I have a coaching confession to make: In the earlier part of my career, I did several feedback trainings that were well-received, insightful and engaging for participants—and they didn’t work.

Now, I’m my own harshest critic so it’s more nuanced than just saying, “they didn’t work.” I’ve taught people how to give feedback effectively and they have felt more confident in their skills, but my impact on their team’s feedback culture was, frankly, unknown and likely quite small. (Did they share more and better feedback? Did the feedback culture of the team actually shift?) I can’t measure it, but I’m pretty sure it did very little.

It was as if I taught people how to fish, but in an almost lab-like setting under perfect conditions. I neglected, almost entirely, that these same people would need to fish every day in crappy weather, at stormy seas, and have a lot else on their plate besides fishing. I naively overlooked context. I assumed people weren’t afraid of falling out of the boat while fishing. I assumed everyone felt comfortable swimming if they did fall in. I assumed that following fishing techniques would be top of mind for them since they needed to feed hungry people. Turns out that hungry people are their top of mind—not fishing techniques.

So, in the early years of my coaching practice, I taught a few people how to fish, but I’m pretty sure that a few weeks later everyone on their team was still hungry.

Now, to atone for the unintended sins of a coach who is still on her own learning curve, I want to share the three key lessons I learned about feedback trainings from 2011-2014. I believe feedback trainings can be much more impactful for the startup leaders who pay coaches, trainers, facilitators, consultants or even in-house HR teammates to run them.

In late 2014, I stopped doing “trainings” and started doing more “group coaching” on the topic of feedback. That word shift emboldened me to shelve most of my preset curriculum and instead focus on an in-the-moment coaching agenda that directly responds to the group’s perception of roadblocks to feedback on their team. I still use some of my old material on “skills for giving feedback”—but I’ve added a lot more open space to respond “in the moment” to the specific skill gap or the specific barrier a participant raises in the session.

Here are the three most important lessons I’ve learned about feedback “trainings” that I have sought to address through group coaching:

 

Lesson #1: Skills for receiving feedback are more important than skills for giving feedback.

 

This was my biggest revelation over the last few years. I historically “taught” feedback as a series of steps or disciplines that you would follow whenever giving feedback. My assumption was that if everyone on a team could follow these steps well—the feedback culture would shift because the risks of defensive-ness would decrease across the team. But I was completely ignoring an important lever for change—the skills of receiving feedback.

When I ask people what holds them back from giving feedback the #1 answer usually is some form of this: “I’m anxious or afraid about how the other person will take it. Will they get hurt? Will they get angry with me? Will they feel demotivated?”

The scary-but-true thing about training someone how to give feedback is when you tell them that language, framing and techniques can minimize the risk of a defensive or hurt reaction, but there is no way to control how another person reacts.

There is simply no 100% guarantee because what drives our emotions are not the things other people say to us, but how we talk to ourselves in our heads about what the other person is doing. If someone feels hurt, by something you tell them—-you may have unintentionally created the conditions for that—but it was their thoughts and their self-narrative that led to the feelings and their behavioral response. And there is no way to control or dictate another person’s thought process.

This realization hit me during one specific feedback training that I will never forget. I was role-playing a feedback recipient during a training session and sitting opposite a person who was very well-intentioned in trying to give me “effective” feedback, but kept making mistakes. He would jump to conclusions about my character’s intentions and I’d have to walk him back to clarify what the impact was him. He said a few things that he thought commented on behavior, but got dangerously close to character judgments. His comments made me feel a sharp twinge of defensive-ness even though I was not the actual person receiving the feedback! I felt disheartened. The voice in my head said, “This guy is not getting it and if the person who received this feedback isn’t masterfully skillful in receiving it—this is not going to end well.”

In reflecting more on that moment, I realized that I am skilled at receiving feedback because I get it all the time from coaching clients and from T-groups. My clients, for the most part, are not as skilled as I am in receiving feedback—and that’s, in part, on me because I have spent too much time working on their “giving” skills with them. And then, I realized—wait, that’s something I can address. I can train people on receiving feedback!

In 2014, I was doing a set of manager trainings for a startup and I added in a whole new session about skills for “receiving feedback” and now receiving feedback is always part of any feedback group coaching session I lead. My own coach Ed Batista even wrote about his take on the receiving side of feedback in HBR—because he similarly realized in conversation with me that he had benignly neglected that half of the dynamic as well.

If you are a startup leader and you want to see better and more frequent feedback at your company, you need to start by assessing your skills in receiving feedback:

  • Are you a grand master at soliciting and receiving feedback?
  • Can you help someone feel less nervous as they struggle through trying to tell you something that feels risky to them?
  • If a teammate tried to give you clumsy feedback in a group meeting, how gracious and helpful are you to them in the moment to help them clarify their message and thank them for the courage it takes to speak up?
  • When you feel attacked or unfairly accused by feedback, do you breathe through your own defensive-ness and try to calmly get to the root of the issue and miscommunication?
  • Do you talk publicly about the most valuable constructive feedback you’ve received lately and how it helped you to be more successful?
  • When you have one-on-ones or coffee dates with people and you are interested in their feedback for you—how specific are you with your questions? How effective are you in eliciting the type of behavioral and actionable feedback you really want?

The first step to promoting a feedback culture on a team is making sure everyone (but first and foremost the leaders) is as skilled as possible in receiving feedback. That’s what will make it safer/less risky for even more people to step up and try giving feedback, more honestly and more frequently.

 

Lesson #2: The most effective “trainings” are able to shift the team’s feedback social contract to be more explicit and more consistent.

 

 I usually define a team’s “social contract” as the set of explicit and implicit agreements that outline and influence how we work together. You have social contracts about everything (e.g., how we work, when we work, where we work, how we communicate, how we disagree) including, of course, how we give and receive feedback.

Even if you have never explicitly discussed feedback on your startup team, there is an active social contract in place—it’s just one that is based on inference and assumption instead of explicit expectation-setting.

There are three levels of any social contract:

Level 1: What We Talk About – based on what we tell each other we expect or want

Level 2: What We Infer – based on what we witness, experience or hear from others

Level 3: What We Assume – based on our self-narratives, biases, previous history

Some startup teams have very little at Level 1 for feedback—at most maybe a request from certain teammates for “work-product feedback” but there is no common working definition of other types of feedback that might be desired or expected on the team. Other startups (usually later stage) may have worked feedback into their values or into a policy of some sort. They may encourage managers and direct reports to “use 1-on-1s for feedback” but there is little else to suggest a more explicit request/demand/expectation.

An effective “feedback training” would then start by identifying (and challenging) the assumptions at Level 3 that various people on the team make. This would surface narratives that hold people back from sharing (e.g., a junior engineer who convinces herself that the CTO wouldn’t want to hear feedback from her since he is not his direct manager). This would also surface biases that individuals might hold that actually aren’t relevant to this particular startup team. For example, a manager who is deeply emotional himself but in every previous work environment was taught not to disclose those emotions might simply assume this new startup team has the same expectation of him.

The feedback “training” would then go on to identify roadblocks to feedback that arise at Level 2 and encourage the team (as a whole or in sub-groups) to clarify and challenge conclusions people have made based on inferences vs. explicit agreement. For example, a manager who tried to give the CEO feedback recently and felt shut down might infer that the CEO is not open to that kind of feedback ever. Instead, either person could re-engage and talk through what happened to figure out what part of their social contract needs to be more clear/explicit. Should feedback like that be provided in a different setting? Should the manager give the CEO heads-up some feedback is coming so s/he can prepare to be more open to it? Or was the CEO just having a rough morning and actually his/her expectation is for that manager to give the exact same feedback in the exact same setting and just consider giving the CEO one more chance to have a better reaction?

The “training” would then make explicit at Level 1 anything that needs to be made explicit and consistent across the team. This could include: 1) a common shared definition of what the team means by “feedback” and outlines why/how feedback lends directly to team goals or company priorities; and 2) rituals or practices to exchange feedback either at specific times (e.g., a retrospective with engineering and product teammates to debrief and improve how they work together) or in very small, time-efficient and casual ways (e.g., quick exchanges while walking out of a meeting, or walking down the hallway, or refilling a water bottle in the kitchen)

And finally, the “training” would then ensure that any new explicit social contracting that happens at Level 1 is bolstered by behaviors/actions/results at Level 2. This is a really critical point because nothing undermines an explicit social contract more than when people see others (especially leaders) acting in opposition to the explicit agreement.

To ascertain where your startup team is in this dynamic process of social contracting, consider asking these questions:

  • What expectations for feedback have we made explicit to the rest of the team?
  • If an outside observer watched our startup’s leadership team interact with everyone for a week, what would they conclude about what our feedback expectations and practices are? What gaps are there between one week of behavior and what we really want to happen at our company?
  • If I were to ask my team what holds them back from sharing more honest and more frequent feedback, what would they say? How many of those items point to skills they need to develop vs. something about the social contract that we need to shift collectively?

 

Lesson #3: The goal of a feedback training is for some people to start sharing more feedback. The goal is not for everyone to complete sharing all feedback.

 

I did a group coaching session earlier this year with a startup team and asked them what they would think if the company actually wrote out a “feedback social contract” and asked everyone to sign it. I even put a draft in front of them of what I thought would capture the issues as I had heard the team describe to me. I received a full range of responses to the idea of actually signing a document. Some people liked the symbolic power of it. Others found it cheesy and lame. People debated whether and how they could enforce the contract once it was signed.

Finally, one person said: “Even if we all signed this, it wouldn’t change anything. The only thing that will change is if we all just start giving and receiving feedback. If we all just start doing it, it will happen.”

To which another person responded: “Yes. And I think if everyone signed this, I’d feel more comfortable starting to try.”

In the end, this team is not going to write out a contract and ask everyone to sign it, but in that coaching session we realized together that the key for them is to take some steps to make enough people just comfortable enough to start to try. We shelved the contract idea, but in its place we came up with other tactics/next steps to promote more feedback across the team.

In some ways, this third learning is a more personal one for me. As a coach, I get maybe a handful of hours with teams and, despite how passionately I feel about feedback, I have to recognize that I can’t close all the skill gaps and re-write a social contract in such a short period of time. That doesn’t mean I’ve lowered my standards for what I seek to accomplish in group coaching—just that I’ve shifted where I focus my attention and how I measure my impact.

As individuals, we each draw our own feedback boundary. We draw that line between what we do share and what we could share as a function of our personal preferences/habits and as a function of the social contract we know/infer/assume exists around us. My intention when I coach someone on feedback (individually or in a group setting) is that they learn something (a new skill, tactic or mindset) that enables them to push their boundary out and share more. More often than not, people walk out of sessions with me with an intention to share one more piece of feedback with someone that they otherwise wouldn’t have shared. And that to me is the ultimate goal: to get people to start.

I imagine a startup team’s collective feedback boundary as a cumulative average of each individual’s boundary. Not everyone has to move their boundary first, but if some people start sharing more…the collective boundary will move out and then as more people infer norms based on what they see happening around them…the collective boundary will continue to shift toward more honest and more frequent feedback.

And that is when the feedback training will really start to work.