When I joined Stripe as COO in 2014, there was a strong—sometimes too strong—culture of commenting on one another’s work, and a lot of transparency on every piece of work product to enable this. A lot of the feedback was quite direct and lived in written comments and Slack messages, which could feel abrupt and intimidating for new people. Over time, both the amount of work product a person can absorb and the amount of time others have to comment on it has waned.
Companies often invest in their formal review processes but forget to examine their culture of informal feedback: the one-off pieces of advice or observations that people offer to help their colleagues and reports in their day-to-day work. But I believe a culture of informal feedback is just as important as the formal review process. It gives people an opportunity to grow and improve at a day-to-day level and sets expectations ahead of any formal performance review.
How Stripe is protecting what works and improving what doesn’t
But one practice that Stripe has held onto is before anything is sent out to a large group, the whole company, or anyone externally, we test the content with a small group for feedback. And the people who do this the most are the CEO and the president: the co-founders. This sets the example for everyone, from leaders onward. It transmits the value of humility, collaboration, and respect for the time that the reader or viewer might take to absorb the content once you send it out into the world.
What Stripe does less well is bidirectional, informal feedback. We haven’t cultivated a fully open culture where people frequently speak up and say something constructive without necessarily being asked. I can attribute that to fewer examples set by leaders, to our rapid growth, and to the fact that new folks lack the confidence to share feedback, or perhaps to our emphasis on generosity and kindness to one another. (Again, I think feedback is a kindness, but not everyone does.) No matter the cause, it’s something for us to work on.
During my time managing teams at Google and Stripe, I developed a set of principles for building that culture of informal—but always constructive, empathetic, and growth-oriented—feedback. If your company hasn’t built the strong muscles needed for informal feedback, the formal review process can feel very destabilizing, and we miss the chance to improve the day-to-day, not just the year-to-year.
Improving your feedback game as a leader
To build a healthy feedback culture, model the behavior you want to instill in both team meetings and 1:1s. “Praise publicly and criticize privately” is a good rule of thumb here. However, I make a distinction between team and individual feedback. Often, team feedback—that is, feedback about the performance of the team—is data-driven and can be presented as an honest assessment of how things are going.
Your team should come to expect that you’ll tell them honestly how you think they performed last quarter or whether a project was well executed. Talking about team performance publicly, focusing on what you all learned and what the team can do differently to improve, helps build an environment of learning and open feedback.
You should personally solicit and welcome feedback, especially when you’re still setting the tone of a working relationship, like when you’ve just started managing a new team or employee. For example, if you’ve just tried out a new meeting format, set the expectation up front that you want people to share feedback on how the meeting went. If your team already feels comfortable doing this, you could devote a portion of the meeting to going around the room and asking for feedback. If the team hasn’t built that norm yet, you can also follow up privately with individuals.
4 ways to make feedback stick
Since the best way to create a culture of feedback is to ask for feedback yourself, here are some pointers on how to do that openly and often:
- Ask on different occasions and through different forums. Explicitly ask for feedback in 1:1s, during or after meetings, over email, and in work sessions. Phrasing the ask as a request for something you can improve makes it clear to the person that you actively want the feedback. For example, instead of asking “How do you think that meeting went?,” you could ask, “What could I have done differently in that meeting?” Or, in a 1:1, instead of asking “Is there anything else on your mind?,” you could ask, “What do you think I can do to make this project more successful?” Thank the person for their feedback. Don’t try to explain the choices you made, or you risk appearing defensive or sending a signal that the feedback is not welcome or respected.
- Make private feedback public. If you were given feedback in private, consider mentioning this in your next team meeting as long as it doesn’t break the trust of the person that provided it. This sets a norm that giving and receiving feedback is welcome and normal.
- Let the feedback sit. When presented with feedback, it’s tempting to problem-solve or try to explain what happened. I’m not always the best at refraining from doing this, but I’ve come to understand that it can sound defensive, even if you don’t mean it that way. Instead, repeat the feedback to ensure you’ve heard the other person accurately, then thank them for sharing it. If you do want help problem-solving, return to the topic at a later time to ask for their partnership in addressing the issue.
- Follow up on the feedback. At a future point, tell the person who’s given you the feedback whether and how you plan to act on it. Sometimes you’ll determine that the feedback is valid but you’ll decide not to prioritize it. Other times you might decide that you want to dig in more. But even if you don’t act on it, it’s important that the person knows they were heard.
Claire Hughes Johnson is one of Forbes’ ‘Self-Made Women’ of 2022, who is known for her work as VP at Google and COO at Stripe. Her new book Scaling People is a practical and empathetic guide for being an effective leader and manager in a high-growth environment. Including actionable strategies for interviewing, navigating crises, and running a truly successful meeting, it reveals exactly how to build a company that’s set for long-term success. She also includes valuable tips for expanding your own career.