Katie Wilde
Katie Wilde, VP of Engineering at Buffer

Thriving remotely: An interview series with Buffer’s Katie Wilde — Part 2

August 19, 2021 in Founders

With the rise of remote working, many businesses are navigating entirely new opportunities and challenges. Commit’s Sarah Marion sat down with Katie Wilde, VP of Engineering at Buffer (both organizations are remote-first) to talk about how to have hard conversations, build resilient teams, and promote positivity as a remote-first organization. This is the second post in a series about their conversation. See the first post here, the third post here, and the fourth post here.

On transparency while working remotely

Sarah: I noticed in Buffer’s values there are two interesting ones that co-exist. One is “choose positivity” and the other is “transparency.” Under choose positivity, one of your tenets is “let the other person save face, even if they are clearly wrong.” How does that coexist with transparency?

Katie:  Awkwardly! It’s very insightful that you picked that up, because these are the two values we’re most known for.

They definitely are the most line-in-the-sand values—not everyone’s going to agree with them. We’ve since somewhat evolved our values, in fact. Transparency is the same, but we’ve changed “choose positivity” to “cultivate positivity.” We realized it’s not always a choice, as in, “Snap out of it, be happy!” Especially when there are a lot of things going on in the world—like the pandemic.

But to the point on letting others save face—cultures that enable aggressive, obnoxious behaviour often mask it as transparency. Before someone’s about to say something mean to you, they’ll start with “To tell you the truth” or “I’m just being honest here.” That’s not necessarily what candor is. Candor is a kind act.

We wanted to make sure that people didn’t take transparency to mean a public dressing-down or shaming of their coworkers, because that just creates an extremely psychologically unsafe environment. You’re not going to feel safe to make mistakes if you’re called out for being a fool in the general channel.

At Buffer, we don’t actually make corrective feedback transparent. We tried, and it was not a good idea. It absolutely trashes people’s feeling that they can make a mistake, because it feels like you’re being publicly humiliated. So, we tend to make praise very public, if the person’s comfortable. For feedback in the form of criticism, we try to do that directly and individually with the person. But it should always be transparent in the sense that you don’t wonder what your coworkers are thinking of you, especially your manager or someone in a lead position.

I would also say that being candid is not necessarily a case of not being positive. You can absolutely have a difficult conversation and frame it positively: I care about you, I want you to succeed here, in your career, in life in general. If I’m noticing this thing that’s holding you back, the best thing for me to do for you is to talk to you about it.

If you’re lucky, the other person does truly see feedback as a gift. I have found very few people actually experience feedback as a gift. Most humans just hate getting feedback and it’s just how we’re wired. It’s not quite the gift people want to get, but it is important to do.

Sarah: I really like your point on how important it is to praise in public and correct in private. I find especially for early-stage startups, where you don’t necessarily have an intentional feedback cadence, sometimes it feels like if the moment passes you’re never going to be able to share feedback with people. I find that’s when negative feedback comes out, in a meeting that otherwise wasn’t intended for that purpose.

I find myself falling prey to that, and afterwards reflecting that if I had a formal cadence of one-on-ones with this person, I’m sure I would’ve still given them this corrective feedback, because I want them to learn and don’t want to soften it, but I would’ve done it in a more appropriate setting.

Katie: Exactly. And it’s interesting about softening the feedback—some people don’t soften feedback at all for very sensitive reports, for whom softening could’ve been useful.

I’ve also seen managers who soften feedback so much that it sounds like praise, and they do the good news sandwich: “You’re great at these amazing things, but you could maybe change this, but overall, you’re amazing.” The person walks away thinking they’re the best, though the manager has tried to give them difficult feedback. That’s a tough one, knowing how much to soften it, or not, for the person to learn something. I think it varies quite a bit, depending on the person.

Katie Wilde is the VP of engineering at Buffer. She’s the co-author of “Atomic Migration Strategy for Web Teams,” and her writing has also appeared in The Next Web, Inc Magazine and Fast Company.

Sarah Marion leads Startup Partnerships at Commit. She’s spent her career collaborating with early stage founders as they solve valuable problems.