How to promote constructive honesty (especially towards you)

NAXN — nic newman
Oct 4, 2017 · 8 min read

“The upside of painful knowledge is so much greater than the downside of blissful ignorance.”

This quote from Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg should be written on every whitewall, motivational Pinterest board and Slack channel in every startup in the country.

As CEO or founder, the duty to encourage the giving and receiving of honest opinion in your business is yours. With more responsibility comes fewer people who feel comfortable having difficult conversations with you (mainly because you can fire more people), but more need to have those difficult conversations. The opportunity for honesty is decreased, but your position means the stakes are higher if something goes wrong.

And in startups, where decisions are made quickly and the cliff edge to oblivion is only a few feet away, the need for honesty is even greater. As the founder of the defunct company Elastra, the venture capitalist Kirill Sheynkman understands this better than most. Sheynkman told “If you have a string of successes you can actually start to think it’s because of you… You need to surround yourself with people who are empowered to be honest because it’s very difficult to be honest with yourself. It’s an incredible act of self-negation to admit you’ve been deluding yourself.”

When trying to promote the giving and receiving of constructive criticism, many CEOs dive straight into removing hierarchy, thinking that this is the answer. Be “one of them,” sit open-plan and provide ample opportunities for feedback, and people will just feel comfortable telling you how it is, right?

Unfortunately not.

In Lean In, Sandberg tells how her choice of simple meetings over detailed Powerpoint presentations at Facebook led her employees to mistakenly believe that she had instigated a company-wide ban on Powerpoint. Despite weekly Q&As and open discussion on a Facebook group (what else?), still no one dared question her “decision” to ban Powerpoint. This miscommunication then manifested itself in unnecessary distraction and negative feeling. And this is at Facebook — a company famed for its nonhierarchical culture!

As this story demonstrates, giving your employees the chances to give honest feedback is just the start. Here are some key ways you can drive more honesty from your employees, and reduce the risk of living in blissful ignorance.

Education, education, education

Teach everyone about how to give feedback in more positive ways. Communication is something that Kim Scott addresses in her talk Radical Candor: The Surprising Secret to Being a Good Boss. Scott outlines a simple framework for giving criticism that doesn’t hurt people’s feelings but also makes them take action. In the video below (which is worth watching all the way through) Scott calls this framework the ‘give a damn axis’ between caring personally and challenging directly:

Scott also lists four ways to encourage radical candor within your own organisation, which we’ll also address at various points within this article:

  1. Impromptu guidance: create opportunities for quick and easy guidance.
  2. Make back-stabbing impossible: don’t let people talk badly about each other to you, as this creates a negative political environment and pitches criticism as an inherently negative thing.
  3. Make it easier to speak truth to power: create space for people to give you feedback anonymously, and communicate the positive effects of their suggestions.
  4. Put your own oxygen mask on first: taking care of your own well-being is the only way you can support and guide others effectively.

Sandberg recommends the ideas of Fred Kofman, whose book Authentic Communication: Transforming Difficult Conversations in the Workplace details how we can express ourselves honestly and positively.

As Sandberg puts it,

“Communication works best when we combine appropriateness with authenticity, finding that sweet spot where opinions are not brutally honest but delicately honest…”

Communicate the need

As entrepreneurs we spend our lives convincing customers that they need our product, and that they need it today. But how about communicating to our employees that we need them?

No one is perfect, and I hate to break it to you, but your employees have probably already guessed that neither are you. Accepting and communicating that we all need feedback to learn might just be the thing that encourages those around you to come forward with their suggestions about how you can improve.

To elicit more valuable responses, Robert V. Keteyian recommends keeping your questions specific and direct: “If… a supervisor asks specific questions — for example, ‘When I interjected during the slide show, did it disrupt the flow or add to the strength of the argument? As you know I’m working on not interrupting others’ — he or she demonstrates the desire for a serious critique.” Asking for feedback about specific parts of your work will encourage more direct feedback with actionable points for you to work on.

And feedback might not just come from your employees. If you want really want to know what you’re doing wrong, your customers will happily tell you. Just ask Domino’s, who turned its harshest criticism into motivation to improve the fundamentals of its product, with spectacular results. The company even made a video to show how important its customers’ feedback was to its growth.

Note that this video is still on Domino’s YouTube account and that the feedback was felt by everyone from the CEO to the guys making the pizzas. But it worked: the price of a share in Domino’s soared from $8 in 2009 to more than $160 in 2016.

How could you use Domino’s example to communicate your need for feedback to your employees? You could follow the lead of Vineet Nayar, the CEO of HCL Technologies, who posted his own 360-degree feedback on the company intranet. In doing so, Nayar communicated his need for feedback and the fact that he had taken the feedback seriously.

Practice your poker face when receiving feedback about yourself (and smile)

Welcome all feedback about yourself or your work without a hint of hesitation, negativity or retaliation. As Linda Hill, the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, puts it in HBR: “The major reason people don’t give the boss feedback is they’re worried that the boss will retaliate because they know that most of us have trouble accepting negative feedback.”

In other words, your employees are fearing the worst: you have the power to put a black mark against their name for speaking out. It’s so vital that you make it clear that this won’t happen, and your body language is your greatest tool for doing this.

Ask someone you trust to give you some brutal feedback, then watch your reaction when they give it. If they saw the same reaction from their boss, would they feel comfortable giving feedback again?

I’m not saying this is easy. Sometimes, no matter how hard you repress (or try to hide) your instinctive reaction to negativity, it can show. We’ll talk in the next section about communicating that you value their input.

And, if all else fails, it helps to smile.

Communicate the positive effects of negative feedback

If you’ve acted on an employee’s feedback, make it known — no matter how hard it is to admit that you were wrong, or how stretched you are for time.

This might sound obvious, but the pace at which we work in startups often means there is little time to reflect on anything but sales and finances, so it often gets missed. But if you truly want to get an open culture off the ground, this step will save you time in the long-run; it gives everyone the motivation to come forward with their input.

Construct this communication by:

  1. Thanking them for their idea, by name if possible. Giving someone ownership and credit for their courage in coming forward increases their reputation with their colleagues and shows others that giving feedback could be positive for their career (rather than career self-sabotage).
  2. Explaining the feedback they gave and how they gave it, making sure to frame it in a positive way (see point two, above).
  3. Explaining the action that you took, again framing it with positivity. If it’s genuinely not possible to take action, explain why and what you’ll do instead, so that no one is left wondering why nothing has been done.
  4. Explaining any outcomes that are already benefitting the company or staff. Are your customers already benefiting from the ideas of your team?

For example:

“John told me via Slack that he felt we were not optimising our conversion rates on trial user to paid customer as we were slow in delivering on-boarding sessions because resource was too tight. Since then we’ve expanded the team and we’ve changed our trial conversion process. This has improved our conversion % considerably — and we are now getting positive reviews on Facebook from customers who have noticed their on-boarding is a faster, much more fun experience. Well done, John.”

Yes, being so overly positive and life-affirming about delivery times can make some of us feel a bit silly. But if a message like that from your boss doesn’t engage you in the idea that being honest with people is a positive thing, then nothing will.

Make space for all voices

As with a lot of aspects of forming a positive culture, encouraging open communication starts with treating people as individuals and giving them choices. ‘Ask me anything’ sessions and public Facebook groups are great for those employees who don’t mind the attention that comes with speaking publicly. But not everyone does. It’s human nature to hold back on anything that could be perceived as negative in order to protect ourselves or the feelings of others, especially when the whole company is listening. And this instinct can be exaggerated or repressed in different characters.

To make matters worse, the likelihood of an individual speaking up can be influenced by factors completely unrelated to their talent, such as gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t come as a surprise that white males tend to dominate the giving of feedback. In general, women, ethnic minorities and LGBT employees don’t tend to feel as comfortable voicing their views or opinions, and it’s no wonder when you look at these figures from Harvard Business Review:

  • Women are 26% less likely than straight white men to get their ideas endorsed.
  • People of color are 24% less likely than the same group to get their ideas endorsed.
  • LGBT employees are 21% less likely than the same group again to get their ideas endorsed.

HBR also found that:

“Leaders who give diverse voices equal airtime are nearly twice as likely as others to unleash value-driving insights.”

So, how do you get good ideas from everyone out in the open?

Because suggestion boxes are anonymous, they can work for quieter characters or those who are nervous about speaking up, but they are tired and corporate. They also keep good suggestions hidden from view, and we’re trying to embrace transparency and ownership here, so this kind of communication can feel like a step back.

Rather than forcing everyone to be totally candid in public straightaway, you could use anonymity to get the ball rolling — ensuring that you communicate the positive effects of candid feedback, irrespective of who gave it — and then slowly phase anonymity out as your employees become more used to the change.

Use your imagination: how can you foster anonymous feedback while also getting good ideas out into the open for everyone (not just senior management) to see?

If you need more of a reason to make the big push, research conducted by the Center for Talent Innovation in 2015 found that the top leaders of 11 global markets tended to exhibit six key competencies, three of which were 1) asking questions, and listening carefully; 2)facilitating constructive argument; and 3) acting on taking advice from the team.

If those who have reached the top still ask for ways they can improve, why can’t you?

— — — — —

Thankyou for reading… I would hugely appreciate some claps 👏 and shares 🙌 so that others can find it!


Nic Newman

NAXN — nic newman

Written by

I write about growth. Whether it’s the startups we invest in at Emerge or the companies where I am a NED it all comes back to one central idea — how to GROW

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade