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Be an example of how to give and receive feedback.

Learning how to give healthy feedback changed my entire leadership approach

Justin Kan
By Justin Kan

Co-founder and CEO, Atrium | Quartz Pro

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Modern Leadership

The people and companies embracing new paradigms.

I was lucky to find success early on in my career. This, unfortunately, did nothing to help my already enlarged entrepreneur’s ego.

I’m ashamed to say that when I started out, I was not particularly good at receiving feedback from my team, colleagues, or stakeholders. And predictably, this led to stress and a far less effective leadership style than true success demands.

After some soul searching through meditation and therapy, I finally got to the point of asking myself, “What kind of company do I want to show up to every day?”

Luckily, during this same time, I discovered a book called The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, written by Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman, and Kaley Klemp. The book perfectly described the type of company I wanted to build: A “conscious” one.

Being a conscious leader means adopting a set of principles to instill better collaboration and trust—of one’s self and others—with a focus on self-awareness and the irreplaceable value of feedback. It has allowed me to bring my whole self to pretty much any situation.

I’ve never experienced such a radical change in myself, where I felt happiness as a constant both in and out of work.

With my newfound approach to life and leadership, I was able to have candid conversations with my teams and those around me for the first time. And in turn this created a ripple effect within the company.

After realizing the power and possibilities of conscious leadership, I established it as our cultural north star at my company.

Feedback is core to this new culture. While people may find feedback uncomfortable to receive, when given and received nonviolently, it can create and foster trust within individuals and teams.

I believe companies can benefit from normalizing feedback so that trust and transparency permeate upward, downward, and sideways.

Trust

The first step toward normalizing feedback is fostering a team of people who trust each other.

Oftentimes leaders settle for surface-level trust (“I trust everyone isn’t overtly lying to each other,”) instead of pushing for a deeper trust relationship (“I know we are all rowing in the same direction and I love working with this team”).

Here are some of the ways I’ve built trust with my teams and colleagues outside of company offsites:

I invest time in getting to know my teams. The more you are invested in knowing your teams and colleagues personally, the more they will trust you. One question I started asking my employees as the CEO is how I can make my company their dream job. This led me to invest in a learning and development department to help those who wished to learn new skillsets to achieve their professional goals.

I am honest about my own vulnerability. An important step to building trust is opening up and sharing when and why we feel vulnerable. And a group leader needs to model this behavior first to provide an example and create a safe environment for others. Starting a conversation by saying, “If you really knew me…” is a great exercise to help prompt this. When I’ve done this with my executives, it’s allowed me to identify their strengths much faster, or what I’d like to call their zone of genius, to know how best to work with them.

I name my emotions. Calling out your own emotions helps to better define what our emotions are telling us about what is going in a particular situation. Does something make you feel fear? Anger? Sadness? Once we identify a lead emotional response, we can explore what’s underlying these emotions. Often, we discover there is some dissent or important questions that need to be discussed. As a skillful facilitator and leader, you can use this technique to help build trust by getting people to stop withholding their own feeligns from each other. For example, I remember receiving feedback that a regular all-hands meeting was boring early on—which of course is not a desirable emotional response. But naming that feeling of feeling bored or unstimulated prompted us to find ways to make meetings exciting by pumping up the music, giving away swag, and ensuring the people leading brought high energy.

Safe environments

As a conscious individual who constantly works on being a conscious leader, I want feedback from the people who I manage and employ.

But I also knew it was very unlikely that people would proactively speak their truth and concerns to the CEO about the company they worked for. So, I had to find ways to seek it out. I realized that by the time a lot of concerns were shared with me, they had been bottled up for far too long, and oftentimes were very emotional. That’s when I started to understand that my job as a leader is to model giving feedback in a safe way, and model receiving it without being defensive so that others can learn from my example.

If you’re a leader, you should see it similarly and make giving and receiving feedback a default for your teams. Here are some ways to do it:

Model receiving feedback. As a leader, you should be an example of how to receive feedback. One way to do this to perform your 360 reviews in conjunction with your team members, so that they can see that you are actually receptive to the honest, raw feedback you are getting. Needless to say, you should only do this if you truly are very comfortable getting feedback. It is easy to get triggered, and to process what feefcback means for you. But if you are defensive then you will create the opposite result from what you want. In other words, you will make it clear that it is in fact unsafe to give feedback.

“Like/wish that.” In your one-on-one meetings with team members, you should set aside time explicitly dedicated to two-way feedback. In this section, each person (both manager and report) can say first what they like that the other person is doing; and something that they wish that the other person would do. This can seem odd a first but after the first time doing it, I’ve found it comes naturally. You can even implement this at the end of your general meetings by reserving the last five minutes for everyone to write their own “like/wish that” feedback about the meeting into a shared doc.

Relationships

There are other communication practices to consider outside of individual meetings or project and performance reviews. I’ve adopted a few practices to ensure I remain approachable and involved in company communications no matter how large we grow. My hope is to build and maintain trust as the CEO.

Skip-level round tables: I hold meetings with people at all levels of the company in order to get a feel for everyone’s engagement, provide a forum for open communication, and get candid feedback on what’s working and what’s not.

Always hold office hours: I hold office hours once a month for anyone in the company who would like to come and chat with me—about any topic.

Implement an #AMA Slack channel: This “ask me anything” format serves as a way for team members to have a convenient way to ask questions to the executive team at any time, and for everyone else to have access to those discussions.

Start a conscious leadership book club: I started a book club dedicated to conscious leadership. I facilitate an open discussion exploring the principles in the book and how it relates to our everyday lives to reinforce the idea that this is our cultural north star.

Cultivating a healthy feedback culture was a non-negotiable when we decided to become a conscious company. And my experiences so far are proof that feedback creates more successful teams and removed the emotional stress from situations.

We’re approaching the end of the year, and for many people that means on thing: review season. I hope everyone can remember that feedback shouldn’t just be an annual or periodical exercise, but one you practice each day.

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