10 Ways to Create a Healthy Feedback Culture at Any Company

As a child, I asked my parents the same question over and over: on a scale of 1 to 10, how “good” was the thing I just did? An underwater somersault, a dance move, a picture I drew. I wanted to know with numerical precision how good I was at everything I tried.

To my constant frustration, my parents always gave me an enthusiastic, perfect 10. And while today, I appreciate their motivations — building confidence and demonstrating to us that scores don't matter — the result was that I never knew what needed improving. I never knew which somersault was better, whether the picture I drew actually looked like my dad (🙃 it didn't).

There’s a deeper lesson buried here. Getting honest feedback is hard. As my career has progressed, I’ve been in a position where others need my feedback — and that can be challenging too. Feedback is so important to personal and professional growth, but it can be elusive.

We’ve given this a lot of thought at Animalz, a place where we are constantly giving and receiving feedback.

A Healthy Feedback Culture Is How Companies and People Excel

Feedback is not a series of one-off comments in a Google Doc. It’s not transactional back-and-forth between a manager and her employee.

Feedback is a value that must be carefully woven into the culture of a company. Everyone on the team should expect to receive frank, constructive feedback on their work with the understanding that it is part of their journey towards better, more satisfying work. Those tasked with giving feedback should be able to articulate their message without shaming or creating a hostile work environment.

A healthy feedback culture isn’t created overnight, but with good process and the right attitude, it’s possible to do it at any company. Here are 10 concrete ways to start making progress of your own.

Part One: Giving Feedback

Your own writing, design or dev skills don’t automatically make you a good teacher. In fact, many subject matter experts struggle to provide good feedback because they don’t remember what it was like to be a beginner. This is one of the reasons we advise creating so much structure around providing feedback.

1. Establish Ground Rules

Your high-level vision of how feedback fits into your company values sets the tone for everything that follows. Create a document that outlines your vision for a healthy feedback culture, add it to your value statements, and make sure it’s part of onboarding new employees and performance reviews.

A great feedback culture often starts at the top. When leadership is good at providing feedback and willing to receive feedback, the rest of the team will follow suit.

2. Put Processes in Place

Haphazard feedback isn't helpful — it's disruptive and unproductive. You need to have a process to create consistent, reliable feedback that scales as your team grows.

At Animalz, we use a feedback framework inspired by entrepreneur and investor Jason Freedman. Each piece of content is reviewed at a 30% stage — this means it’s roughly 30% done and the editor has the freedom to evaluate it from a high level. At this early stage, for example, an editor may suggest that the piece take an entirely new direction. Articles are reviewed again at a 90% stage, meaning they are nearing completion and the writer needs help fine-tuning it.

This process is clearly explained to all new employees and is built directly into our workflow. It prevents a significant problem we encountered early on where major feedback was delivered late in the process, derailing the project and frustrating the writer. The expectations are clear, the process is documented, and the results are highly predictable.

3. Decide Who Provides Feedback

At the first startup I worked for, I received feedback from so many people that I was often paralyzed into inaction. Several stakeholders, including my boss and their boss, piled on with feedback about emails, blog posts, product copy, etc. Conflicting feedback from conflicting titles is incredibly frustrating, not to mention wildly inefficient.

A stakeholder is someone who is involved in a project and able to offer feedback. A stakeholder is not anyone with a fancy title that feels like weighing in from time to time. Decide who these people are ahead of time. You also need a directly responsible individual (DRI) — this is the person that can resolve conflicting feedback among stakeholders.

4. Put Yourself in the Recipient’s Shoes

Empathy opens the door to curiosity. If you make it clear to your team that you understand the full context of their work, it’ll be easier to talk through how to improve the individual units of work.

As an example, feedback on a blog post may fall flat if you haven’t considered the history of the account, the purpose of the project, the other work that person is juggling, and even the state of that individual’s personal life.

Everyone receives feedback a little differently, so be prepared to tailor your own constructive criticism to each person who receives it. They’ll more clearly understand it and you’ll see better results faster.

5. Summarize Major Themes

Great feedback is often very high-level. Again, using a blog post as an example, the default mechanism for feedback is to leave comments in the document. If you are on the receiving end of that feedback, it can feel very nit-picky.

If you’re responsible for offering that feedback, consider scheduling a quick meeting to talk through the piece. You can ask questions about why the writer made certain decisions, or offer a framework the writer can use to make their own decisions about how to improve the piece.

Summarizing the big picture helps the writers/designers/developers understand the “why” and that makes it much easier for them to see the “how” and the “what.”

6. Don’t Be a Jerk

When I was in college, I dreamed of becoming a fashion journalist. After graduation, I got a job at a high-end boutique to start learning the ropes of the industry.

One day the lead sales associate marched me in front of a mirror and showed me, in great detail, all the ways my style was lacking and my physical appearance wasn’t good enough. This type of “feedback” was the norm — instead of learning about style and fashion, I developed anxiety about getting dressed for work.

Giving feedback isn’t only about being nice — certainly, you should expect to have some blunt conversations — but empathy is so, so important. Intimidation, shaming, and condescension don’t work. The best feedback is a collaboration where the giver and the receiver are marching towards the same goal.

Part Two: Receiving Feedback

A truly healthy feedback culture hinges on the team’s ability to listen to and humbly accept feedback, from the CEO to the brand new intern. When the leadership, in particular, shows an ability to absorb and positively respond to feedback, it affects the entire company.

7. Have an Open Mind

Make it easy for others to give you feedback by asking follow-up questions, being open-minded about whatever feedback is offered, and patiently listening to what your peers have to say.

James Clear writes that, “people who have a growth mindset are more likely to maximize their potential. They tend to learn from criticism rather than ignoring it, to overcome challenges rather than avoiding them, and to find inspiration in the success of others rather than feeling threatened.”

You're not the best, you don't know everything, so get comfortable with that — it's the only way you'll grow into the best creator that you can be.

8. Practice Active Listening

Active listening is exactly what it sounds like, but it’s easier said than done. To really listen, you should be fully engaged, ready to ask questions and take notes.

Here are a few tips from the Center for Creative Leadership:

  • Withhold judgment: Allow the person providing feedback the chance to say their piece. Don’t stop listening because you don’t like something they’ve said.
  • Clarify: If you aren’t 100% clear about a piece of feedback, ask questions until you are.
  • Summarize: Repeat feedback back to the provider to make sure you are both aligned. This is a great way to ensure both parties are fully engaged.

You may also want to reflect on feedback before taking action on it. A quick revision of an article, for example, likely won’t lead to the best results.

9. Don’t Be Defensive

It’s perfectly acceptable to disagree with feedback, but that doesn’t mean you should argue about it. Note the disagreement, then give yourself some time and space to really think about it. It’s possible that your original work was spot-on — it’s also possible that your ego prevented you from thinking clearly at the time the feedback was given.

10. Do Be Objective

When your work is also your creative passion, it can be very difficult to detach yourself from it. Still, it’s important to be as objective as possible if you hope to produce your best work.

One way this plays out in the agency world is when the most interesting creative direction and the client’s expectations aren’t aligned. Your manager or editor might offer feedback that pulls you in the direction of the client while your own instincts pull you in a different direction. Be objective about the situation and accept that the best deliverable may not be the most creative expression of your writing/design/dev work.

Give, Receive and Grow

A healthy feedback culture will make your workplace more fun, more satisfying and more productive. Creating the processes and enduring the inevitable hurdles along the way is just the kind of challenging (and sometimes tedious) work that is required to build a great company.