Constructive Feedback Is Necessary — Here’s How to Get It


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Reed Hastings has said the secret to his success as CEO at Netflix is what he calls, “farming for dissent.” Disagreements with the boss, he says, allow new ideas and strategies for growth to come to a leader’s attention, and a leader’s efforts to draw out dissent help people feel more comfortable about doing it. While I understand the concept, the language can sound negative: dissent, disagreement, discord; acting against another person. I prefer to clarify what makes dissent so positive.

Ultimately, leaders want informed employees who feel encouraged to bring up ideas without fear of retribution whenever they see ways to improve. Beyond the areas where we might not agree, I want any employee with a strong idea to share it. Rather than farming for dissent, the approach we take at our company is to farm for constructive insights — valuable feedback for improvement and an environment where everyone feels comfortable issuing it. Here’s how we cultivate that culture.

Related: 10 Steps Leaders Can Take to Create a Culture of Candor

Educate and encourage

A constant flow of constructive insights can keep a company agile and adaptable, but not all dissent is constructive. Dissent in the form of shouting or inappropriate language can hinder constructive communication. Emotions or ulterior motives can inadvertently blow dissent out of proportion.

To practice constructive, positive “dissent” a.k.a. insights first requires being respectful about that practice as part of the team’s commitment to do it. Disagreeing with every decision just to disagree disregards the purpose of the activity and shows little respect for the team effort. Instead of providing constructive feedback, this approach simply presents another problem the team has to solve. Dissent can also be less constructive when it lacks all the relevant information needed to be more accurate or precise. Still, if someone takes the time and energy to brainstorm and present an idea and their boss shuts it down without consideration, they may feel less comfortable offering an idea the next time. Bosses do this enough, and people stop sharing their ideas.

Through education, training and encouragement, leaders can help empower differing insights to be more constructive and keep the ideas flowing. A major focus at our company this year has been getting everyone better trained and understanding the business model. By facilitating this training, their ideas will be more informed, grounded in knowledge and metrics and increasingly likely to be constructive. The better our training becomes, the more of these constructive ideas we can start implementing.

Related: Tell It Like It Is: Radical Candor Is the Feedback Method Your Startup Needs

Create safe spaces to get better feedback

Some employees may come from toxic workplaces where their ideas were dismissed or ridiculed, making them hesitant to share. While we can’t change their past workplace trauma, we can create a safe, supportive environment that builds trust and encourages open communication.

We aim to ensure all employees feel comfortable providing feedback, regardless of their previous experiences. By fostering emotional safety and demonstrating consistent support, we help everyone feel confident in contributing their ideas.

We send out surveys to gather insights about individual experiences and work closely with HR and managers to address deeper concerns. Empowering managers with tools for effective one-on-ones allows them to ask better questions and gather more constructive feedback. These one-on-ones provide a safe space for employees to regain trust and feel valued for their contributions.

Related: Millennials Are Not the Only Ones Who Want Feedback

Most importantly, show the results

To develop a culture of trust, not only do employees need to feel safe from retribution for sharing ideas, but they also need to see their ideas put into action. If all we did was talk and ask questions but never implemented changes, people would stop bothering to share. They need training and encouragement, but also action to believe their ideas can genuinely contribute to the company.

Recently, we started implementing “Start, Stop, Continue.” In this company-wide activity, everyone breaks into teams to answer the same question: What would they like to see ended, started or kept the same? Teams of six to seven people brainstorm to produce a strong list. Then, they prioritize their suggestions by agreeing on the most important item they want to start, stop and continue, and send that more focused list to leadership. We review and, if needed, narrow down the ideas to ones we support before sending that list back to the whole team to vote on a winning idea, which we will implement. Sometimes, ideas are more unanimous and easier to decide, but this process keeps ideas like, “We get half the year off” from going further than a suggestion and great ideas always get elevated. We do “Start, Stop, Continue” to underscore that each person’s voice matters and we want to hear and make changes.

At times, we may have to turn down good ideas. Our head of business intelligence has constructive ideas all the time, and we implement many of them, but not all. Maybe the idea would cost more or take more work than the potential positives in return. The timing might be off, too many ideas may already be in the queue or ideas might need more consideration to produce balanced outcomes. Still, seeing many of his ideas implemented encourages him to offer more, understanding that not all can be an immediate fit. His confidence rolls down to his team, who also feel confident offering him ideas, creating a continuous cycle of ideation.

I make a point to talk to everyone who shares their ideas and offer reasons we may not have been able to implement them so they know I hear them. Ensuring people feel heard sustains a virtuous circle of insights. As long as employees see enough of their ideas put into action, believing they will be heard, they keep diving in, looking for more good ideas and trusting that, when they do work out, we will implement them.

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