture Amp.

As the team demonstrated growing competence in providing anonymized, written feedback, we augmented this “feedback stack” by organizing periodic group feedback sessions. Each teammate would come to the session having prepared feedback for three “helpful” behaviors and three “not-so-helpful” behaviors for each teammate. They would then verbally deliver this feedback – and receive their own – in the group setting.

These group feedback sessions were emotional powder kegs, so it was crucial that we adhered consistently to the rules we had set out. If someone showed up having prepared less than the required number of feedbacks for a teammate, for example, they were not allowed to participate. We did not want any teammates to feel unfairly singled out. As with the 360s, we carved out time for each teammate to prep for the session, process their feedback, debrief together as a group, and debrief individually with their manager.

Learning: offer teammates coaching before the feedback sessions. No matter how formulaic you make it, inexperienced teammates can be more constructive in the sessions with a little help.

Learning: bring in a competent outside facilitator. It was inappropriate for me to facilitate and simultaneously participate in group feedback sessions. I also blundered when I deputized other leaders in our org to facilitate sessions, and they turned out not to be adequately prepared.

Reinforcing the Feedback Loop

The team rapidly leveled up in these structured processes, but our goal was to develop a culture of feedback in real-time, when it would be most effective. We began celebrating feedback whenever it was offered/received. We would literally stop a meeting, call attention to it (and sometimes offer feedback on the way it was given or received for a sort of “feedbackception!”), and then return to the regular discussion.

Of course, I tried to lead by example too – both by giving and receiving feedback publicly. I confess to “planting” a few feedbacks in which I had teammates offer me feedback in group settings so I could model receiving it in the moment.

Learning: leverage 1:1 feedback into learning for the group. If you are giving or receiving feedback – or even coaching someone else on giving or receiving feedback – ask if they would be comfortable taking the discussion public for collective growth.

Results: A Triumph of the Feedback Culture

The culmination of these efforts resulted in a thriving, high-performing team. Our team’s gelled performance became a key recruiting advantage for us and, to this day, many of those teammates still tell me it was the best team they have ever worked on. Our engagement metrics were through the roof, and we had zero employee attrition (during a time when everyone was worried about the war for talent). It was magical!

How do we know this was a result of culture, though? There was a pretty good natural experiment when we were acquired and the parent company changed the culture. Instead of psychological safety, there was fear. Instead of feedback, there was politics. The magic was gone. I was the first to go, and then more than 90% of our recently thriving, high-performing team left within one year.

My conclusion is that feedback culture really matters, and it can be intentionally developed. In a very short time span, we went from craving feedback to actively nurturing it, even amid the complexities of a pandemic. By prioritizing psychological safety, refining the art of giving and receiving feedback, and instituting structured feedback exercises, we generated incredible results.

We weren’t perfect, though, and we stumbled many times along the way. Many of the learnings I shared were painfully won! So, I’m curious what about this journey resonates with you? What other related ideas, techniques, or experiences do you have? Please share them in the comments so we can all learn and grow together!

Published by Bryan Guido Hassin

These are the musings of a global entrepeneur and leader building the sustainabile, prosperous, equitable future. This blog began as a way to document my experience during the IMD MBA in Switzerland and now is the place where I publish eclectic thoughts on climatetech, business, politics, fitness, entertainment, travel, wine, sports, and . . . whatever else is top of mind.

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