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

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

Recently, however, there was one learning 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.

transparency experiment

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.

Buffer value 2: transparency

We then started to take a more structured lens 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 3 distinctive things that stood out to me:

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.

Anytime 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:

positivity new

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.

All three of these effects were influencing each other—because it was such a big thing anytime 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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Written by Leo Widrich

Co-founder and COO at Buffer. I enjoy writing about Buffer’s lessons learnt, social media tips and updates to Buffer. For some more personal posts, check out leostartsup.

  • Very interesting read, I’ve wondered how that aspect of Teal organizations worked out in actual companies. Kudos on the willingness to experience, and recognizing when things aren’t working out for you!

  • Teresa wolf

    Another great post regarding how Buffer is adapting, growing, and changing to better support their team and company.

  • chsweb

    I suspect Buffer would really like Teamphoria, it’s an employee engagement & recognition platform. When somebody does something cool, I can give them a virtual pat on the back for everyone to see. I can also make company-wide suggestions and anonymous vents… and rate my day. It is a very simple tool and a great way for managers and CEOs to keep a real-time pulse on the people they work with. Worht a look: http://www.teamphoria.com

  • Philip Fifi Bachinger

    Smart. Is there an open forum for customer Team buffer feedback? I’d suggest one. Just the DISQUS chat would do that well already.

  • I can certainly see how it would be challenging for anyone to come forward publicly about feedback towards others. It seems it would have to pretty big problem to overcome the much easier option to simply ignore it. Having to show it in a public setting then make it an even bigger deal with fewer people coming forward with feedback so it really gets spotlighted. The reaction to feel almost attacked and become defensive would be made even stronger because now you not only have to explain your actions to the one giving the feedback but everyone.

    It may not have worked out but it’s still great that Buffer tried it. Having never bothered to try mean you’d still not know if the strategy would work. It’s wonderful to see you try, even if sometimes those experiments don’t work out. Thanks for continuing to share these awesome insights Leo.

  • This is really great! Like @hectoraparayuelos:disqus, I’ve been wondering how super transparency manifests in real life, and how companies like your navigate the delicacy of such situations. It’s really nice to see how Buffer continues to learn and reflect on its experiences and not throw the baby out with the bath water when things don’t work out the way you thought they would. I have the public sharing of praise and positive feedback in mind.

    This post has made me realise that no two types of feedback are alike and it’s probably prudent to bear the purpose of the feedback in mind.

    If it’s something that tends to be more negative, like how to improve, then it’s most effective to keep it private and not raise (counter-productive) hackles. Someone who isn’t defensive is more like to really listen instead of shutting down.

    If it’s something positive, though, then by all means celebrate and share it with everyone! That generates a more supportive and positive environment where everyone can thrive. It also encourages people to work a little harder for that praise! (Praise is so important, I’ve known really competent co-workers who have been so demoralised because their efforts weren’t recognised :( )

    Either way, keeping the context and purpose in mind makes it more like that each and every comment/feedback is productive and helps everyone move together towards the goal.

    Thanks for sparking this reflection! Now to put this in practice at my workplace too ;)

  • In a roundabout way this proves that you should definitely praise in public and correct in private. Did this at all impact the annual (self reflection) review process?

  • Michael de Groot

    Leo and Buffer team. You deserve a big high five for being transparent about the fact that the ‘feedback experiment’ didn’t work. ‘Failure’ doesn’t exist only ‘Feedback’. You acted on the feedback and took a different route. Commendable. Did you really dig deep about why the team wouldn’t give public feedback? I have this theory that everyone craves ‘love’ and that’s why social media is so popular. When anyone receives negative feedback or even feedback dressed up as ‘small improvements’ they feel rejected and a lack of love. Doesn’t matter how you dress it up they will feel that somehow my colleague, partner, team mate doesn’t love me anymore. Our built-in defence system kicks in and we will find a way to reject that person back. It’s called our ego.

    • Michael de Groot

      …the best way to explore small improvements is to ask questions. Most of us already know where we can improve. Therefore my suggestion-idea is that you could be transparent about the questions. The team could come up with their own questions not aimed at anyone but good questions that make you think about improvements. These questions could be shared publicly as they would be useful for anyone to use. Here’s a question to get you started: When you achieve something great how does it make you feel? How could you repeat that feeling regularly?

  • Sylvia

    Thank you so much for sharing! It’s a great lesson for all of us. I think being Asian American gives me some pretty unique insight into this…Saving face is a key concept in most Asian cultures, because it speaks to the dignity of a person. By giving constructive feedback in a group setting it can feel like “public shaming,” which you pointed out makes saving face difficult to do. However, conversely genuinely speaking well of someone in public not only elevates and encourages them, but it creates good will towards them from the speaker and the group. How have you guys kept the “good vibes public” for your group?

  • It’s an interesting experiment, but I’m not overly surprised at the results. People want to feel safe and loved. No matter how positively or constructively or gently a review or feedback about person’s performance is put, the potential for a person to feel defensiveness or hurt is too easy in an everyone vs one setting (if that makes sense).

    The more you know, the more you grow, though! Glad that positive praise was kept as a public activity for team members!

    Maybe a system where members can leave anonymous tally marks to count the number of times they’ve given it received private feedback (without saying to or by who) could allow Buffer to continue measuring the frequency of private feedback. It’d be interesting (of everyone saw the benefits of doing so) to still be able to measure the participation in private feedback between members. Just a thought though :)

    Cheers, and thanks for the insight Leo!
    Amanda

  • Most of my team is in the Philippines where the culture is quite different and social norms much less open. It was really hard to get any type of feedback from the team in a recent round-table I did yesterday during our lunch-in. Of course, the open attitude works great …. if you assume that people are open. The other problem with internal transparency is that some people really never repair from negative feedback said to a group if it’s damaging.

    I’m glad you stopped before too much happened, I’ve told the team to privately contact me if they have issues internally with the team.

    Also, I set the ground rules before the discussion since we do have a few “talkative” team members. The rule I made was that you do NOT have the right to discuss a complaint or concern UNLESS you have a proposed solution. I made it also clear that IF they have a problem and not an answer they can contact me to work out some ideas for resolution.

    That worked like a charm, the team proposed great positive feedback, provided issues with real solutions (like asking for more plants in the office, a new fire extinguisher, a new water dispenser since the other broke). It was a day of shopping right after lunch and immediately addressed every concern AND some.

    Thanks again for the great write up, and your quest for transparency and start-up experimentation.

    J Hunter

  • Very interesting @LeoWid! It is nice to see how Buffer pivot it self around processes and tries to improve. Really rare to see these days.

    I agree that public feedbacks are not good and it will always ends up in embarrassing at least one person. And that is the last thing you want.

    What do you think about introducing some tool for feedbacks?
    It still should be one-on-one, but just to store data for later analysis. And maybe to have possibility to jump in, in case of bigger dispute/disagreement, if both parties need that.

    It just crossed my mind as something that could help in setting up best feedback system in company.

  • I admire the courage you all clearly have in experimenting with these things. It’s important in those times to not take any setbacks too much to heart and instead think about the journey as part of a bigger picture.

    Question: do you foresee any other areas of the company where this approach might also work better than full transparency?

  • Leala

    This is very interesting. I am a big believer in transparency in leadership with healthy boundaries and it looks like that’s what Buffer is finding, boundaries. Thank you for being so open. Buffer is changing a lot in the world and I would be honored and privileged to be on your team. The evolution and culture that Buffer is creating is truly inspiring. Thank you for helping to pave the way for so many others.

  • Kim Slawson

    I have been privileged to be a member of the Spec network’s weekly inspect Wake group, and it’s showed me that transparent feedback can be quite valuable when phrased very politely and made sure to be absolutely constructive. It can often feel like a challenge to receive criticism on one’s work, but it’s very important to not let ego get in the way of processing the message in the way it was intended. People giving honest, constructive feedback in public can work if handled just so. Big props to Bryn, Brian, John and the rest at Spec.fm.

  • Max Shkud

    Leo, thank you for sharing this experience — I applaud your courage in experimenting with such edgy practices, going out on a limb, and learning fast.

    Two observations stood out for me:

    1. The problem might have been not with transparency per se, but rather with people’s lack of capacity to act authentically and responsibly within the new policy. This “breakdown” could have been seen as an invitation for further development — rather than the rollback of the policy

    2. Perhaps more importantly, and beyond transparency, there is convincing evidence that “feedback” as a practice can be quite detrimental to self-management, something that might sound counter-intuitive. Happy to elaborate why, if there is interest.

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