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Outlier’s Path

Creating a Culture of Feedback

Recently, a daring founder asked Pat if we had any thoughts on interviews and reference calls. This founder’s company had been developing slowly out of the gate, but has been on a growth spurt recently. We asked him what had changed in the last two years. He responded that one significant change was he decided to create a culture of continuous feedback at the company a few years ago.

To have a high-performance culture, you need feedback to learn and grow, yet we usually leave growth up to individual team members and feedback to annual performance cycles, resulting in a very slow feedback loop. To move faster, you want to create a culture where feedback can be given and received more timely.

Founders tend to be fine giving feedback. Still, it is important to remember to provide feedback in a way that people will listen. On the other hand, it takes more work for founders to get candid feedback from their team members, which is understandable. There is an asymmetric power dynamic. While apparent, it may still surprise many early-stage founders, since you sit right next to your team and you think you are just one of them, but your team members are not thinking the same about you.

Here are steps to overcome this dynamic:

  1. Ask Routinely. Start by asking and clarifying that you want the positive and especially the negative information so that you can improve. By doing so, you give the other person permission. Do it frequently and routinely, such as at every one-on-one or all-hands meeting. Even if you ask, don’t expect every person will be naturally forthcoming with feedback. Keep asking and ask in different ways. Your mission is to customize the request so the person will speak.
  2. Actively Listen and Process. When you are receiving feedback, treat it as a win and a gift that someone will give you constructive feedback rather than happy talk. Instead of reacting or responding, try to first listen and unpack the gift actively. Ask clarifying questions to gain a better understanding and dig deeper. Take notes and synthesize the feedback.
  3. Absorb the Synthesis. Executive Coach Matt Mochary would put this step as “accept it (or not).” I prefer to “absorb” the feedback because you want to take it in and soak it up, to fully understand the feedback and where it is coming from before you accept it or reject it. This process is about seeking truth about yourself, alignment with your values and goals, and gaining clarity on the shades of gray.
  4. Respond and Resolve Promptly. To close the loop, respond to the feedback, and resolve any specific actions promptly. Giving thanks for the feedback is always a good way to respond, but it is even better to demonstrate that the feedback has been heard and what specific actions, if any, you will take.
  5. Celebrate the Results. The best companies celebrate their culture at all-hands and team meetings. If you want to create a continuous feedback culture, highlight specific examples of feedback, how it was given and received, and how it positively impacted the company. Celebrate the examples, the people involved, and the concrete results at all hands.

Good luck following this AAARC and creating a culture of continuous feedback at your company.