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7 Tough Lessons I’ve Learned on Giving and Receiving Feedback at our Startup

Feb 2, 2016 9 min readOpen

It’s one of the biggest pieces that will make or break us as we try to become a great company, and I only recently realized it.

We’ve been back and forth a number of times about the topic of feedback, and it’s an area where we still have a lot of work to do to get right.

People often say, “You have this value of positivity and no complaining, and you also have a value of clarity and sharing things early. How that could those work together when it comes to giving feedback?”

It’s not just those outside of Buffer, either. We’ve heard from Buffer teammates, too, who wonder:

  • Should I give feedback?
  • Am I criticizing someone when I do?
  • Am I just complaining?

I’d love to explore what I’ve discovered about why feedback is not only needed but a true act of kindness, and to share with you some of the methods I’ve learned so far for giving and receiving feedback.

Lesson 1: Understanding why humans fundamentally need feedback

In theory, we might think a world without feedback would be great.  No one would ever say anything to us and we could do what we wanedt to do!

But in reality, a lack of feedback can be scary because we don’t know where we stand.

I learned a lot on this from a particularly fascinating passage in Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations:

“Psychologists have come across an interesting phenomenon: a person put in a sensory-deprivation room after only a short amount of time reports experiencing visual hallucinations, paranoia, and a depressed mood. Put simply, without outside stimulus, we go mad.

I believe something very similar happens when we are deprived of feedback related to our work. Our egos may be wary of feedback, but we are relational beings that thrive on honest feedback. I’ve seen organizations where no feedback is ever exchanged ‘go mad’ because of it. People judge others behind their backs, only to wonder nervously what others might be saying when they have their backs turned. In places like these, every word, every silence, every raised eyebrow, is scrutinized for unspoken judgments.”

Lesson 2: Learning to see feedback as a kindness

There’s an illustration from Gaping Void that gets passed around Buffer’s virtual office quite a bit:

feedback as kindness

I love this because I truly believe feedback is kindness, feedback is compassion.

The way I’ve start to coach people on giving feedback is to focus on the idea that you are doing this person a favor by helping them to be successful.

Giving feedback is always going to create friction, no matter how you look at it—it’s not easy for a person with a point of feedback to bring it up, and it’s not easy for the recipient to hear it.

So embracing that you’re here to help, embracing that mindset shift of expressing kindness, is really important.

Personally, I try to give feedback multiple times a week to people I work with, either via one-on-one chats or via Slack. Often they’re just quick items, to give people a new perspective on something.

I feel I’m doing people a disservice if I don’t have feedback for someone I speak with regularly. It’s almost a to-do item for me, that once a week I try to give some feedback.

Lesson 3: How I’ve learned to give feedback and the words I use

It’s taken me a long time to realize that giving feedback is a real skill.

You don’t just pick it up automatically and give great feedback where you’re comfortable, that person’s comfortable, everyone’s growing.

As a result, I’ve started to spend more time on coaching around feedback, doing things like encouraging others to share feedback, talking through how I might do it, discussing how to phrase things well, encouraging them to not let even small things linger, thinking on the right mindset to have.

Generally, I like to jump straight in when I have a point of feedback. (Truthfully, this is not always the best approach; it can feel a bit harsh or abrupt at times.)

The mindset I want to get into when giving someone feedback is that I’m truly missing a lot of context to make a judgement call one way or another. And it’s the fine balance between admitting that to ourselves and at the same time not letting it paralyze us to speak up and share what is nonetheless on our minds, even without having that full context. In order to mentally prepare myself for feedback discussions, reminding myself of my biases and assumptions is really helpful. On top of that making those assumptions and biases explicit even to the other person can be very helpful to their understanding too. Because of that, in the past I’ve found myself saying things like:

  • “I’m sure I’m making a lot of assumptions…”
  • “I know I don’t have the full context here…”
  • “Something that’s on my mind…”
  • “One of the things I want to help with is…”

These types of phrases help me admit that I may be wrong with what I’m about to say, yet still allow me to share so I can get it out in the open.

Here’s a quick video on some of my thoughts around giving feedback:

Generally, I try to not “package” my feedback. It can become disingenuous and also leading: You’ll begin to know the feedback is coming.

What I do like about the “compliment sandwich” method of giving feedback is the idea of giving the feedback and then sharing something that person is doing well, also.

When you receive feedback, it can sometimes feel like you’re not doing anything right. I like to end with the fact that it’s not about you; it’s just something that happened, and I know a lot of things you’re doing a great job with.

feedback phrases

It’s also key that we don’t say “You’ve done something wrong.” We give feedback on the behavior, not the person themselves.

If someone hasn’t had a productive week, it doesn’t mean they’re not a productive person. It means they haven’t had a productive week.

None of us are doing a 100% good job at all of this right now. I know I can still give off the impression of, “He’s on my back, he doesn’t like me.”

But if it’s given in a good way, feedback can feel like, “This person is rooting for me.”

Whenever I can trigger that feeling, I feel like I’ve truly succeeded. 

Lesson 4: Most culture feedback is about giving people permission

Feedback is happening a lot at Buffer—maybe more than people might realize—and I think it could happen a lot more still.

The two most common areas where someone might receive feedback at Buffer tend to be culture and role.

The most important cultural elements we tend to give feedback on involve the value of positivity or no complaining.

There are things (like the weather, travel, Comcast) that we’ve almost been conditioned to habitually complain about.

Joel and I recognized this habit early on and encouraged one another to improve on it, so so we do quite a bit of work to encourage teammates to think about gratitude, rephrase their thoughts, or do whatever they can do to try not to create negativity if possible.

This is not to say that there aren’t days where you’re going though a tough time. But in many moments, you have a choice.

Written language in particular is a big element we tend to give feedback on.

In a “regular” office environment, it might be fine or even encouraged to be more transactional with your messages.

But because Buffer is a remote team, written communication is the main way we speak. We need to add a lot of emotional layers to the messages we send in order to create the kind of environment we want to work in.

So we encourage making your messages more alive, with elements like emoji, exclamation points, or just phrasing things in such a way that we can all feel fulfilled even when we’re not all in a room together.

This could seem somewhat absurd to even talk about, and often it’s not so much a point of feedback as it is a point of permission.

If you’re coming from, say, an agency background where you’ve always had to be professional in your communication, it’s helpful to know that things are different here.

We don’t want you to check certain pieces of yourself at the door, like your goofiness, your funny lines, your favorite GIFs—they all have a place here.  As humans at Buffer, that’s how we get life out of our communication.

All of this has nothing to do with your work’s quality, but it has everything to do with the environment we create at work.

Lesson 5: Giving role feedback (We’ve been failing here)

On the role side, there are some things that we’re not quite so good at yet.

In the past, we didn’t always fully set down what we expected of people and instead we had these implicit expectations.

So the person would say, “Oh, I didn’t know that was part of what I was supposed to do at Buffer!”

That didn’t create a great experience in some instances, and we did people a bit of a disservice.

We have some challenges here, and we want to do better.

As we’ve been experimenting with OKRs, I think we’re now getting to a point where we have more measurable, tangible goals for people across the whole company, so it will be easier to help people understand what’s expected and meet their goals.

We’ll approach feedback here with our same cultural values of open-mindedness and being aware of the possibility of being wrong, but also not shying away from those questions of skill and productivity and quality of work.

Even when we don’t hit our goals, it’s not always because we weren’t productive or something is the matter. But if that’s the case, it will be easier to expose what’s going on so we can work on those challenges.

Lesson 6: Insights on how we try to receive feedback

I’d say I receive feedback one or two times a week, mostly from Joel, Carolyn and Sunil. Anyone on the team is encouraged to give me feedback, but I know it can be harder because of my role in the company. That’s something we can work on.

The way I try to receive feedback personally is to do 3 specific things:

  • Be accepting of the feedback
  • Find something in it to agree with
  • Determine how it can help me in the future
keys of receiving feedback

The first step is to be accepting and inviting of whatever it is someone shares with you, whether they’re right or wrong.

If someone is not accepting or inviting to feedback, you train the person who’s giving you feedback that it’s not easy to give feedback to you. And over time, you will get less and less of it.

After you’ve let the person speak, finding ground for agreement is really important. Almost every time you get feedback, you’ll be able to find some point, however small, to agree with—even if there’s something they missed, even if they don’t have the whole context.

The third element is to is figure out how to use this information to move you forward. Often we think of feedback as something where we’ve messed up and failed, and we need to go back and fix it and apologize.

Sometimes there’s room to go back and improve, but often you won’t get the most learning from the past.

Usually it’s about applying it to the future; tweaking and improving and growing so you become that better person over time.

Lesson 7: The toughest feedback I’ve ever received

Feedback is never easy, and it shouldn’t be—the tension reminds us to treat it with care.

It takes something out of me to receive it, and it takes something of the person to give it.

Courtney asked me a really great question about the toughest feedback I’ve ever received, and it was an interesting one to think on. This video focuses on that experience:

Embracing feedback as the core building block to scale Buffer

Feedback is still somewhat of a scary word, but it doesn’t necessarily always have to feel like, “I messed up.”

I’ve found that the people who want to grow really crave feedback.

I’d say the most limiting factor at Buffer right now is not giving feedback; it’s actually coaching people to give feedback to others as the company is growing.

I’m learning quickly that it’s one of the most important processes there is.

Feedback is how we scale as a company; it’s how we make sure we keep helping each other.

New people are coming in, and they need help and guidance. If the next person who joins doesn’t get feedback because the person they work closest with doesn’t have those skills, then that’s where we stop growing our culture.

How do you work on giving and receiving feedback? How can we work smarter at creating a culture of teammates who crave feedback?

I’m keen to hear all your thoughts in the comments!

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