Feedback is the breakfast of champions.
– Ken Blanchard
Feedback is critical in business. As a founder, you must make sure you’re always listening to your team, customers, and advisors, and taking in suggestions that could help you improve. You also want to be attuned to positive feedback that can help you understand your strengths and how to build on them further, and know what habits and practices you should continue. This requires knowing how to filter between the noise of everyday grumbles and the important information that could fundamental change your future potential. There’s a balance between taking in every piece of feedback and therefore not having any direction, and arrogantly ignoring anything negative that comes your way.
Further, feedback provides an opportunity for learning and growth. This means that in addition to learning how to take feedback properly, you need to perfect how you give feedback to people on your team (we’ll get to that a bit later).
Listening to Feedback
Let’s first admit something: It’s hard to hear anything negative about your company, brand, or even yourself. Maybe that’s why it can be so easy to write off less-than-stellar commentary as being the product of inevitable naysayers or people who just don’t “get” what you’re going for. Some founders and CEOs can dig their heels in and treat negative feedback as noise that will recede if they just focus on the core of the business.
Don’t make that mistake; ignoring feedback can lead to disastrous results.
Take for example Uber, which allegedly waved off multiple reports of sexual harassment, sexism, and other unacceptable workplace behaviors and mindsets for far too long. Because employee concerns were dismissed — with some complainants being told the perpetrator was very important to the CEO — the work environment became toxic for many, leading to an HR crisis and the eventual oust of CEO Travis Kalanick, plus a massive hit to the brand’s image. This latest issue, compounded by the company’s previous missteps (such as ignoring the many complaints stemming from the lack of driver background checks, and the inability of drivers to receive tips until very recently), led many passengers and drivers alike to increasingly choose Lyft over Uber. As a result, Uber has lost 15% of its market share in the last two years, with 3% of that being lost over a four month span after harassment revelations were made public.
While Uber is a shining example of “everyone tried to tell you loudly and clearly that you were on the wrong path”, feedback isn’t always that explicit. Sometimes market trends and consumer buzz provide you with implicit feedback that you ignore at your own peril.
Polaroid, for instance, suffered such a significant drop in business that it was forced to file for bankruptcy in 2001, largely because it clung to its printed photo ways in the face of exponentially rising digital. Most mind-boggling of all is that Polaroid had one of the earliest digital cameras on the market, and had been devoting nearly half of its R&D resources to digital by the late 1980s. In spite of all that, though, the top decision-makers at Polaroid refused to believe people would ever go fully digital, being instead convinced that consumers would always want a hard copy of their photos. The champions of the previous version of their camera wouldn’t allow the innovation to overtake their bread and butter. They were reluctant to make a move that could disrupt their core business, and instead allowed other companies to do this for them, losing many major business verticals to competitors who were willing to take the plunge where Polaroid wasn’t.
Aside from the very human reluctance to hear criticism, other factors can make feedback difficult to absorb. For instance, the source of the feedback may make you feel more defensive than open in response to it. You should of course make sure you’re listening to people and groups that know enough about your product or company to make informed statements about it. This includes your customers – while recognizing that you do not need to please all customers, you need to know where to draw the line with the type and source of customer feedback. Beyond that, avoid the overconfident (dare I say hubristic) refusal to listen to anyone that you perceive to be “lower” than you, be that an employee, customer, or other player in your potential success.
One thing that can help you better take feedback is keeping in mind how difficult providing feedback actually is, which I’ll address shortly. While it’s sometimes brutal to be on the receiving end, it’s also tough to muster the courage to give feedback that might be off-putting. For someone to undertake that, they must care about your business and your success enough to risk the potential fallout of telling you something you don’t want to hear. This means that you need to be supportive of the feedback-giver – not trying to explain away their concern or argue against it. Recognize that if you are hearing it, there is a reason. Whether that person misinterpreted your actions or doesn’t know the full story doesn’t matter – what matters is that your actions were perceived to be negative. And perception is reality.
Difficult-to-hear feedback often helps you see things that are in your entrepreneurial blindspot. If you’re willing to listen and consider what well-intentioned and invested people tell you about your business, you will come away with a broader picture than you would’ve seen from your own viewpoint alone.
Giving Great Feedback
As an entrepreneur, your ability to provide your team with useful, constructive feedback is just as important as your ability to accept feedback from others. It’s a tool you need to master in order to run any kind of business well. Luckily, following a few guidelines should help make it less daunting.
Ask to give feedback – and receive confirmation. Ask the team member to whom you wish to give feedback if they’d like some suggestions or tips on how to better execute their roles or contributions. It’s almost guaranteed that they will accept your offer, especially if you are on their team, their direct superior, or hold another high level position. Asking helps them feel like it’s a collaborative endeavor.
Focus on specific examples of behaviors and impact: Generalizations and sweeping statements can cloud the core of an issue, and make it hard to pull out specific actionable things on which to work. Instead of saying “You’re always late and it’s really a problem.”, try something like “You were late to our team meetings the last two times. When one person is late, it keeps us all from making the best use of our time.”
Never resort to name-calling or character attacks: Like generalizing, it may seem easier to make statements about a person’s character based off one or two problematic behaviors. Don’t. Instead of saying “It’s really inconsiderate of you to be late so often”, focus on the actual reverberations that the person’s lateness has on the team and the company, and convey that as in the example above.
Don’t make feedback about morality or value judgments. Make it about the tasks at hand and the disruptions or setbacks a certain behavior or decision creates. One tool that can help you keep this in mind is to consider the following: when you’re in a rush to get somewhere because you’re late and things could be dire if you miss the appointment, you may drive a bit less safely than normal – speeding a bit and going across lanes. You know it’s not the best behavior, but you feel it’s a justified tradeoff in the situation. Anytime you see someone else driving poorly, give that person the benefit of the doubt that they, too, have some emergency at hand. The same goes for feedback – the person may have other circumstances influencing their actions that do not make them a careless or insensitive individual. Help that person see the impact of those actions, though, and you may be able to help find ways for that person to avoid putting themself in the situation to inadvertently make that impact again.
Stay strong and offer solutions in the face of excuses. When someone tries to explain away negative or detrimental behaviors, remind them of the bigger picture and that it’s not about the individual reasons for each instance. If they say “I was late because the subway was late and I couldn’t find my bike lock to lock it up outside…”, you might tell them that you understand things happen from time to time and work with them to brainstorm ways they could mitigate such scenarios or keep them to a minimum. For example, if the subway line they take is notorious for being late, they can plan to take an earlier train. Or if they have a hard time remembering to bring their bike lock from home, they could leave a spare at the office.
Create a company culture that is open and growth-oriented, not closed and punitive. A company’s culture is one of the determining factors in how people will take feedback. In order for people to take feedback well, they have to feel safe and see their role as important within the larger context. If they feel that every piece of feedback they receive is tantamount to a strike against them, always bearing the threat of firing or other penalties, they may become defensive. That in turn will make it hard for them to digest and consider your feedback, then come up with strategies for improving. It could lead to them taking some knee-jerk quick fix actions to get off your “bad” list, without resolving the underlying issue or habit.
If on the other hand, you invest in your people’s success, they will see their value and not think of themselves as replaceable. Support your team members when they struggle with something and show genuine effort to improve, even if improvement is a bit slower than you would like. Make sure they understand when they get negative feedback that the goal is to help them be their best, not to bring them down. That will encourage and inspire them to make necessary changes and correct problems.
Feedback should — more often than not — be positive. Some leaders incorrectly think “feedback” is just another word for “criticism”. Make sure you’re giving your employees and coworkers ample kudos when they are doing things right, so they know you’re not simply nitpicking the negatives. This helps them feel valued overall and puts into perspective that they are performing well, but that there are still some aspects that could use work. We all love to feel appreciated in our endeavors; it’s a big part of what keeps us going.
The ideal ratio of positive to negative feedback is 3:1. This allows you to support and reinforce what your team is doing well, while keeping you from becoming either a cheerleader or a nag.
That said, AVOID the feedback “sandwich” or “hamburger” method, where you give praise, followed by criticism, then praise again, all in one sitting. This approach buries the vital feedback your team member needs to hear, potentially leading them to think it’s not that important. Let negative feedback stand on its own and don’t try to pad it with positive feedback out of fear or unwillingness to have an uncomfortable conversation. Similarly, don’t overshadow positive feedback with a slew of criticisms. You don’t want to say “You did this well, but…” and then launch into a handful of things they did poorly.
Give feedback immediately whenever possible. Timing can have a huge impact on feedback’s reception and effectiveness. Ideally, you should give feedback as soon as you’ve noticed either a positive or problematic behavior, exchange, or piece of work. That way, the task or behavior is still fresh in the person’s mind, as well as yours. It also helps you avoid the tendency to pile it on all at once after you’ve spent weeks or months later gathering a dozen pieces of feedback that you never shared. It can be demoralizing for a person to hear feedback from weeks ago, thinking that the feedback is more important than it might be if you’ve held onto it for so long.
If you are waiting to give feedback only at performance reviews, you’re doing yourself and your employees a disservice.
Keep feedback informal, clear, and concise. You don’t need to call a formal meeting every time you have feedback to share with someone. Say your employee has been working on growing your company’s partnerships, and there are early signs that it’s paying off. You can simply walk over to the person and say something like, “I appreciate how much you’ve been following up with our potential partners. I know it’s a lot of work and it’s great to see that we are already getting some positive responses.”
If the person’s attempts are not fruitful and you’ve identified the reason why, you can acknowledge their hard work and then say something to the effect of, “I appreciate how much you’ve been following up with potential partners. Can I suggest a few things that might make your efforts more effective?” That way, the person is aware you know they’re trying, and will be more open to hearing your thoughts.
When you are providing feedback, you also want to be as clear and concise as possible. Don’t talk around the feedback, or drop it as a non sequitur in a conversation about something else. Make your point as quickly and directly as possible.
Be mindful of what does and does not warrant feedback. Make sure that you are choosing behaviors or outcomes that are genuinely important and impactful for your business, not just things that may personally annoy you. A big part of not making feedback seem like a personal attack, as I mentioned above, is not harping on things that may be irrelevant to team dynamics or business operations. In other words: choose your battles.
Say one of your team members has an extremely messy desk that annoys you every time you see it. You might be tempted to make it a point of feedback. Before you do, ask yourself the following: Have they lost documents, missed deadlines, or caused the company to look bad during an important visit as a result of their desk being messy? Is the mess negatively impacting others in any way? If the answer to those questions is “no”, it’s probably not worth it to say something. Ordered chaos could simply be conducive to that person’s creativity or work, and trying to make them change it could cause more harm than good. You may just have to cringe to yourself each time you walk by and leave it at that.
Be open to feedback from your employees. I touched on this earlier as being important to your general overall success in business. But, it’s also crucial to team morale and making those who work for you feel valued and heard. Make feedback a two-way street by being open to suggestions or ideas that your employees share about your leadership, the company’s direction, specific initiatives, and anything else on which they have informed opinions. Try to avoid asking for feedback in the same session as you are providing feedback – it can seem awkward to provide a criticism or compliment when the other person has just provided you one or the other – as though it is in response. This could make you subconsciously unwilling to receive the feedback properly. You don’t need to let every single piece of feedback pull you in a hundred directions, but you do need to listen to and consider what your teams are telling you, in order to show that you respect and value them.