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Why Our Transparent Feedback Experiment Failed

Earlier this year a tech company decided to try a radical model for feedback. Here they explore why it failed and how they plan to recover.

Why Our Transparent Feedback Experiment Failed
[Photo: Flickr user Image Catalog]

Sometimes people ask us: “Do you think there are any downsides of being so transparent in the way that Buffer is?”

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Usually, I can only think of the amazing things that have happened to us through being transparent and open.

Recently, however, there was one thing we learned that taught us that transparency isn’t a blanket solution for absolutely everything.

For a few months we experimented with completely transparent feedback—even for those things that might be potentially difficult to hear or say, as long as they were more focused around how to improve something the next time round.

This didn’t quite work out so well. Read on to learn about our transparent feedback experiment, why it failed, and what we’re doing now.

Spreading Transparency Throughout The Company

We’ve talked before about the idea that transparency isn’t something we had explicitly planned at Buffer. At first it was simply Joel tweeting out his early lessons from Day 1 of starting Buffer. Over time, we kept sharing what we’d learned. We didn’t label it “transparency” for quite some time; we simply felt it was the right way to approach things and provide our insight to our community.

After the first couple of years, we started to make things more explicit and put our focus on sharing what we had learned into words and values. Making things explicit through our value of “default to transparency” helped us a huge amount.

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When you default to transparency, you:

  • Take pride in opportunities to share our beliefs, failures, strengths, and decisions.
  • Use transparency as a tool to help others.
  • Always state your thoughts immediately and honestly.
  • Share early in the decision process to avoid “big revelations.”

We then started to take a more structured approach towards how we could live up to that value throughout Buffer as a whole.

We started by making salaries transparent and continued with revenue, transparent email, transparent pricing, fundraising, equity compensation, and many more things—you can read about all of them here.

Eventually we came upon the topic of feedback, which had typically been given previously in one-on-one fashion and therefore largely private. We wanted to see what would happen if we made feedback transparent.

Overstepping With Transparent, Constructive Feedback

When we first considered transparent feedback, we had a slight hunch that it might be trickier than the other things we’ve been transparent about. We shared our move to transparent feedback in an investor update in early 2015. Here is how Joel phrased it:

This month, we introduced a new tool into the set of third-party products we’re using to run the team. It’s called Small Improvements, and we’ve found it has been great to move our praise and feedback away from email to keep it focused and create a place where you feel comfortable and safe, with the awareness that it is where feedback happens.

A big step we made in the last month is to experiment with fully transparent feedback—quite a crazy thought initially for us, because I can’t think of any other company that would be fully transparent with all feedback. It’s especially tough to imagine it working when the feedback needs to get more serious and might eventually lead to someone leaving the company.

Within a few months we felt that things weren’t going so well. There were three distinctive things that stood out to me:

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Very few people gave any transparent feedback at all. Being in the spotlight and sharing something potentially sensitive about an area someone can improve in is difficult enough to do in private. Doing it in public made things even harder. On top of that, we encouraged people not to bounce ideas for constructive feedback off other team members and instead go straight to the source. That made it even easier for doubt to creep in and not to mention anything at all.

Any time constructive feedback was given, it turned into a big thing. On the few occasions when someone managed to provide constructive feedback to another teammate, it quickly became a much bigger thing, due to its public nature. Frequently, we had other people join the discussion to provide their opinion of the situation, which is only natural if you see something and feel you have a valuable perspective to offer.

It started to feel like a big scary thing to get a notification in Small Improvements (which we couldn’t quite keep “small” anymore because of its transparency). This partially led to a lot of missed opportunities for small, quick learnings that didn’t require a multi-paragraph note and could have been dealt with much more swiftly instead.

It was hard to save face and easy to be defensive. A key approach we have in all communication is to always let people save face. It’s ingrained in our value of positivity.

When you choose positivity and happiness, you:

  • Strive to approach things in a positive and optimistic way.
  • Avoid criticizing or condemning team members or users.
  • Don’t complain.
  • Let the other person save face, even when they are clearly wrong.

Transparent feedback seemed to go against that. Once it was out in the open, there was no way to save face, even if the person providing the feedback might have been wrong. Naturally as humans we can feel cornered when faced with a transparent piece of feedback, and we became more likely to defend what had happened. In a one-to-one setting, it’s much easier to really work through an issue. If everyone is watching, it’s harder not to let these emotions come in.

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All three of these effects were influencing each other—because it was such a big thing any time transparent feedback was given, it was given more rarely; because it was such a big deal, it was very natural to feel defensive; and so on. It all created a sort of negative spiral that didn’t set us up to quickly work through issues, course correct and then get back to doing great things for our customers.

So We Switched Back—Here’s Where We Are Now

On our recent retreat in Iceland, after lots of discussion with many team members, we decided it would feel good to end the transparent feedback experiment and move back to making feedback private once again.

Now, when something comes up that might feel off to someone, they can share that feedback privately—in an email, via Hipchat, via a video call, whatever feels most appropriate for the situation. Although I don’t know whether the frequency of giving feedback has changed, personally I’ve felt compelled to share thoughts with other team members much more frequently again, and I’ve also received more constructive feedback than when it was public.

One Thing We Kept: Keeping Positive Feedback And Praise Public

One thing that we kept from all of this is that we’re keeping positive feedback and praise public. Transparency here has increased the amount of praise and positive interaction around the great achievements of teammates. I’m particularly happy about this outcome and that we’re keeping the good vibes public, and for everyone to draw energy from.

This was a fantastic lesson in how transparency isn’t beneficial in every situation. It felt truly humbling and opened my eyes to avoid being fully dogmatic about what we do, even our values.

We’re excited to share that lesson with all of you, and hope it is a potentially useful insight. I’d love to hear your comments below on similar experiences you might have had regarding this topic!

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This article originally appeared on Buffer and is reprinted with permission.

About the author

Leo Widrich is the co-founder of Buffer, a smarter way to share on Twitter and Facebook. Leo writes more posts on lifehacks, efficiency, and customer happiness over on the Buffer blog.

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