How to be great at giving and receiving feedback.
Feedback is both a personal skill to master and a team sport. This post touches on feedback’s place at Netflix, how a team can leverage it to their advantage, and individually what we can do to become more effective at giving and receiving it.
Within the Netflix culture memo we say “You provide candid, timely feedback to colleagues,” and in the body of the document we explore feedback as follows:
We work hard to get people to give each other professional, constructive feedback - up, down and across the organization - on a continual basis. People frequently ask others, “What could I be doing better?” and themselves, “What feedback have I not yet shared?”
We believe we will learn faster and be better if we can make giving and receiving feedback less stressful and a more normal part of work life. Feedback is a continuous part of how we communicate and work with one another versus an occasional formal exercise. We build trust by being selfless in giving feedback to our colleagues, even if it is uncomfortable to do so. Feedback helps us to avoid sustained misunderstandings and the need for rules. Feedback is more easily exchanged if there is a strong underlying relationship and trust between people, which is part of why we invest time in developing those professional relationships. We celebrate the people who are very candid, especially to those in more powerful positions. We know this level of candor and feedback can be difficult for new hires and people in different parts of the world where direct feedback is uncommon. We actively help people learn how to do this at Netflix through coaching and modeling the behaviors we want to see in every employee.
I take from this two underlying goals: 1) learning faster 2) avoiding rules.
Personal Mastery - Learning Faster
Netflix puts a huge emphasis on human capital. We expend more effort on hiring than any company I have hired for, and we compensate at the top of personal market. On the other hand we don’t invest in many of the traditional employee growth structures from other companies. There are few formal career progression programs, and little formalized (classroom) training. I often found formal programs to be more limiting than enabling, and while classroom training can be valuable, it is no substitute for experiencing something first hand. In my experience we learn primarily from experience, and with feedback we learn faster from our experiences than without.
Peter Senge’s Fifth Discipline discusses the concept of personal mastery. Personal mastery is not an end state but rather a constant process of self improvement. Feedback is key to enabling personal mastery, particularly as it helps close gaps between self-perception and reality. In the terms Peter Senge would use feedback can help challenge mental models and develop a shared understanding of reality, necessary preconditions for achieving a shared vision - which is the key to a highly aligned organization. It is very difficult to break out of a mental model through self-reflection alone.
Without doubt poorly delivered feedback has the potential to erode psychological safety - which is a core component of a highly functioning team. Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. You need to know that the person giving you feedback cares for you and is invested in your success. It takes a very strong person to be open to feedback if they don’t feel safe. It is important not to conflate psychological safety with job security - more on that in another post.
The ideal is: feedback is a gift. A way to help your colleagues achieve their goals. Pardon the pun, but there is a feedback loop wherein: strong psychological safety and mutual trust makes feedback easier to give and receive; which in turn builds trust… however, the reverse loop is also possible: where poorly delivered feedback erodes trust, which makes feedback harder to give, and more likely to be misinterpreted; further eroding trust.
There is NO room for ‘weaponized feedback’ employed for political purposes to sabotage a rival or advance an agenda. The concept of feedback should not be used as cover for personal attacks. Feedback of that sort does not help the individual to improve and destroys trust. Careful choice of language can avoid misunderstandings here, but it all turns on intent. As with obscenity, we know it when we see it. It is easy to recognize, and if your team culture does not tolerate it, it won’t be a problem.
When framing feedback you would like to give, take a moment to consider your intent. What objective are you furthering? To help a colleague? To change a behavior or condition of your work environment? Or to score a point and feel better?
Some out of town friends swung by Netflix a few months back, and we got to talking about the bad old days when I was their boss. I got to trot out all sorts of great Netflix culture to contrast with how we did things in the government. I was reminded of how different things are here. How policies largely don’t exist and yet everything works. This is thanks to feedback. With direct candid feedback we can avoid rules. We don’t need an expense policy if we model responsible behavior and give feedback to anyone who is spending more than needed. Social norms are far more powerful than policy.
In our team’s past we have had a few flashpoints around on-call schedules and incident command authority. These occurred in the grey area between documented expectations (rules) and the more lax way in which these areas had been approached. Setting rules is fast and clean, and constraining. Avoiding rules is more adaptable, but requires more (possibly uncomfortable) conversations around expectations, and norming over time. I would rather have a bunch of unpleasant conversations than a bunch of dumb rules. This is both a personal preference, as well as a business advantage, as it enables velocity and the flexibility to respond to a changing environment.
Tips and Tricks
This section provides a summary of discussions Netflix SIRT had as a team on how we wanted to give and receive feedback. While I don’t pretend these are the only way, they do provide some actionable things to consider in establishing your own feedback culture.
Feedback should be provided directly to the individual. Not up-and-over or to unrelated parties.
Share feedback face to face. In person is preferable to sharing written feedback - emails and memos can be taken out of context or lose the nuance of in person discussion. The feedback provider may want to write up notes for themselves, to ensure complete and well delivered feedback, but should not share those notes directly.
The recipient is encouraged to write up feedback as they understood it, in their own words, and share it back with the provider for comment. This helps promote a common understanding. CC’ing your manager is always appreciated, especially if they can help you with anything you want to work on.
We should ask for more feedback.
a. It gives the other party social permission to provide feedback, making it easier on them.
b. Ask for something specific. Hard: Do you have any feedback for me? Better: How did that meeting go? Good: What did you think about the pace of that meeting, did we cover the material in enough depth / breadth?
c. Ask for ongoing feedback on a specific area you are working on. Ex. I’ve been working on stronger eye contact while I am speaking, how did I do yesterday?
d. If you ask for feedback on the spot, it can take the other person off guard so they may need to think about it. You can always ask and then set up a calendar event a bit later to give folks time to think.
Give feedback close to the observed behavior when possible, but take enough time to be thoughtful about your feedback, why you are giving it, and the best way to articulate it.
a. Later the same day or within the next two days is ideal. We can close this gap as we build trust and get better at delivery.
b. There is no ‘expiration date’ on feedback, so don’t feel like it is too late or you missed the opportunity.
c. There is no need to wait for a ‘pattern.’ Single data points are useful as the recipient may see patterns before you.
Most people preferred that a separate short meeting be set up via calendar to share feedback 1 to 1 in private.
a. I would like to move to more public and open sharing of feedback over time, but this is a good way to start.
Most people preferred specific feedback citing examples.
a. I have also found talking about patterns initially, with examples on request, is an effective approach.
Feedback should avoid being personal or ascribing intent. Do not make assumptions. Focus on your view of the events and recognize it is only one view; for example: “I perceived that comment/action as x” or “When you did X I felt Y.” You should seek to ‘keep it on your side of the fence’ and focus on how you experienced the behavior.
Value judgements are generally unhelpful as they don’t have actionable data and personalize the issue. “$project is dumb” doesn’t provide any information and makes it personal, vs “The issue with $project was a lack of support for multi-region. ”
Ask questions about facts you think are incorrect rather than challenging, ex, “You had the wrong data in our meeting” is instead “I was surprised to hear that the figure was 50%, where did you get that data?”
The recipient of feedback should not feel the need respond in the moment. Avoid even asking for clarifications right away if you feel it might become defensive or escalate. Simply thank the feedback provider and end the conversation. After digesting the feedback the recipient can set up a follow-on meeting to clarify or discuss further - it is the recipient’s prerogative to follow-up.
The provider should not expect or seek some sort of response (apology, plans to change behavior, argument over facts, etc) in the moment. Feedback as a gift is different from conflict resolution. If you have shared your perspective as feedback, and are not satisfied with the resultant behavior of your peer, it is best to engage your manager.