Ask someone how they like to receive feedback and you’re likely to get one answer: “Directly.”
Who doesn’t like the idea of good, honest feedback? Moreover, who doesn’t like presenting themselves as someone who just wants to hear it straight? We all imagine ourselves to be so level-headed.
Then it comes time to actually hear someone’s direct feedback. Surprise! It’s not very comfortable. Offering it might be even harder.
Peer-to-peer feedback can be powerful, but it has to be approached intelligently. Feedback without context can easily make people get defensive and tune out. An open, productive environment requires laying groundwork at the organizational level about what types of exchanges people value and how participants will be expected to approach discussions. An employee is more likely to listen to their colleague’s opinion if they know where it’s coming from — and if the colleague knows how to present it.
At Abacus, communication is easy to take for granted. Our office is a tight-knit group of friendly people, so we’re used to open lines of dialogue. But for as cohesive a team as we are, casual coffee outings are not the same as professional feedback.
Recognizing the importance of laying that groundwork, CEO Omar Qari and Customer Engagement Manager Charlotte Cerf embarked Abacus HQ on a company-wide workshop to design feedback practices that fit our team. “We wanted to get the whole team involved so that everyone could have a voice in building a culture of feedback that felt organic and sustainable,” Charlotte says.
Led by Allie Mahler, a strategic program designer with Community x Design, the exercises were kept intentionally loose to encourage dialogue — Abacus’ first iterations of structured peer-to-peer feedback.
“I wanted to give everyone a framework we could talk within and surface new insights,” said Mahler. “We had prompts, we had things to work on, but nothing so rigid that it would prevent important conversations.”
So converse we did. Over the course of the workshop, we collectively addressed the question of what feedback at Abacus should look like: where and when it happens, how people prefer hearing it, what specifically we’re talking about. Here’s what the process yielded:
Feedback doesn’t need to be about your projects to be about work.
One of the first items we had to decide was what exactly this concept means at Abacus. Feedback on what, precisely? Doesn’t my boss already give me feedback? As we thought it out, we started talking about feedback not as a particular event, but as an ongoing conversation in which we were authorized to be honest. Something that comes in handy, but is not limited to, when someone else’s work directly affects your own.
The word “coffee,” meanwhile, means something very specific around here. At Abacus, every employee is allowed to expense a coffee one-on-one with a coworker every day. It’s probably the most beloved perk here. It also happened to provide the perfect venue for this project. When we broke into groups to devise ways of sharing feedback, nearly all of them leveraged our coffee tradition.
The winning idea, called Javacus, put a light structure around these informal meetings. During the coffee outing, you and your partner discuss two questions: a lighthearted prompt you pick out of a fishbowl near the door, and a more substantive “question of the week” that the whole company uses to guide their one-on-ones. Almost a month in, Javacus is catching on.
Prompts do help feedback.
Sometimes real talk needs a prod to get going. Sam, an engineer, noted that the question of the week is a better entry point to conversation than just demanding honesty. This week’s question, for example, is “I’m struggling with ______; help me think through it.” It’s a more constructive provocation than blurting “What’s wrong with me,” as Sam put it. Prompts also set the expectation of honesty, because you’re answering a specific question.
Choose your mode of feedback deliberately.
When offering an opinion, it’s important to do so in a way that’s appropriate for the situation and the recipient. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Allie introduced us to models of feedback that distinguished between the critiquing you might use to review a product and the constructive “growth mindset” you’d use to review an employee. Picking the right one for each situation helped clarify the communication.
Allie also demonstrated the importance of delivering peer-to-peer feedback in the way the recipient wants to hear it. When she proposed a framework premised on sharing positive feedback before suggesting improvement, some of us liked the idea and others didn’t. We all discussed our support or distaste. Hearing people differ on how they liked to hear feedback, and why, left a clear impression: respecting the recipient’s preference is essential to coming across the way you intend.
Iteration is key.
Feedback needs to be tailored to the organization, too. Javacus is a feedback program unique to our team, and what works for Abacus might not work for a much larger workforce. That means that like everything else at a tech company, Javacus requires constant iteration.
As Omar pointed out, the best way to make sure feedback culture continues to meet our needs is to continue the project of collaboratively designing it. Whenever employees talk about the kinds of feedback they want, it gets them thinking critically about feedback and likely offering some along with it. Designing frameworks and giving actual feedback is a good mix.