Startup Advice

Just ask: Four ways startups can create a culture of feedback just like Canva’s

Sarah Nanclares /

Work satisfaction is positively associated with one’s ability to make an impact in the company they work in, the team they work with, and an abundance of opportunities for career advancement. What is equally important, however, is the ability for a person to grow within the organisation. Whether it’s through improving one’s technical or personal skills, the ability to hone one’s abilities and self-awareness ranks high up on the list in the pursuit of happiness at work.

But what’s the best way for an individual to grow at work? Most companies today have huge training budgets allocated to internal or external workshops guaranteed to upskill. The next big conference promises to unveil the secrets to success. But what many companies are now starting to understand is the power of growth can be easily assessed from right within a company. And it’s through ongoing feedback from managers and peers.

It’s an easy concept to grasp. The people you work with should have the best context on the expectations and skills required to thrive in your company, as well as an interest in helping you grow. Perhaps this is why equity options are appealing to many startups. As we have demonstrated at Canva, team employees are more empowered to think like an owner when everyone has ‘skin in the game’. Meanwhile, leadership can rest assured they’re getting the best out of their team and everyone is striving to perform at their best.

The attraction for a company in embracing a healthy feedback culture is straightforward. Feedback is intrinsically linked to improved performance. Not only does it have the power to make a positive impact to the company’s bottom line, but when people feel supported to grow and experiment in a safe environment, they’re also more likely to put their best foot forward and be a team player. Naturally, this realisation in today’s modern workplace means we’re seeing a sharp increase in companies seeking to prioritise a healthy feedback culture.

But why are many of us still struggling to create a healthy feedback environment?

In this blog, I’ll share my tips on how to build the right foundations to set your team up for success through ongoing, mutual feedback.

Feedback as a culture — ensure everyone plays their part

Let me start with a bit of background.

Canva is already a close-knit organisation of high performers, so for many on the outside, hiring an internal coach like me might seem like overkill. Yet for a high octane company like Canva, it’s vital to sustaining growth.

Source: Canva.

When you think about how fast we’ve grown (from a handful of people when we first launched Canva in Sydney back in 2013, to over 400 across the world), what was once a company that could easily operate like a family now needs the right tools and environment to help navigate growth and performance.

My role at Canva is to help coach the team towards professional and personal growth. For this to happen, we needed to create a safe and welcoming environment that starts with everyone in the company understanding the benefits of a feedback culture, and embracing said environment. Let me explain.

At Canva, we encourage everybody to strive to become the very best they can be in their craft, strategic thinking, communication and leadership coaching skills. We know that by optimising for this, it will bring enormous personal gratification and also extraordinary business results.

The fastest way we do this is through actively promoting a robust feedback culture, whereby asking and giving feedback is everybody’s business. The way to do this is to promote accountability for giving and requesting feedback. This is applicable to everyone in the company whether you’re the chief executive officer, an engineer, a product manager or an accountant everyone is expected to ask for feedback regularly and receive it just as often.

Creating an asker-driven approach

An asker-driven approach means everyone is encouraged and expected to proactively seek regular feedback from their mentors, peers and anyone else who can provide a valuable critique that is only accessible from a third-party perspective.

Running a tight ‘asker-driven’ feedback culture works really well for us at Canva and it might work for your organisation too. The best thing about this is the fact that everyone can participate it’s as easy as taking a deep breath and simply asking (see my tips below).

Reviewing code at Canva

Source: Canva.

Here is a scenario.

  • You have some feedback you want to provide to someone on your team.
  • This sounds terrifying. Having to give feedback can be a nerve-wracking thing. You worry you’ll hurt someone’s feelings, or that what you have to say isn’t valuable, and the list goes on!
  • That person comes to you and says they’d like feedback. This changes the game.
  • The asker is open to learning and growing from you, and they’ve created a safe opportunity for you to support them!

Regular feedback is a great way to help you grow professionally and personally. When coupled with regularity, it will only help you learn faster and improve for the better. This applies to everyone in the team not just for newbies or juniors. For example, our leadership team is encouraged to be proactive in asking for feedback. What this means is that they are setting an example for everyone, which in turn helps strengthen a culture of feedback.

At the end of the day, asking for feedback is a bit like exercising a muscle. The more you use it, the easier it becomes, and before you know it seeking regular feedback is no longer a scary task. In fact, it becomes welcomed.

How to ask for feedback

Far more often than not, asking for feedback can seem like a scary and daunting task. We’re not programmed to be proactive with seeking critique. But once you master the steps below, you’ll see it’s as easy as pie.

1. Ask explicitly

Take charge and ask: ‘What am I doing well, and where can I re-think my approach or behaviour?’

2. Ask specifically

Focus on improving one task for a month and only ask about your performance in that one task either daily or weekly.

For example, if you’re wanting to improve your effectiveness at running meetings, ask about that. Immediately adapt based on the feedback you get and go again, seek specific feedback. Adapt. Go again.

3. Ask broadly

Optimise for people in direct line-of-sight to you and your work. Mitigate unconscious bias by asking a broad range of people.

Peer-to-peer learning is particularly potent because there is usually a level of trust.

4. Ask often

Continuous daily learning (or weekly at least) is optimal, because the specific details about your performance will be fresh in everyone’s mind.

How to give effective feedback

A good feedback ecosystem doesn’t end with a person being comfortable with asking for feedback. It’s also up to everyone to ensure feedback given is helpful and actionable.

Feedback only works when it is constructive and relevant. When feedback is spontaneously given and unconsidered, it can come across as critical and harsh which is unnecessary and a morale killer in the best circumstances. Here are some tips on how to give mindful and effective feedback.

1. Prepare beforehand what you are going to say.

2. Act like a news reporter and stick to the facts. No interpretation, no evaluation or judgements.

3. Be specific and give crystal clear description of the unwanted behaviours. Give specific recent examples.

This is what this might sound like:

  • Ineffective: ‘Jack, I’m tired of you ticking people off. I can’t cover for you any longer.’
  • More effective: ‘Jack, when you roll your eyes in meetings when others talk. When you say “you guys don’t get it” or when you come late to meetings and leave in the middle, people are left looking around the room asking if they had done something to annoy you.’

4. Give a crystal clear description of wanted behaviours.

For example: ‘It would be more appropriate for you to ask questions to try and understand another person’s perspective and only come to meetings that you are prepared to attend for the whole time.’

5. Describe the impact of unwanted behaviours.

For example: ‘The impact of your behaviour is that I have heard people say they feel like you don’t care for the team and their goals, they feel dismissed and invisible.’

Feedback gets a bad rap because whether you are giving or receiving feedback, people can find it threatening, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

The best way for everyone to adopt feedback (both as an asker and a receiver) is to understand that feedback is just a factual replay or recount of what happened.

Nothing more. Nothing less.

Team health checkup session at Canva

Ultimately, feedback is action-focused. It is all too easy for any feedback session to turn into finger-pointing, gossip or a place where people complain. Good feedback allows people to reflect, and while at times that may end up in complaints, there needs to be a focus on healthy downloads that lead to actionable change.

Strive for change that sticks

This is the difference between giving someone feedback, and expecting that they will just accept it, and change.

It is therefore important to have a deep knowledge of human behaviour to know that everyone comes with personal beliefs in their head that can block them from changing their behaviours. As a coach, I recommend to ‘go deep behind the behaviour’. And by deep, I mean work on transforming any negative beliefs, meanings, motivations or self-talk that stops them from confidently doing what needs to be done in service of improved performance.

Creating a safe space

Creating a safe space to grow a culture for open feedback is more than having private meeting rooms for annual reviews, or online feedback forms for anonymous submissions. In fact, more often than not, this could be detrimental to establishing a welcoming environment for a feedback culture to flourish.

What we’ve found works really well at Canva is putting an end to annual reviews, and encouraging regular feedback sessions instead. Our view is that feedback should be given to improve a specific area of performance, rather than tacked onto salary reviews or promotions.

When feedback is asked for and received regularly, we found a boost in alignment when it comes to meeting our company goals (which in a fast-paced startup like Canva, can move a mile a minute). This plays well into our belief that people excel exponentially when they are crystal clear on how they’re doing on their given task, and how their professionalism and craft is making a positive impact on the company.

Coaching session at Canva

A workplace that embraces a strong feedback culture has more room for both positive and constructive feedback.

One of the most common misconceptions of feedback is that one can be more transparent when giving feedback anonymously. At Canva, feedback is an empowering tool both for the recipient and the giver and can be something that helps both parties grow. When given anonymously, it creates an awkwardness that is unconducive to teamwork and can actually prove to be detrimental to the overall morale of the company.

A safe space means that everyone is welcome to share and request feedback, in the understanding that we’re all growing and trying to achieve great things together. It’s a workplace where no one should feel ridiculed for needing more guidance. In fact, the converse is more fitting it’s a place where everyone should feel empowered to ask for support.

How does this look in real life? All feedback (given or received) is welcomed, and we never punish anyone for speaking up. It’s important that we demonstrate this explicitly and implicitly otherwise, we could unknowingly create a standoffish atmosphere post feedback session. For example, non-verbal cues such as hands on hips or having them crossed can create an offensive and awkward environment.

From whinging to winning

Now that you’ve provided a safe place to communicate, expect to partake in an honest two-way conversation. However, due to its private nature, it can be easy to find yourself in a feedback session that turns into a whinge-fest.

Here’s how you can turn things around and refocus. It’s as simple as putting these questions forward, and not wavering until they are answered.

  • ‘How does this particular feedback relate to my role and responsibilities?’
  • ‘What is the relationship between this feedback and your complaint?’
  • ‘What are you prepared to do to turn this feedback into action and an outcome?’
  • ‘Is there a deeper reason behind this complaint that is even more important?’

By asking these questions, it re-directs the whinging and firmly steers both parties away from a disempowered process towards a proactive and empowered process.

A strong, robust feedback culture can come in all shapes and sizes, and every company will shape their own uniquely. At Canva, our measure of success is seeing people grow as they identify what they care about, happily take on more responsibility and confidently set impactful goals that align with improved performance and productivity for the whole business.

This post is an edited version of a blog which first appeared on the Canva website, and was republished with permission.

NOW READ: In a perfect world: Canva’s Melanie Perkins dreams about the future of Australian startups

NOW READ: A message for those who feel they’re on the outside, from Canva co-founder Melanie Perkins

Advertisement
Sarah Nanclares

Sarah Nanclares is a business executive coach and a current internal coach for Canva.