Building and Maintaining Your Feedback Muscle

Sangeeta Narayanan runs an engineering team at Netflix where she’s worked for five years. She spoke at Calibrate 2015 about her experience getting and giving feedback, both good and bad. She took the approach that giving feedback is a muscle like any other that needs to be trained and maintained.

This is the eighth of a twelve-part series covering the sessions from Calibrate, an engineering leadership conference held September, 2015 in San Francisco.

Q. Why do most people have an image of performance feedback as a painful process that only happens once a year?

Companies are typically on an annual performance review cycle and that’s the one time that managers are forced to think about employees’ performance. Because they don’t do it often enough, it tends to become something that both parties dread. And it can be difficult - trying to have a frank conversation about personalities, performance, behavior - they’re all difficult topics to talk about.

Q. How would you describe “Continuous Feedback” and why is it important?

I think it’s similar to certain Agile practices where the point is to make incremental improvements. The goal of feedback is to see improvements in individuals and teams, and so biting that off in small chunks in inherently going to be more effective.

It’s important to give a higher frequency of feedback because like anything else that’s painful to do, we tend to put it off. It gets easier with practice and time, much like exercise. If you do 20 push-ups a day, at the beginning it’s hard, but over time it gets easier and becomes less daunting.

Also, more frequent feedback gives the person a chance to course correct which isn’t the case with an annual review. Something that might have been corrected quickly will instead remain a problem longer until the annual review covers it.

Q. How can a leader ensure that the idea of “getting feedback” isn’t synonymous with “getting criticism”?

I think it’s important to recognize the things that someone is doing well, and to tie them into the “why”, or the impact that their actions had. Even when trying to course correct, if you can keep the focus less on the negative behavior and more on the desired outcome, that can help keep it more positive.

Q. Many feedback programs couple it with compensation changes/incentives. Why do you think decoupling them makes more sense?

So the first time I ever experienced them being decoupled was at Netflix (where I’ve worked for 5 years). The basic idea is that your compensation is tied to your personal market value, so what your skills would be worth on the market. That determines your compensation level, rather than an annual review where you try to prove that your performance was above a certain threshold. We have top performance as a given for our staff and pay accordingly.

Another thing that comes out of decoupling compensation and feedback in this way is less punishment for longevity or tenure at a company. Usually long-term employees don’t see their compensation increased along with the market. It’s rare for an employee to see a large bump even if that’s what they’d get in a new role because companies are bound by the small compensation increase that accompanies an annual review.