BL&T No. 027: Inviting Feedback Through Shared Principles & Vocabulary

Company Culture

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"I started hearing people use buzz words over and over again [so I asked my team what they meant by certain phrases]. You can imagine you're 10 people in, and you've got 10 really good definitions, but they're different. And in some ways, they're defining it, not just slightly different, but entirely different. ...

Within a lot of organizations, a lot of teams [use] language, knowing that I'm meaning it one way, and you're hearing it another. There's never going to be any alignment, organizational alignment, without [a] shared language ... where when we say something, we all know what we mean."

From Invest Like the Best: Jack Clark - Grateful for Everything, Entitled to Nothin‪g


Last Monday through Thursday, Novus Global, an executive coaching firm, joined Barrel for a series of virtual workshops. We engaged Novus to help strengthen our vision for a company culture driven by a dedication to feedback, vulnerability, and growth among all employees. For the next six months, Novus will continue coaching sessions with the partners and discipline leads as we work toward this vision.

Over the week, Novus coaches introduced the team to a series of frameworks that inspired introspection, helping us better understand ourselves and discover new possibilities, personally and as a team. While every session required complete focus, I found myself in deep thought well beyond the work day's end. By Thursday evening, I felt energized by the sight of a new future, but I'll admit, I was exhausted.

The word exhaustion tends to get a bad rap. I think it's because we associate it with the unpleasantry of feeling fatigued. I see another side to exhaustion, though: understanding what came before. Why am I exhausted? For example, I associate exhaustion with accomplishment every time I workout. I'm physically exhausted but energized by the progress I've made.

Funny enough, Novus uses the gym metaphor for their coaching. We are in the gym. Each framework is a piece of equipment, like a dumbbell. Progress doesn't come from knowing what the dumbbell can do; it comes from putting it to use, from lifting the weight. It's no surprise that my Novus experience was akin to a tough workout.

Throughout the week, many of my meetings with the internal team touched on the Novus workshops. It was clear that I was not alone in my post-workout state. It reminded me of the shared energy I used to feel after a group powerlifting session at the gym before the pandemic. As our group left the gym, we'd revel in our exhaustion, recalling the intensity of the our training, discussing lessons learned. There was a sense of togetherness.

Togetherness was the belief that we were on a journey together, despite our individual goals or experience. We were all training with the same tools, with the same coach, and for the same purpose: competition.

As I chatted with the team at Barrel, I encountered similar energy. Novus was not our first team workshop, but it was the first of its kind. It went beyond learning new concepts; it created space for training. As we moved through the workshops, I saw the team become increasingly open with each other, freely offering up feedback and sharing personal challenges. They used the Novus frameworks as a basis for discussion.

Many of these interactions seemed like night and day, even among those who already had a rapport. In less than one week, the fear of giving feedback seemed to be diminishing among some employees. What changed?

In the gym, giving and receiving feedback was effortless. I realize now that this was not because the feedback itself was less critical or because our group developed trust. Feedback was constantly flowing because we had alignment. Regardless of how personal the feedback felt, it followed a set of shared principles in terms we all understood.

From this perspective, the fear of giving critical feedback is not in the feedback itself. We fear the possibility of our feedback getting misinterpreted, so we avoid it. It is much easier to say: "Hey, your deadlift isn't looking great. Squeeze those shoulders! Your upper back is looking rounded as you pick up the bar." when both parties understand that this is not good form and could lead to injury.

Through their workshops, Novus outlined a set of principles and vocabulary for everyone to rally around. These frameworks gave the team an anchor for exploring feedback. Words like complaint, integrity, commitment, expectation, and specificity were now universally defined. It was like two people from far away places suddenly becoming fluent in each other's language, free to speak openly without concern of misunderstanding. There's even a term for when you're still gathering your thoughts but want to share what you're thinking: shitty first draft.

While the cultural shift last week was incremental, I'm hopeful for what's to come and excited to continue progress on our vision for the future.

Lesson? Feedback is information, but without understanding, what good is information? By establishing a shared set of principles and vocabulary, a team can communicate openly and effectively. Feedback becomes nothing more than a new insight or observation that can help us amplify our personal growth.

Lucas Ballasy: Inviting Feedback Through Shared Principles & Vocabulary

Thought Starter

What feedback am I holding back in fear of how it might be received?

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