Giving and Receiving Email Feedback at a Startup

November 10th, 2015

If your startup is anything like Pinterest, you receive a lot of email. Sometimes, that email is feedback on the things you’ve worked on. Since email only communicates 7% of what face to face communication does (with 55% of language being body language and 38% being tone of voice), email feedback can sometimes be misread. Email feedback can be given especially directly in a way that can be hurtful to the team it’s given to, making them defensive instead of receptive, because they fill in a tone and body language that isn’t there. I liken some kinds of email feedback I’ve received to someone walking in your house uninvited and starting the conversation like this:

“Man, what’s up with your door? You need to get that fixed. Oh man, those curtains are awful. Why on earth did you pick those? Is that your wife? You could have done better.”

Startups are making tradeoffs all the time. Everything is harsh prioritization with very limited resources. Employees at startups know this because they live and breathe it. But quite often, when startup employees give feedback to other startup employees, they forget that those people have to make the same kind of hard tradeoffs they do, and that might lead to some of the issues they’re emailing feedback on in the first place.

If you’ve gotten in the habit of giving this type of email feedback, a better way to give email feedback is to ask questions:

“Hey, I came across this experience today. Is it on your roadmap to take a look at this? If now, how did you come to that decision? Is there a experiment/document that explains this because I’m happy trouble understanding why this experience is this way? Here were some things I didn’t understand about it.”

If you’re on the receiving end of harsh email feedback, there are generally two things to think about. Firstly, if the email is to you personally, what I tell myself is to divorce the content from the tone, because the tone is in my imagination. A thought out response to the details of the email and why things are the way they are may seem to be annoying, but it’s worth it. What would be even better is if you point the person to a place they can learn about these things in the future.

If the email is sent to other members of your team, long term, you want to train your team on divorcing the tone as well. If you haven’t, you might need to use the email response to defend the team. Otherwise, they think you are not sticking up for them. What I do in this case is send an email defending the decisions as well as explaining them. Then, I will follow up with the email sender in person and tell them “Sorry for the harsh email. You really put my team on the defensive with the perceived tone of the post, and I felt I had to defend them. Next time, can you word your email a bit differently so we can focus on the issues instead of the team feeling like we have to defend ourselves?”

Currently listening to Sold Out by DJ Paypal.

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