Culture Amp CEO Didier Elzinga talks about the best ways to give and receive feedback in the workplace.
Edited for grammar and syntax
David Ostberg: Welcome to the Culture First podcast. I'm David Ostberg, Head of Insights here at Culture Amp. With us today we have Julie Rogers, our Head of People and a very special guest in from Melbourne, Australia, our co-founder and CEO Didier Elzinga. Today we wanted to talk about 360 feedback, why it’s important, what we’re doing around it and where we’re going with it. Didier, would you mind just giving us your perspective on why this is a focus for us right now, and where we’re headed?
Culture Amp’s origins as a company offering a 360 platform
Didier Elzinga: Sure. Interestingly when you think about 360 feedback many people probably don’t know, but Culture Amp was started to create a 360 product. When I started the company, I was thinking about how do we help improve culture and organization and feedback, and particularly 360 seemed like a good place to start. This was five years ago. It was generally seen as something that was backwards looking, once a year, universally loathed and so we were like, “Is there a way to take this thing and turn it into a forward looking future focused, continuous coaching conversation rather than this thing that everybody hates?”
I had a Twitter feed that I kept. It was a search that just says, “Dot-dot-dot sucks” and I was just looking for inspiration of people complaining about their 360 platform. That’s how I met my co-founders, Jon, Doug and Rod, and we spent almost 12 months building a product in that space. At the time, we had people that used it, had paying customers but we just didn’t feel like we were getting enough traction. It was something that people were interested in as a problem, but there was no common solution to it.
We ended up stepping back and creating what Culture Amp is known for now, which is the Culture Amp platform, which is really around the same idea but at the organizational level. It’s cool now to have gone full circle... it’s being driven by our customers going, “We love using your platform to better understand the organization as a whole, is there any way you can help us fix the 360 process because it’s still broken?” We’re now at that point where we’re saying, “Yes, we can use this platform and take the same approach that we’ve used for helping people understand organizational feedback, to helping people do individual feedback”.
David Ostberg: When you worked on the original feedback tool what was it that drove you to shift focus to engagement and not continue momentum with the 360?
Didier Elzinga: There’s a mixture of things. The way we tried to solve the problem at the time was very much around the giving and getting of feedback, in a real-time way. It was certainly something that people cared about, so we could get a meeting with almost anybody. You go talk to a company that says this is the problem, and you show them the answer and they say This is really cool, we’re thinking about it.” What we found, though, was that something like performance and 360 and growth and learning development in that model at the individual level was a common problem but it wasn’t owned by anybody. You would come in and start having a conversation with the company and they go, “Yeah, let’s try this and let’s roll that out”, and six months later you’d still be trying things, you’d still be testing stuff.
As a startup that’s death, because you’re not getting traction. People aren’t going, “Yeah, you’re solving a problem, let’s use your platform”. At the time we were like, “If we’re going to build something that’s going to make a dent, we need to create something that people are going to grab and run with, not something that they’re going to keep thinking ‘this is cool. This could work at some point if we did XYZ’.” Part of that process was the idea of organizational feedback. It was an idea that I’d had even earlier but shelved and we came back to it, and what we found was that the difference was organizational feedback was something that people were already doing, and we would come in and they’re like, “Yes, I want to replace the way we’ve done it with what you’re doing, that’s fantastic”.
It was just a much, much faster process, and I think what's good now is A: We’ve got a platform, but B: The world has shifted a bit too. Five years ago, Adobe and Deloitte and all these other companies hadn’t come out talking about getting rid of performance reviews. People would be interested but then they’d still come back to wanting to stick everyone on a chart, and having everybody rated and so on and so on. It’s a little bit the market’s moved, and it’s a little bit that we’re actually now drawing on our experiences to build a different product than we were building four years ago.
Changing existing behavior is easier than creating brand new habits
Julie Rogers: What are the differences between the initial vision of what you had for the 360 feedback, and where we are now with what we’re launching?
Didier Elzinga: There’s probably two main differences. One is that I think we’re beginning by helping people solve an existing problem, rather than trying to start by getting people to do something they’re not doing. A lot of people like the idea of constant feedback and it’s very valuable and there’s research to show that the best feedback is the feedback that is lived at the time and micro-learning if you like, but the problem is organizations don’t have an existing micro-feedback, or micro-learning framework that they can update or extend or make work with technology.
What you’re doing is not only trying to introduce new technology, you’re also trying to change behavior, you’re trying to get people to do things they’ve never done before or maybe have done infrequently, and so you’re battling on a whole bunch of fronts. Organizations are already used to capturing organizational feedback. They were already capturing individual feedback in some form, but often it’s not getting the outcomes that they want. We talk a bit about the difference between performance and the development focus, it’s often historically used primarily to seek compensation or something similar, and so what's really good is people are like, “Okay, we do annual reviews or we do quarterly feedback for people. We don’t think the system’s working, we’d love to use your system to take that thing and make it better.”
I think we’re more anchored in what people are already doing. We’re not trying to change behavior. We’re trying to change how you do what you’re already doing. Then the second part is also focused on trying to give people the tools to reflect and act on what they learn as well. It’s not just the giving of feedback. If we learn anything in helping companies run engagement surveys, it’s that the kinds of action are more important than the kinds of measurement. It’s similar in individual feedback too, so how do we present that, and I think that’s probably the thing that I’m the most proud of in terms of what we’ve done, which is to really come at the whole process from the standpoint that this process is designed to give the greatest chance for the individual to improve, which is a very different goal from what has traditionally been used for this process.
David Ostberg: Beyond individual feedback do you have a vision for how else this could be applied, the feedback loop and using this type of tool to improve organizational outcomes?
Didier Elzinga: Absolutely, yes. Interestingly I had a conversation with Joris Luijke, who was at Atlassian, Squarespace and is now at Grovo. We were talking about this probably three years ago, and we were both talking about team feedback and how individual feedback’s huge but increasingly, in the modern way we work, teams are a fundamental unit of work, and teams being able to work together and with other teams is critical to the success of the organization. That idea of if the company can listen and learn and improve what it does, if an individual can listen and learn, then surely teams can too.
Interestingly for many teams, they’re probably the ones that institutionalize learning and improving better than individuals and companies do. Teams are often already doing retrospectives. They’re already doing things to learn how to work together and give each other feedback, and so the question is can we use technology to support that, to extend that to help them get better. It’s that idea of thinking about what you do or what we do as a platform that can be used at all levels in the organization, to bring data to help people make better people decisions.
The difficulty of giving – and receiving – feedback that has value
David Ostberg: Within Culture Amp of course one of our core values is having the courage to be vulnerable and asking for feedback but it can be intimidating. You open yourself up and ideally you ask people who are going to give you true, honest, open constructive criticism. What are your thoughts around best practices for conducting these [sessions]? Who should drive them and just what is the mindset that people should go into when wanting feedback or advice for organizations who are thinking, “Okay, we’ve never done this before. I think many of our people are going to be really intimidated by it, and/or not want to participate.” What are some thoughts that you would have?
Julie Rogers: It’s interesting because you talk about the courage to be vulnerable, so the people who are asking for feedback are putting themselves out there as being vulnerable, but I would also weigh in that the people who are giving the feedback are also putting themselves out there, and experiencing vulnerability. What I mean by that is it’s actually very difficult to give feedback. It’s easy to give feedback that’s maybe a little hollow or that’s positive. It’s a lot more difficult to give feedback that has value that will help someone correct or tweak or change direction on their behavior or how they’re working.
I think that that’s one of the things that we’re going to be spending time on internally, as we’re going to be looking at how do we give and receive feedback? What does it mean? How do we do it in a way that’s thoughtful, that’s productive, that’s not going to mean that every piece of feedback that you write takes a day to write, so that’s efficient and scalable but also has meaning for the person who’s getting it. Then ensuring that the individuals who are receiving the feedback understand, and have the tools to understand how to receive the feedback? One of the things that I’ve been coaching on for years is how to go through and receive feedback.
Feedback itself is critical, it’s important. Nobody wants to work in a vacuum, and everybody wants to do their best work but you can't do that if you don’t understand what you need to do to correct. Part of that is going through and taking that on, whether you agree or not and if you agree that the feedback was constructive, take it on and make the changes and then ask for more feedback to see how it’s going. If you don’t agree, understand that there’s a perception out in the world that your behavior or your work is going in a certain direction, and understand how to go through and tweak that.
There’s a lot of ownership on that and trying to go through and separate out those emotions from what you’re hearing is a large part of it. We will be doing some workshopping on that internally for mentors who give feedback and deliver the feedback, to make sure that they’re able to help walk their team members through that process.
Culture Amp’s feedback product starts with people’s strengths
Didier Elzinga: I can turn this question back around on you after this as well and get you to provide some context, in terms of where some of this comes from a science basis. I think to Julie’s point, one of the challenges is that we’re not very good at giving feedback as humans generally, and we’re even worse at receiving it. Neurologically, what's happening is our defence mechanisms are not something you just gloss over. They’re hardwired into who we are, and it’s easy to put people into an emotional state that makes it very difficult for them to process what you’re saying.
One of the things that was really inspiring for me – and it’s not directly involved in the way the product works, but certainly conceptually was – my wife is a PhD in psychology, and she introduced me to motivational interviewing and it’s a therapeutic method. One of the things I found fascinating was it was developed to deal with people with substance abuse. A large part of it is being non-judgmental, validating the emotion even if you’re not validating the behavior. The thing that hit home is, this is people helping people with a difficult problem. This is people that are addicted to things that have got them physiologically as well as mentally and emotionally.
We’re dealing with people that are having a bad day at work. If this way of thinking and this way of working and this way of dialogue can work for those people, then we could learn from that and that’s stuff that we could use. A lot of it goes opposite to what we’re taught to do as managers, which is just tell them if it’s working or not, be really clear on these things and not worry about their feelings, just give them the hard feedback. I think what we’re doing in our product is this idea of starting by making it come from a strength point of view. That, I think, is manifested in a lot of ways. Part of it is trying to avoid reducing people to a number. Qualitative data is valuable, so giving people free text questions etc. You can also do useful things by saying, “Which of the following things do you observe that this person does?”
All those things have been carefully designed to be important and valuable, but also things that you can process on the other side. Or even on the weakness side, “Which of the things do you think this person needs to do less of?” can be written in such a way that when I’m reading it, the person’s not screaming at me saying that I’m terrible and evoking all my emotional reaction, I’m responding to it in a more thoughtful way.
Maybe this is the part where I’ll throw back to you, because I remember reading a study a few years ago and I think it was out of the Navy. They did a massive study and they looked at frequency, what should you measure? They basically used a frequency observation scale. What they determined by looking at all the data was that, rather than asking whether somebody was good at something, asking how often somebody did something was a better proxy for their actual performance than the perceived level of competence. That concept for me is important, and something that we play out in the way we design the surveys, which is don’t go and say, “Is your manager a good communicator?” Ask how often their communication helps you or how often this occurs or where we have ended up, a focus scale which is “where do you want this person to focus more, where do you want this person to focus less?”
That’s anchored in some of the science of how to give and receive feedback. On that I’m going to throw it back to you to provide a broader context.
The focus scale’s role in identifying strengths, weaknesses and gaps in perception
David Ostberg: I think that’s good. I really like the focus scale that we created, because it also makes it easier for the person providing the feedback to approach it in a more constructive way as opposed to, “Okay, if I have a numerical rating or even potentially a frequency scale, that a low frequency might indicate that this person isn’t doing something well,” and it could be hard for people to give negative feedback or critical feedback. I think it’s great and in terms of at least the initial testing we’ve done with clients, it’s being well received and once you walk through with the content and our approach, that stress level just drops and it’s like, “I think this is going to be really well received”. It’s really focused on, again, the approach of identifying strengths, building off of those, of course addressing weaknesses so people can understand where they can improve, but also having a component where the individual who’s being rated actually has the opportunity to rate themselves on the various characteristics, identify what they feel were their strengths and weaknesses, and use that as a baseline for them to identify whether they have significant gaps around their own perceptions of their behaviors and performance.
Didier Elzinga: One thing that I think may be interesting is to talk about the connection between the organizational level and the individual level. Why does it matter other than for all the reasons that we’ve talked about so far, to do individual feedback properly, for an organization to get that right, and does that connect in what we’ve learned from the organizational feedback side of things?
David Ostberg: Right. Good question, so of course we have a few million data points on how people feel about their organizations, and what drives employee engagement. One of the key things that we find across almost every organization with a few exceptions and across all industries is that learning and development is critical to keeping people emotionally engaged, motivated and committed to the organization. Of course, this is something that organizations really do need to focus on and put real effort into, because we know if they don’t that they will likely lose some of their best people, people will become disengaged and again therein lies one of the core drivers of engagement.
I’m happy to see that there is a tie in with the different product lines that we offer, so organizations cannot only understand what are their top drivers of engagement, but also what tools do we have available to address that immediately.