Creating a Culture of Feedback

Communication / April 27, 2012

I worked for an advertising agency early in my career and to say the least, the environment was toxic. This was what a lot of my mornings were like:

“Hi Ambert, that ad you created last week that has to go to press today, well I finally got to see it. It sucks. Can you design something else, more fun. I need it by 12, Thanks.”
You would think I was a really bad designer. Or there was something wrong with me. Why can’t I get it right?
In my previous job, at my annual review (which I am totally against, more on that on another post) I was told not to ask “why” anymore and just do as told.
We can take this extreme example and fit in our creative environments:
“Hi worship leader, I was not feeling the way you sang that chorus in that song, it sounded really bad. Can you do it better next service? Thanks.”
“Hi designer, great job on that brochure. See ya at lunch!”
Almost all of us are in the business of people whether you are a design studio, a church, or a bakery. People are our most valuable resource. We all work very hard at creating great experiences for our attendees or clients, but do a terrible job at creating that culture for our employees or peers. The key is to make your employees’ experience just as transformational and enriching as your customers’ experience. One of the ways I like to do this is creating a culture of feedback. Feedback is communication for advancement, or improvement. It is an active open dialogue. You have to be as open to receiving critical and positive feedback as you are willing to give it. It is important to understand that feedback includes positive as well as negative feedback. Both are essential, and you need to be giving both. Not at the same time. There is no sandwich model here. If you have that culture of feedback, everyone is expecting it and even believe it or not, asking for it.
Here is the most important part, you have to create a culture of feedback. Without that culture, it’s just a lot of conversations with no solutions or improvements. Some companies say they value telling the truth and speaking straightforward. But at the end of the day there is no improvement if no one knows how to give it or get it correctly and effectively.
If you think about the people who have had the biggest impact in your life, they are people who have had the courage to give you the tough feedback that you needed to hear, and people that believed in you and encouraged you. But here is the kicker; it’s not what you say, but how you say it that has the biggest effect on people. I am going to give you some of the best practices I have learned over the years working at Apple and running a design studio. I know this has proven successful because of the feedback I have received by these people years after. To best explain this I would love to draw up one of those things we call a grid. I call it The Feedback Grid.

All of our feedback falls into these four categories. Positive – General, Positive – Specific or Negative – General, Negative – Specific. Here are some example conversations of what feedback can look like:

It’s important to notice, that the specifics require a conversation, an open dialogue. Being specific teaches the person what they did well or an area of opportunity for the next time. You don’t learn anything when you’re general. Positive – General has its place sometimes, but Negative – General should never exist.

At the end of the day, Specific – Positive and Negative – General have the most lasting impact on the person. Now that we understand the importance of being specific. Let’s learn how to give feedback effectively:
  1. Feedback always starts with respect and assumption of positive intent. Just remember, no one does anything with the intent of doing it wrong.
  2. Ask for permission to speak. Be specific about what you want to speak about. Remember that people are busy and are not always in the mood to talk. You always want to receive the OK to speak into their lives. One of the most important things that you have to make sure to communicated is the “why” and what effect it had.
  3. Find a solution together. The key word here is together. It should never be a one way conversation.
  4. Thank the person for their time and follow-up.
I’ll end this with an example of what a great feedback conversation would look like.
Negative Feedback
  • Giver: Hey Ambert, do you have time to talk about the way you spoke to the jr designer earlier today?
  • Getter: Sure, what’s up?
  • Giver: You sounded annoyed at the fact that she didn’t understand, you were being very short with your answers and direction. You didn’t really listen to her questions. After you left, I could tell she didn’t understand what was going on. And right now, she is still not getting it. She may waste an entire day going in the wrong direction.
  • Getter: Man, you know what? I am not having a good day and not really feeling like myself. I’ve been dealing with a lot of stress with family.
  • Giver: I totally understand, I cannot imagine what it feels like. How do you think you can keep your cool?
  • Getter: I need to learn to keep things separate. And maybe pause and think through things before I give direction and changes.
  • Giver: Cool man, thanks for your time and if you ever need someone to talk to, we can always chat.
  • Getter: I will take you up on that!
Positive Feedback
  • Giver: Hey Ambert, I would love to talk to you about the website design you did for the bakery down the street, is now a good time?
  • Getter: Yeah, sure thing
  • Giver: I noticed how you got exactly what the client wanted on the first shot by really reading through the design brief and asking the right questions.(smile), It really made the client trust our design work and our process. They are actually signing a new contract for more projects!
  • Getter: Wow thats awesome, great to hear. I’ll make sure I continue doing that!
  • Giver: Yeah for sure, thanks so much for your time, maybe you can show me how to ask the right questions over lunch?
  • Getter: sure thing!
Todd Henry wrote in his book The Accidental Creative – “History is made by passionate, creative people and organizations with the rare ability to lead others—and themselves.” We have to learn how to lead each other to greatness.