Give the gift of feedback

– Faisal Z Siddiqi. [This post first appeared on LinkedIn]


Five months ago I shared my thoughts on my first 100 days at Netflix. I was excited at being at a company pushing disruptive innovation (read Clayton Christensen’s thoughts on Netflix) and was eager to test the waters by pushing some boundaries myself. Here, I share some lessons on how a growing team can build on a culture of trust by staying transparent and sharing honest feedback openly.

Talented and experienced engineers can often have differences of opinion on how a technical solution may be built, but its important that they all share a sense of mutual respect. Fortunately, several of the engineers on my team have been working together for years and share the camaraderie needed for a team to functional well. As the team has been growing — we added two new members in the last two months and are looking to add more — I felt it was important for us as a team to preserve and build onto the circle of trust among us.

Like many other likely enlightened companies, Netflix does 360 reviews, which means that you are encouraged, even expected to give feedback up and down the organizational hierarchy. Colleagues write up the feedback for a person into a tool that gives access directly to the receiver of feedback and their management chain. There are good reasons for this sharing feedback only to the recipient — the feedback is most relevant to the person to whom its given, and the giver can be more direct and refer to stories that only the two know about or would find relevant. However, I felt the need to try something different.

The vehicle we chose to do this took the shape of a team building exercise designed to reintroduce ourselves to each other and share feedback. The idea was to talk about oneself and our peers in front of the team openly. The key potential I saw in this exercise was team-wide transparency and “+1”s on a particular feedback to a person, which would add more weight to a piece of feedback, thereby providing more impetus to affect change.

As I planned for this, I thought about what could go wrong. Would folks be comfortable sharing direct feedback about their peers ? Would they be good listeners receiving constructive feedback in front of their team ? Could they control themselves to not debate defensively about a critique on their past actions ? For the most part, I was counting on the maturity and trust within the team to provide and absorb the honest feedback. I had seen the team work over the last nine months and despite heated arguments, they would always rally together as a team to deliver what was needed and enjoyed the company of their peers on a personal level. With cautious optimism, I went ahead with the plan.

The exercise
We structured the exercise into two sessions. The first session was about sharing something about yourself. We all came prepared to answer these five questions for ourselves:

  • What single project or task would you consider your most significant career accomplishment to date ?
  • What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in the last year and how did you learn it ?
  • What does it take to really upset you and what does that look like to those around you ?
  • What does it take to build trust with you and what does it take to break it ?
  • How do you think your coworkers see you?

One by one we went around the room and talked about ourselves in the context of these questions. It was informative to see the difference between our own perception of ourselves and how others actually saw us. For the feedback session and to provide an example, I went in as the first recipient of the feedback – with everyone in the team going around giving me feedback. To put yourself out there in a spot of vulnerability in front of your whole team as you listened in to constructive criticism required restraint. Obviously we also commended on the things that were going well and on attributes that allowed us to shine in our own unique ways. But what pleasantly surprised me was the honesty with which constructive suggestions came out in the open for all of us.

This was on a Friday afternoon in early December and after several hours of talking openly and thoughtfully, we headed out to a dinner in beautiful downtown Los Gatos, continuing some of our discussions but in a lighter vein.

Feedback on the feedback
Over the next several days, I collected feedback on what went well and what didn’t. Overall the team felt that despite initial apprehensions the exercise was time well spent. Many even wanted to set this up on a regular cadence, like every six months. The first question on self awareness was liked more than the others because it allowed people to tell stories which are always most insightful. There were also some ideas about having a session on the team as a whole, instead of just individual feedback.

Personally, I got a lot more out of it than I had anticipated. Not only did the team members give me valuable feedback directly, they also felt a sense of joint ownership around the process of team building and improving efficiency.

Feedback is all about listening well. If we listen to and act upon what people around us are saying about us, there is a great opportunity to better ourselves, our team and our service to the mission that we come together for.

Here is how I would summarize the take-aways from this exercise:

  • Share direct, actionable, honest feedback openly and frequently
  • When giving feedback, talk about how you feel when you observe a behavior that you want to change. Here’s a great blog post on why that is effective, non-confrontational and more likely to bring about change.
  • Talking thoughtfully about points of disagreements often shines light upon a problem that may have been lingering. Doing so in a group setting adds the weight it may deserve, that may not be obvious in a 1 to 1 context.
  • We spend more than one third of our lives with our co-workers, it’s important that we do so in an environment of mutual respect and growth – By giving honest feedback, you are helping your team mates learn and grow together and have fun doing that.
  • Celebrate often the things that go well – everyone deserves and needs to feel appreciated – it’s human nature.

Time will tell how we act upon the feedback we received, but as I reflect on 2015 and my time here so far, I can’t help but feel incredibly lucky to be participating in new experiments each day and pushing the boundaries of team building, technology, and innovation.

Here’s hoping that others might find some value in these lessons.

Happy Holidays!