What’s the worst place you’ve ever worked? Now consider the best, and try to pinpoint the difference.

In a word, it’s culture. More than a buzzword, it’s the difference between a “best” workplace and a “worst.” And a great culture isn’t built on celebrations and work perks, it’s built on honest feedback.

Claire Lew thinks so, and she should know. She’s spent the last four years running Know Your Team, a software company that helps managers become better leaders. She’s traveled the globe, interviewing hundreds of CEOs about shaping quality work cultures. Claire recently joined us at Sprout HQ to discuss the how and why of giving and receiving feedback as a cultural norm.

What is culture?

You could say that culture is just the way you do things. But that would be an oversimplification. Claire believes that three layers form the foundation of every culture:

  1. Artifacts: the things you see and say
  2. Espoused values: the things you say that you believe
  3. Basic underlying assumptions: the things you actually believe

Defining these three layers and ensuring they align creates a strong, cohesive culture. Take, for example, Uber: its culture has made a lot of headlines, and not always good ones. Claire pointed out a disconnect in the company’s values and their public image.

“If you were to go to Uber’s office a few years ago, you’d see a lot of interesting artifacts, like posters, parties and literature about valuing people at work. Yet reports and headlines were telling another story,” Claire said.

The accounts of workplace problems showed that the company didn’t quite celebrate people as much as its artifacts showed. In practice, Uber’s culture didn’t have the basic underlying assumptions to give those artifacts real meaning.

Perhaps you’ve worked somewhere where it felt impossible to shift the culture. According to Claire’s definition, that’s likely because you had a hard time influencing underlying assumptions. Assumptions are intangible, making them hard to pin down. Google, for example, writes in its manifesto: “We see being great at something as a starting point, not an endpoint…Ultimately, our constant dissatisfaction with the way things are becomes the driving force behind everything we do.”

“Greatness” isn’t something a company can buy, but it’s something Google strove to include in their attitude from the start and strive to maintain today. It’s a basic assumption that shapes the organization’s thought process and actions.

It’s difficult to penetrate, but this layer of culture is key to impacting the way you do things. And it’s a process that’s more art than science.

The feedback framework

Want to influence underlying assumptions to create a feedback culture? The framework Claire offers is surprisingly simple. When you think about creating a culture of feedback, it comes down to two things:

  1. You have to ask for feedback.
  2. You have to act on it.

That’s it. So why is it so hard?

One reason is the common workplace habit of being “nice.” Despite what we may tell ourselves, being nice is selfish. It fosters toxic communication and actually prevents feedback.

Claire doesn’t recommend being a jerk. But while feedback may not seem “nice,” it shows you care. You have to prioritize what’s important over protecting your self-image. If you need to deliver feedback to someone who’s underperforming or made a recent mistake, you can say, “Hey, I want to give you this feedback because I care about your personal growth. I think you’re a huge asset to this team and you can’t make mistakes like this.”

Don’t ask, don’t grow

As simple as Claire’s feedback is to understand, putting it in practice isn’t. Because asking vulnerable questions goes against our natural inclinations. Asking questions like “Could I get your advice on this?” or “Where am I falling short?” may feel like showing weakness, but it actually demonstrates an awareness and desire for improvement. And that’s the first step in shifting basic underlying assumptions.

Dishing honest, effective feedback requires trust. And showing vulnerability builds that trust. But it’s not just about vulnerability, it’s about specificity. Vague questions only lead to vague answers. Think about asking, “What’s surprised you in the last two weeks?” instead of “What’s the latest?”

Instead of…

Try asking…

How’s it going? → How’s life?
What’s the latest? → In the past two weeks… [something specific]?
What can we improve? → What’s one thing… [something specific]?

As a result, you’ll get richer information. People open up when asked focused questions. It’s the difference between being real and going through the motions.

Another reason to request feedback? It exists whether you ask for it or not. And when you don’t want to hear an answer, that likely means you need to hear it. There’s a need for prickly questions.

Avoiding feedback causes more harm than risking looking weak by asking for help. So get what you need by asking tough questions like “Is there anything you’ve been nervous to bring up?” or “What have we been all talk and no action on lately?”

Prickly. But it’s a good thing.

Show, don’t just tell

How about the second part of Claire’s framework? How do you act on feedback in a way that helps culture become more open and honest?

Feedback doesn’t just fall on what you ask, it’s about making and honoring commitments. Following through on the things you say you’ll do may seem routine, but ask yourself: When have you not gotten back to someone? What’s low-hanging fruit you can act on? Is there a decision or promise you’ve made and haven’t fulfilled?

Lack of action prevents cultures of feedback from truly forming. A study from Harvard Business Review found futility is 1.8x more powerful than fear as an obstacle to feedback. That fear makes communication vital. When change happens behind the scenes, but isn’t made explicitly clear, people don’t feel like their feedback was heard. You have to take action and communicate the what, how and why of each action back to your team.

Grace and space

Feedback isn’t new, It’s just hard. A feedback culture won’t manifest automatically, it takes continual work from everyone involved. Regardless of title or tenure, you can have an impact through asking for feedback, both giving it and delivering on it.

If you wind up feeling like things need to happen better, sooner and faster, remember that impatience can hinder us from the results we want. When it comes to taking on a culture shift, give your coworkers the grace and space needed as you all adapt to new ideals together.

So, what’s the worst place you’ve ever worked? And what’s the best?

Is the difference clear now?