What systems are most effective for giving feedback to employees?: Ask Gib

Try Netflix’s 5 A’s for giving & receiving feedback: 1. Aim to assist 2. (Make) Actionable 3. Appreciate 4. Accept or discard feedback 5. Adapt (to company/country culture).

What systems are most effective for giving feedback to employees?

In my first job as an Associate Producer at Electronic Arts, I was labeled “abrasive” and was sent to “charm school.” This was the beginning of my feedback education. Later, when I joined Netflix, I learned how to create a culture where employees value continuous, candid feedback. Below, I:
  1. Provide a brief history of my feedback experiences
  2. Detail how constant, candid feedback is built into Netflix’s culture, and
  3. Share Netflix’s “5 As” for giving and receiving feedback

I hope this essay helps you to be more diplomatic than I was during the early days of my career.

1. From Electronic Arts to Netflix: Evolving feedback systems

I joined Electronic Arts during the summer of 1991. In my first annual review, I was labeled “abrasive” due to negative peer interactions and was sent to “charm school.” I was also defensive when I got the feedback, as I thought the written review would hurt my chances for a raise and promotion.

I begrudgingly attended a feedback seminar and learned to give balanced feedback:

  • say something positive to engage the conversation
  • point out what could have been better
  • relate how this idea can help the person to succeed

The seminar was helpful, but more importantly, it was the beginning of my journey to discover effective feedback systems.

Today, some call balanced feedback a “shit sandwich”: Say something nice, say something critical, then say something nice again. Jeff Bezos famously criticized this technique when he said,

“I say something nice to my wife, then point out she could exercise more, and her response is, “Are you saying I’m fat?!”

No matter the delivery, most folks regard feedback as overly critical. Today Bezos advocates creating an environment where honesty is appreciated and only gives employees one or two tips to develop their superpowers each year.

2005: Netflix’s early feedback systems

At Netflix, we started with annual 360 feedback and built an app to make reviews easier to execute. The only structured part of the review was to evaluate each employee against the company’s values. The reviews were helpful but suffered from the typical challenges:
  • there was too much focus on the employee’s most recent performance
  • employees were defensive as they felt negative comments would affect their compensation
  • writing reviews was too much work

We experimented with the review system and evolved from annual reviews to ad hoc written feedback on a more frequent basis. Eventually, we discovered it wasn’t essential to do a written review and focused on creating a culture of ongoing feedback and honesty.

2. Netflix culture today: Continuous, candid feedback

If you look at Netflix’s culture memo today, it provides clues about how their feedback systems work:

Netflix Communication

You provide candid, helpful, timely feedback to colleagues

Integrity

You are known for candor, authenticity, transparency, and being non-political

You only say things about fellow employees that you say to their face

You always share relevant information, even when worrisome to do so

In describing integrity we say, “You only say things about fellow employees you say to their face.” This attribute is one of the hardest for new people to believe — and to learn to practice. In most situations, both social and work, those who consistently say what they really think about people are quickly isolated and banished. We work hard to get people to give each other professional, constructive feedback— up, down, and across the organization— on a continual basis. Leaders demonstrate that we are all fallible and open to feedback. People frequently ask others, “What could I be doing better?” and themselves, “What feedback have I not yet shared?”

We believe we will learn faster and be better if we can make giving and receiving feedback less stressful and a more normal part of work life. Feedback is a continuous part of how we communicate and work with one another versus an occasional formal exercise. We build trust by being selfless in giving feedback to our colleagues, even if it is uncomfortable to do so. Feedback helps us to avoid sustained misunderstandings and the need for rules. Feedback is more easily exchanged if there is a strong underlying relationship and trust between people, which is part of why we invest time in developing those professional relationships. We celebrate the people who are very candid, especially to those in more powerful positions. We know this level of candor and feedback can be difficult for new hires and people in different parts of the world where direct feedback is uncommon. We actively help people learn how to do this at Netflix through coaching and modeling the behaviors we want to see in every employee.

What can we learn from this?

  • Create a company culture that optimizes for ongoing feedback and learning
  • Give feedback when you have something to say, and ask for feedback regularly
  • Create systems to build trust; develop means for employees to get to know each other as people
  • Encourage leaders to model good behavior when giving and receiving feedback
  • Eliminate politics and “shishpering.” Say what you think directly to a person’s face. (“Shisper” = “shit talk” + whisper.)

The Netflix culture reinforces these behaviors. We believed creating a culture with candor at its foundation was a competitive advantage. While other companies “shishpered” and second-guessed decisions, direct feedback and debate helped us to make decisions faster and to learn and evolve more quickly.

3. Netflix’s 5 A’s for giving & receiving feedback

The “5 A’s” is clearly articulated in No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer. Reed is the co-founder and co-CEO of Netflix. Erin is a professor at INSEAD who wrote “The Culture Map,” which focuses on cultural differences between countries.

The book focuses on creating a culture of candor and giving/receiving feedback more effectively. In Reed’s words:

  • With candor, high performers become outstanding performers. Frequent candid feedback exponentially magnifies the speed and effectiveness of your team or workforce
  • Set the stage for candor by building feedback moments into your regular meetings
  • Coach your employees to give and receive feedback effectively, following the 5A guidelines (below)
  • As the leader, solicit feedback frequently and respond with cues when you receive it
  • Get rid of the jerks as you instill a culture of candor

This is consistent with the articulation of Netflix’s culture, except for the need to eliminate “brilliant jerks.” Jerks deliver results but cannot put the company first, making it impossible to develop trust and create a culture of open, honest communication.

Netflix 5A Feedback Guidelines

In the following summary, Reed references feedback he got from employees at a company retreat in Cuba during a period when he was working to nurture a diverse, international employee base. But in Cuba, he had asked for feedback in ways that were comfortable to Americans but off-putting to international employees. The rest is self-explanatory:

Giving feedback

  1. Aim to assist. Feedback must be given with positive intent. Providing feedback to get the frustration off your chest, intentionally hurting the other person, or furthering your political agenda is not tolerated. Clearly explain how a specific behavior change will help the individual or the company, not how it will help you. “The way you pick your teeth in meetings with external partners is irritating” is wrong feedback. The right feedback would be, “If you stop picking your teeth in external partner meetings, the partners are more likely to see you as professional, and we’re more likely to build a strong relationship.”
  2. Actionable. Your feedback must focus on what the recipient can do differently. The wrong feedback to me in Cuba would have been to stop at the comment, “Your presentation is undermining its message.” The right feedback was, “The way you ask the audience for input results in only Americans participating.” Even better would have been: “If you can find a way to solicit contributions from other nationalities in the room, your presentation will be more powerful.”

Receiving feedback

  1. Appreciate: Natural human inclination is to provide a defense or excuse when receiving criticism; we all reflexively seek to protect our egos and reputation. When you receive feedback, you need to fight this natural reaction and ask yourself, “How can I show appreciation for this feedback by listening carefully, considering the message with an open mind, and becoming neither defensive nor angry?
  2. Accept or discard: You will receive lots of feedback from many people. You are required to listen and consider all feedback provided. You are not required to follow it. Say “thank you” with sincerity. But you and the provider must understand that how you react to the feedback is entirely up to the recipient.

The fifth A (Everything is relative to the culture or country you are a part of.)

  1. Adapt. Your delivery and your reaction to the culture you’re working with need to adapt on an ongoing basis to get the desired results.

Gib’s note: Netflix’s 5A’s result from ongoing experimentation coupled with a culture that clearly articulates the value of feedback and candor. The 5 A’s have helped me to evolve from my early days of “charm school” and “shit sandwiches.”

Conclusions: Feedback systems evolve

The most exciting thing about Netflix’s culture and feedback systems is the methods themselves depended on experimentation and ongoing feedback. We started with a traditional annual review system, tried more frequent reviews, and eventually eliminated the formal, written review systems in favor of a culture that advocated and helped coach employees to embrace candor and to give and receive feedback more effectively.

From Reed Hasting’s foreword:

“No Rules Rules” describes something we all discovered through vigorous debate, endless exploration, and ongoing trial and error.”

Giving and receiving feedback is a practiced art, so practice the skills today. Try giving or asking for feedback, and do your best to adhere to the following:

  1. Aim to assist. Give feedback to be helpful, and be clear about how it will help the individual or company. Don’t work off anger or promote your own goals
  2. Actionable. Give specific feedback to help make the person better
  3. Appreciate. When receiving feedback, listen carefully and give thanks
  4. Accept or discard. It’s up to the “feedback getter,” not the giver, to decide how you will act on the feedback
  5. Adapt. Be aware of cultural differences from one country to another. Experiment with tactics in giving and getting feedback accordingly

Over time, the 5 A’s will become an embedded part of your behavior. You’ll learn faster and generate more successful results, as will your peers and teams.

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