Giving Feedback That’s Radically Transparent
Honest feedback is a gift. Here’s how you can start delivering it.
Giving transparent feedback is a challenge for most people.
Want to know what radically transparent feedback looks like? Here’s an actual email sent to Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates, by an employee named Jim Haskel:
You deserve a “D-” for your performance today in the meeting. You did not prepare at all, because there is no way you could have and been that disorganized.
In the future, I/we would ask you to take some time and prepare, and maybe even I should come up and start talking to you to get you warmed up or something, but we can’t let this happen again.
Now, if you’re the billionaire CIO of one of the world’s most successful hedge funds, what are the odds that you’d fire Jim Haskel? But not only didn’t Dalio fire Haskel, he sent him an apology. Not just that, he copied the management committee of Bridgewater and asked them to investigate his history to see if this behavior was part of an ongoing pattern.
That’s radical transparency. And it’s why Bridgewater consistently outperforms other firms – they relentlessly probe for feedback that shows where the consensus is wrong.
Even though there’s surprising research that highlights several benefits of giving negative feedback, most people are reluctant to share it with others. This happens because:
- We don’t think they’re smart enough to handle it.
- We don’t think they’re mature enough to handle it.
- We don’t want others to think we’re jerks.
- We don’t want to be mean.
The problem with resisting transparency is that it creates a weak signal. Critical information keeps getting filtered out of conversations or muted entirely. We disguise negative feedback with pleasantries, serve up praise sandwiches, or simply void giving it altogether. By time we come around to breaking the bad news, it’s usually too late for a course correction. Our desire to be “nice” and avoid “rocking the boat” perpetuates the unforced errors that could have otherwise been resolved had we only mustered the courage to speak up with candor, clarity and confidence.
It turns out there are measurable performance benefits to being more honest. A 2010 study by CEB showed that companies with a culture of open communication had a 270% higher 10-year shareholder return (7.9% as compared to 2.1%) than those who operated in silence. And research from management firm Zenger/Folkman showed that employee engagement rose when managers provided honest feedback – what employees needed to know, not simply wanted to hear.
How can you break down barriers to honest feedback?
Begin with those you trust. If the prospect of becoming a transparent organization seems too risky, consider a slow rollout, starting with the people you trust most. Approach close colleagues and offer to give honest feedback about their performance in exchange for transparency about your own. The two-way nature of the arrangement divides the stakes equally and reduces the potential for judgement and acrimony. From there, broaden the effort to include others in the organization, demonstrating how your team’s transparency practices can be duplicated and shared. Transparency should be radical in its design but not in its delivery.
Keep others in the loop. Only 40% of employees report that they are well informed about their company’s goals, strategies, and tactics. This uncertainty about the company’s direction leads to chronic stress, which inhibits trust and undermines teamwork. If you want to create a transparent environment, everyone in the organization has to work on a “need to know” basis. People can’t be transparent when they’re kept in the dark.
Build a challenge network. Change starts at the top, and leaders have to model transparency if they want it to spread throughout the culture. In my book The Feedback Fix, I describe how some of the most successful organizations have transformed their feedback processes starting with the way information reaches the CEO. These leaders appoint a circle of “loving critics” – the people who are empowered to give their bosses the honest feedback they need, even when they don’t think they need it at all. When leadership takes an active role in modeling and reinforcing the behavior – like Ray Dalio did at Bridgewater – then radical transparency can become a radical reality.
Break Your Creativity Echo Chamber
Be deliberate about how you put together your teams.
Fresh ideas and new perspectives are the lifeblood of great work. But what happens when inspiration routinely comes from the same place – people who think the same as you? Homogeny of thought can stifle originality and threaten creativity, leading to a creative echo chamber that prevents good ideas from reverberating across teams. Read More
Give Feedforward Like a Fighter Pilot
Feedforward is a unique approach to giving feedback that improves performance, boosts productivity, and keeps teams on track. Unlike traditional feedback, feedforward is timely, continuous, and focused on development – a refreshing change from the typical feedback fare that rarely makes a positive difference or offers much insight about how work gets done. Read More
Too much feedback makes people less effective
Giving too much feedback is counterproductive.
People can’t fix what they can’t see. From time to time, it’s our job – as managers, teachers, parents and friends – to see for them. By providing eye-opening feedback, we eliminate some of the tunnel vision that keeps others from recognizing their personal or professional flaws. And while sharing negative feedback can be good news, we need to be particular about how much of it we share at once. Read More
Why Negative Feedback Might Be Good For You
Few people like hearing bad news about themselves. Getting a tough performance review or being called out for a mistake challenges our status and triggers feelings of shame, frustration, and helplessness. Negative feedback floods the brain with stress-inducing hormones that raise our threat awareness and causes a momentary loss of executive functioning. If an unfavorable report makes you think you’ve lost your mind, it’s probably because you have.
But before we write off the criticisms we receive from bosses and friends, here’s the surprising part about negative feedback: It might actually be good for us.
Pixar’s secret for giving feedback
Dynamic feedback drives creative thinking among teams
Pixar is one of the most successful movie studios in Hollywood. Over the years, it has collected more than twenty Academy Awards for hits like Toy Story, The Incredibles, and Finding Nemo. Its last eight films have grossed more than $500 million worldwide. The memorable characters and storylines that Pixar dreams up have delighted moviegoers of all ages. But behind all of the box office magic is an active feedback system that’s built on candor, communication, and a surprising openness to other people’s ideas.
Creating full-length animated films is definitely not child’s play. A single scene lasting just four seconds requires about one hundred frames, which can take up to a week to produce. For the 2001 smash Monsters, Inc., animators spent twelve hours on each frame, many of which featured Sully, the film’s furry blue hero, and his 2,320,413 individually animated hairs, each painstakingly created to appear like the real thing.
At times, the process can seem more forensic than artistic. Story artists comb through every detail of a scene, scanning for things that probably go unnoticed by viewers – the placement of a prop, perhaps, or the way a character’s eyes roll. They do so at their own peril: Changing even one minor detail in the animation means adjusting a character’s “rig,” or the digital dimensions that shape facial expressions and body movements. Rigging is a complex web of formulas, coding, and physics, and any imprecision in the rig can compromise a character’s lifelike performance on screen.
It doesn’t end there. Further down the pipeline, bits and pieces of the story – from camera angles and lighting to sound effects and motion capture – get reviewed and revised by film editors, technical directors, and creative designers. All that trimming adds up: It took Pixar’s team five years to scope more than 146,000 images before bringing its latest hit, Inside Out, to the box office. Making movies the Pixar way is a painstaking series of fills and cuts that lead to rapid design cycles that dunk ideas just as quickly as they’re dreamed up.
But instead of producing bottlenecks, which is what you’d expect, the process leads to breakthroughs – all because of a feedback technique Pixar calls “plussing.” Instead of shutting down ideas completely, animators try to add on to them with suggestions for improvement. So when the creative director for Pixar’s upcoming Toy Story 4 doesn’t like the way Woody’s eyes roll from frame to frame, he’ll won’t just toss the sketch. Instead, he’ll “plus” it by asking the story artist, “I like the way you drew Woody’s eyes. What if they rolled left?”
While that might seem semantic, the feedback effect is significant. Rather than reject ideas in their entirety, Pixar creates an additive approach to sharing feedback. It actively encourages artists to come up with their next steps based on the leads they receive.
Walt Disney captured the magic of plussing more than 60 years ago in an interview describing the planning of Disneyland:
“A picture is a thing that once you wrap it up and turn it over to Technicolor, you’re through. Snow White is a dead issue with me. The last picture I just finished—the one I just wrapped up a few weeks ago—it’s gone; I can’t touch it. There’s things in it I don’t like? I can’t do anything about it.
“I wanted something live, something that could grow, something I could keep plussing with ideas, you see? The park is that. Not only can I add things but even the trees will keep growing; the thing will get more beautiful every year.”
The process borrows from the tenets of improv, in which partners keep the sketch alive by “accepting all offers” and mining for comedic wrinkles in each other’s ideas. People who operate with “yes, and…” thinking use their words to amplify ideas, not silence them. Improv comedians furiously search for the just the right angle to keep ideas alive and “make their partner look good” by keeping the sketch rolling. Imagine what would happen in your next meeting if you tried to amplify someone else’s idea instead of just silencing it completely:
With just a simple tweak in our feedback, we help others think about ways to turn the corner rather than leaving them stranded at dead ends. And while this approach has worked wonders for Pixar, it can be applied as a non-critical feedback strategy to help just about anyone challenge their initial assumptions and come up with a better version than the one they had before. Whether it’s big-screen success or small wins in our work or relationships, “yes, and…” thinking lets people see the world in a whole new dimension.
Teams and the Magical Number 150
We like to claim that some institutions are “too big to fail.” Can the same be said of teams?
Turns out that bigger isn’t always better, especially when it comes to team size. Not only can large teams put a freeze on workplace culture, they sometimes create silos that stifle collaboration and threaten a company’s ability to innovate and grow – all because of the magical number 150. Read More
Want more from your team? Eat more cake.
The Golden State Warriors just proved that creating a championship culture can be a piece of cake.
In what has become a Warriors tradition, players receive custom-designed cakes on their birthdays from Alison Okabayashi, a trained pastry chef in the Bay Area. (What else do you get for a multi-millionaire on his birthday?) Over the past year, Okabayashi has dreamed up MVP-caliber confections for the team. There was the one with the Michigan State mascot in Draymond Green’s uniform. Or the lifelike reconstruction of Anderson Vareajo’s curly hair. And who could forget the birthday cake for Kevin Durant, the newest Warrior, who celebrated his birthday with a cake replica of his jersey adorned with Olympic gold medals and crab legs?
Time To Fix Our Feedback
This is a book about giving feedback, but not the kind you’ve come to know and loathe.
Whether it’s the feedback we give to employees and co-workers, teachers and students, or family and friends, we have a nagging suspicion that it’s ultimately going to fail. And you know what? We’re right.
According to researchers, people apply just 30% of the feedback they receive. The rest is ignored, rejected, stonewalled, or mangled the moment it arrives. Even if they don’t dread feedback, the vast majority of people just aren’t interested in applying it in their professional or personal lives. If delivering feedback is going to run into that much resistance, sharing it seems like a major waste of time and energy.