Feedback

Building a culture of high performance: Learn to give and receive feedback well

There are many things we can learn from the book Netflix’s Culture of reinvention. Among them, a practice that we can all learn and apply is its insistence on “selfless candor”: the practice of improving performance through receiving regular feedback (from everyone).

To build a culture that really embraces constant learning and improvements, learning to give and receive feedback well is a sine qua non.

Without constant 360-degree feedback, we identify our mistakes more slowly (and sometimes completely oblivious to our mistakes) and as a result, we learn and improve more slowly.

This would first hurt performance of individual staff, and then gradually reduce performance of the whole group, relative to the competition.

Netflix’s 4As of giving and receiving feedback

Everyone knows how to voice their opinions, their frustrations and their prejudices. But to be able to give feedback in a way that’s constructive and helpful isn’t something that everyone knows.

In this section, we’d learn the 4As of giving and receiving feedback that’s being used by Netflix.

Giving feedback:

  1. Aim to assist
  2. Actionable

Receiving feedback:

  1. Appreciate
  2. Accept or discard

 

That’s it. Simple but not easy. Let’s explore these 4As in more details.

Aim to assist

We tend to think that we always give our feedback with an aim to assist the receiver – and that’s what all feedback givers think.

But that may not what’s seen by the receiver. The giver might have simply “spoken his mind” in a raw form, such as voicing their frustrations, dismay, etc. (such as “I think you did terribly with this task”), without thinking about how this remark can be helpful.

To express the good intention, we’d first need to review and think about how our feedback is going to the help the receiver improve their performance.

Actionable

Actionable means that the feedback must clearly show what behavior should be adjusted, and preferably, also explain why.

For example, saying “You didn’t perform well this month” isn’t an actionable feedback, because the receiver doesn’t know specifically what needs to be changed or improved.

Actionable feedback needs to be specific, and hence, usually targeting concrete behaviors: “During our meetings, you often talk more than half of the time. This is preventing other members from having the time they need to give their opinions.”.

The test of “actionable” feedback is that the receiver knows clearly what they need to adjust.

Appreciate

It’s important for receivers of feedback (that meet the 2As above) to express their appreciation of the feedback.

If someone gives me an actionable feedback that aims to improve my performance, and my reply is along the line of: “Thanks. But did I ask you for it?” or simply say “Thanks, I’d consider them.” and leave, this signals to the feedback giver that the feedback is not welcome or the receiver is not interested in receiving feedback.

And because it’s not welcome, people will stop giving him/her feedback. And that stops the whole learning culture.

So it’s a not just nice, but a must, in the 4As formula to express appreciation of the feedback: “Thank you for pointing this out for me.”, or “I appreciate that you gave me feedback on this.”.

The challenge, and probably the biggest one in the entire 4As formula, lies in this step. In most situations, it’s much easier to give feedback than to receive them.

In fact, if the staffs involved are immature or not accustomed to this culture of feedback, they may very well react negatively, even to feedback that meet the the first 2As guidelines. Some of the more sensitive ones may even misinterpret those feedback as insults.

That’s why sensitivity to cultural differences, training and selection (during recruitment) all need to be well coordinated to pull this off.

And in Netflix’s 4As formula, they actually added a 5th A: Adapt. Adapt to the local culture (without compromising the learning loop through giving and receiving feedback).

Another aspect worth mentioning, from my observation, is that many staff, with the intention of not to adversely affect the relationship with colleagues, and to avoid any potential conflicts, will withhold their feedback even when they know the feedback will be helpful to the receiver.

Overcoming these practical resistances challenges require serious investment in training.

Act or Discard

This 4th A was a little surprising to me: Act on the feedback or simply discard it.

In Netflix’s culture, receivers are free to do anything with the feedback: agree and act on them, agree and not act on them, disagree and ignore them, etc.

When reading this part, I wondered what’s the point of doing this whole thing without making sure that the receiver act on those feedback? What’s the point of carrying out this painstaking training on giving and receiving feedback, but without making sure there’s some learning from it?

But those questions arise when we look at things from the perspective of the organization. Switching to the perspective of learning yields this immediate insight: Can anyone control if a colleague will learn from a feedback?

The answer is a resounding NO.

The only person who can decide whether they’re willing to learn or not and what to learn is the learner. In this case, receivers of feedback.

So that’s why receivers are the ones who best decide whether they’d do anything with the feedback or not. And not all feedback, though with good intention, are worth following.

To borrow from Netflix’s lingo, it’s feedback receivers’ freedom and responsibility to make their own judgement on what to do with the feedback.

(Freedom: Free to make one’s own decisions.
Responsibility: Be held accountable for one’s results.)

Speaking candidly

In practice, we may need more help in order to give and receive feedback well than what the 4As above give us.

This has always been more of an arts than a science. The common challenges include:

  • How to communicate feedback, which is essentially an opinion, in a way that doesn’t provoke defensiveness?
  • What it really means to speak with candor?
  • How to communicate one’s feelings and emotions in the workplace context?
  • How to develop the necessary listening skill for this feedback culture to take off?

To answer these questions, we need to look to guidance provided by Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman and Kaley Klemp in their amazing book on leadership: “The 15 commitments of conscious leadership“.

And the Chapter that’s relevant to our discussion is Part II, Commitment 4: Speaking Candidly.

This chapter contains a lot of insights and suggestions that are true revelations to me. And I believe you’d find them helpful too.

15th commitments of leadership

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