Tip. It. Over. How rocking the boat leads to happier, more effective product teams

Justin Ternullo
Jan 18, 2018 · 5 min read

It’s not often I disagree with a ’70s era soul/disco group, but The Hues Corporation got it wrong; building teams that understand the value of ‘rocking the boat’ will decrease time to ship, increase trust, and make work life a lot more enjoyable.

Feedback is a huge part of our culture here at Policygenius. Sure it can be scary at first, but we know candid communication between teammates builds trust, reduces anxiety and increases productivity over the long run. Nobody likes the feeling of unspoken tension below the water’s surface, so we try our best to be frank with one another.

This isn’t profound. People managers large and small have advocated this forever, and it seems like a pretty straightforward ask — be direct, and make sure the person receiving the feedback understands the context.

Why is it important here at Policygenius?

For starters, it’s one of our main tools for building trust with our users. We’re in insurance, so we go out of our way to be direct and transparent with folks without following the well-trodden path of fear-mongering. People shopping for insurance appreciate understanding why they may need a medical exam, the tradeoffs between the cost of their policy and the available network, or even how we make money.

It’s also how we first started collaborating. Jen & Fran, our founders, had been trained in a very structured approach to feedback, and it quickly became essential to us gelling as a team. There was no time for beating around the bush. As a result, we’ve built a team that lives up to our values and isn’t passive-aggressive (99.99% of the time). We have a lot of respect for each other and value the time we spend together in the trenches, doing the tough stuff.

Here’s the rub…

Lately I’ve noticed a pattern emerge amongst the team — they’re not being direct enough. The feedback conversation will happen, but without the punch & context it may have needed to truly change the course of action.

Quick, fictitious example (exaggerated for effect)

PM Jamie has been working hard on her testing plan for a new feature, but it’s taking longer than expected. Engineer Kim notices this and asks if Jamie needs any help.

“Nope, all set, but thanks! Worried about anything?” Jamie replies.

“Nah, just keeping an eye on the deadline tomorrow, that’s all.” Kim responds.

The deadline comes and goes, the project veers off course, and tensions rise within the team. Background narratives form around who’s at fault, and Jess, the project lead is wondering why she didn’t know about the testing delay sooner. Yikes!

This type of feedback, let’s call it passive feedback, leaves the working relationship completely unscathed, and the boat un-rocked.

Sounds nice, right? Not quite.

Healthy working relationships are built on boat-rocking, not grin-fucking (not my term… but a good one.) It’s one thing to know you should give feedback (as Kim tried to); it’s another to plough through the discomfort, provide context, and stick the landing.

Ideally Kim would have gone further, even though the conversation may have been harder than she would have liked. Instead of, “just keeping an eye on the deadline, that’s all,” she could have added context and urgency. Maybe something like:

“Hey, I know you’ve been working hard on the testing plan, and it’s definitely shaping up — but there’s no way it’ll be done today. If that’s the case my engineers won’t be able to prepare for the next sprint. I think we should talk with Jess about the timeline repercussions, and maybe see if we can rearrange the sprints to give you more time. What do you think? I’m open to suggestions, just don’t want the team twiddling their thumbs, or you having to pull an all nighter.

Demonstrates respect for the other team member? ✔
Avoids condescension? ✔
Adds context so they understand impact? ✔
Lends a helping hand (if wanted)? ✔
Is direct enough for the point to hit home? ✔

“What a fulfilling and well mannered relationship we’ve built on this incredibly stable boat…. oh wait.” — Stock photo couple

What causes passive feedback?

  • Teams have respect for each other and falsely assume that constructive, direct feedback will erode that.
  • Teams aren’t sure if something’s worth rocking the boat, or they trust their teammate to handle it (a “stay in your lane” mentality).
  • Teams don’t realize how direct and explicit you have to be, and how much context you need to include to help someone understand the real or potential impact of their actions.

How do we confront it at Policygenius?

This is definitely a work in progress. We’re finding the right balance of training, leading by example, and creating the psychological safety to make it all possible — but here are some tips:

Get comfortable being uncomfortable
Practice makes perfect, and it may take a while to get used to going beyond passive feedback. Litmus test? Was the conversation super easy? Then you probably didn’t go deep enough.

Piggy back off of team respect
Get your team to understand that if they truly give a crap about their teammates, then they’ll take the time to give feedback.

End with playback
No better way than to make sure the message was received than to have your teammate play back what they absorbed. Bonus points for an email/Slack follow-up — some things are best absorbed when the person isn’t in a hot state, and has time to digest.

Rock the boat
It’s better than leaving it be, and hitting an iceberg later.

Over time, with training and practice, you’ll have:

  • A team with little unproductive tension below the surface, where collaboration truly thrives
  • Reduced project churn by addressing & problem-solving issues early on
  • Stronger, more honest relationships that don’t require horse-blinders to get through the day

That’s all! Best of luck, and let us know how it goes.

The cat is a ship captain. The end.

Justin Ternullo

Written by

insurance via product via design via dance via magic


The easy way to compare and buy insurance.

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