Giving and taking criticism at work is never easy, but the best way to handle either is to put yourself in your co-worker's shoes, according to Warby Parker co-CEO Neil Blumenthal.
Blumenthal, who with three friends founded the online retailer beloved in entrepreneurial circles for shaking up the business of selling glasses, last month discussed the company's tradition of rigorous self-analysis in an interview with the New York Times. The founders kept on each other to such a degree that Blumenthal joked he once told a co-founder "when you shoot me a 10-page e-mail at 2 in the morning, I want to punch you in the face.”
But as Blumenthal told The Huffington Post in a recent phone call, it was all in good fun. And it was part of a culture of openness and empathy that Blumenthal says has been key to the company's success. The real challenge is finding a way to maintain that same openness now that the company has more than 300 employees.
Read on to find out how Warby Parker's approach to communication helped it succeed, how the company sustains that approach and the shocking truth about whether it ever hires people who don't wear glasses:
You told the New York Times about having very frank and open exchanges with your co-founders in the beginning of the business and holding each other accountable. You even joked about wanting to punch a co-founder in the face over late-night emails. Did things ever get that personal?
We didn’t have any of those stereotypical, epic founder battles. It’s because we didn't wait for things to blow up, we would address them head on during these meetings. Whenever something didn’t go according to plan, our first assumption wasn’t that “oh this person isn’t smart, they're not talented or they’re not working hard,” it was that there must be something else happening. It created a very different discussion from a “hey, you suck” versus “what’s going on here? Let’s problem-solve.”
Is maintaining that level of openess and frank critical assessment possible now that you have 300 employees, instead of four friends as co-founders?
It absolutely can be the same. And that’s the intent: to provoke these discussions that people should have in an open and honest and direct way. To be honest, it’s really hard. It’s hard for [co-CEO] Dave [Gilboa] and me, who are conflict-averse. It’s something that we really have to focus on ourselves. Very few people love confrontation. It’s a skill that needs to be learned and developed.
What are some of the ways to develop those skills on your team?
We have seminars on giving and receiving feedback. We don't tell people to say, “Hey I want to punch you in the face” [laughs]. That’s reserved, I think, for friends starting a business together. But being able to voice, "When you do x, I have this reaction." You can say, "I assume your intent was this, and that's why I reacted this way." Hopefully, through that discussion, the other person says, "I was trying to do x, I didn't mean for you to have this reaction."
Do you look specifically for people who can empathize when they're giving or receiving feedback?
100 percent. We look a lot for self-awareness and for empathy. I think it’s really hard to serve customers well if you’re not empathetic, I think it’s hard to collaborate with others if you’re not empathetic. I think the people that are the best at customer service are the ones who are the most empathetic. From a self-awareness standpoint, you need high emotional intelligence, you need to see how you’re perceived by others, you need to know how you’re feeling, so that way you can adjust your behavior accordingly.
Warby Parker is known for encouraging employees to be vulnerable and even share personal stories at meetings. How does encouraging employees to be vulnerable contribute to communication?
There’s often a correlation between vulnerability and confidence: The more confident you are, generally the more vulnerable you can be. The more confidence that you have, often the easier it is to take feedback, and you can use it because you’re not getting defensive, because you know this isn’t someone who is questioning who you are as a human being. And the more true confidence you have, that allows you to be more vulnerable. When people see you being vulnerable and giving away more trust, they’re more likely to trust you.
Does everybody have to wear eyeglasses at Warby Parker?
We discriminate against people that don’t wear glasses. No, I’m just kidding. But we only want to hire people that really want to be here and love the brand and are attracted to the mission, which is really to use business to do good in the world. We care less about why people want to work here and more about how much they want to work here.
Is working at Warby Parker fun?
I think so, but it’s not just about having fun, it’s about having impact. Our promise to employees is that you come here and you’re going to learn a lot, you’re going to work really hard, and you’re going to have an impact on the business. And if we’re running this business the way that we should be, that means that you’re going to have a positive impact on the world.
This interview has been edited for length