In his new book, No Rules Rules, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings credits the Netflix culture for the company's outsized success. 

Millions of people have seen the original Netflix Culture Deck, a set of 127 slides that Hastings made public in 2009. While most of the attention has been focused on the company's now famous unlimited vacation policy, Hastings and his co-author, Erin Meyer, say another strategy is one the most important steps to building a great culture: 

Encourage candid feedback. 

"With candor, high performers become outstanding performers. Frequent candid feedback exponentially magnifies the speed and effectiveness of your team," they write.

Cultivating Candid Feedback

Candid feedback doesn't just happen. It has to be cultivated from the top.

A few years ago, I was invited to meet with a secretive team in a nondescript building on a military base in New Mexico. Inside the building, classes were being held with military personnel who were some of the smartest people in the U.S. armed forces.

One of my books had been assigned to help students develop their communication skills. The students were training to be experts in one of the most sensitive positions in the Defense Department.

At one point during the class, an instructor delivered a presentation and challenged the students to point out the flaws in his argument. No one raised their hand. He said they'd all sit there until someone had the courage to push back. They soon had a spirited discussion.

"What was that all about?" I asked the instructor during a break.

"We're dealing with life and death and decisions that have to be made quickly. We need professionals who have the courage to speak up. They need to learn that they're expected to speak their mind."

The instructor's role was to shake the students out their belief that they should take orders without questioning them. 

In the corporate world, too, employees are accustomed to taking orders. The boss tells them what to do and they do it. They may gripe about it, but few companies or organizations actively encourage dissent.

That's not the policy at Netflix. Instead, employees are encouraged to "say what you really think--with positive intent." Positive intent means that employees don't give feedback simply to vent their frustration, but to elevate the team's performance.

Netflix's Tips for Leaders

Like the instructor I saw in the military class, candid feedback can only be encouraged from the top. At Netflix, it begins with Hastings himself.

In 2019, Hastings received some negative feedback--and shared it with everyone in the company. One employee told him, "In meetings, you tend to skip over topics or rush through them when you feel impatient...."

Hastings responded, "It is so frustrating that I still do this. I will keep working in it."

According to co-author Meyer, Hastings walks the talk. "In return, he receives more negative feedback than any other leader in the company."

Netflix offers its managers and leaders the following tips to create a culture of candid feedback.

  • Put it on the agenda. Don't just ask for feedback, show employees that you expect them to give you candid feedback. Leave time for feedback on your meeting agenda.
  • Respond positively and with gratitude when you receive feedback.
  • Encourage feedback that's actionable (it includes what the recipient can do differently).

If a person on your team doesn't think your idea will work, they should be actively encouraged to speak their mind--as long as they do so for the good of the company. If they have an issue with the idea itself, they should offer a better plan. 

Every person on your team has a voice that deserves to be heard. Sometimes, they need a little encouragement to speak their mind.