The Dangers Of Ignoring Feedback

Lessons from Brewdog

Victoria June 11, 2021
Reading time: 6 minutes

Brewdog. The artisan beer that grew into a global brewery and bar chain. The success story of scale and investment. The ‘Punk’ brand that defied tradition with a ‘growth at all costs’ mentality.

But what will June 10th 2021 mean for Brewdog? Yesterday’s open letter from 50 staff about the ‘culture of fear’ in the business has cast huge doubt over the brand, the culture and the leadership.

But if you were diligent enough to cut through the social media hype you could see the warning signs were there for a long time at Brewdog. Articles such as this from 2016, which describes their entire brand as marketing spin.

Or maybe the 3.1 out of 5 score on Glassdoor - with only a 50% approval rating of the CEO. An eye catching review headed "soulless, self righteous liars". 


From the outside looking in, I can see how they might have got here. You start up a cool brand, position yourself as ‘disruptors’ in the marketplace and wage war on those that challenge your vision and creative thinking.

You're loving the attention, it's working! Great, let's do some attention catching stunts. Sorry employees if this makes you feel uncomfortable, we're the cool kids, you just mustn't be cool enough. ‘It’s not us, it’s you’ 

Then a rumour spins that legal letters were sent out to those who challenged their actions. You fight dirty. ‘Either back us, or you're out’.

Your revenue is still growing, so let's recruit some more people. They join and get the gist pretty quickly ‘it's FIFO round here’ (Fit in, or F off). Any feedback you give will be ignored now, it’s gone too far. Sadly, this will also be the case for new ideas, creativity and innovation - if the cool kids didn’t think of it, it’s unlikely to be a winner. 


I suspect the internal feedback will have been there. The signs that things weren't right. Maybe at one time, it was there to see in the employee engagement surveys. But maybe nothing happened with any of the feedback anyone gave. So people stopped bothering. The feedback dried up, maybe the response rates dropped too. 

The evolution is complete. You're a fully paid up fear culture. You've surrounded yourself with people who like to say yes, or who are too scared to say no. The great thing now is, they’ll do the gate keeping on the feedback for you. Those closest to you will be too worried about their jobs to say anything. So as a leader, you now don’t even need to worry about the feedback, you have probably stopped hearing it - but it isn’t because you’ve created an awesome culture. It’s quite the opposite. 

Before you know it, your talent pool has dried up and you’re moaning about skills shortages. You’re wondering why no one in your business has any good ideas other than you. Wondering why your inbox is full of people asking for your approval on things. 

If you let it get really bad, some ex-employees will take the time to collaborate and make a website on just how bad things are. You’ll make the news and be the talk of social media. 

Maybe now your IPO isn’t looking quite as rosey. Your subscriptions, monthly recurring revenue in the bag, have dropped and people have started to question the quality of your products. Maybe it all starts to unravel….  


So what next?

What is unravelling right now for Brewdog is more than a PR disaster. Your people are a critical part of your brand and when they turn on you, it clearly demonstrates that your vision and values don’t run as deeply through your business as you might have thought. 

Building an amazing company culture is incredibly difficult, but it is completely achievable. If you do the work, put the correct processes in place early and take it seriously. 


Here’s a few things to think about;

1. Care about your people more than your brand - Products don’t just magically appear. Behind every product is a team of real people with real ideas, real passion and real situations. They made your brand. They are your army of brand ambassadors and they can make or break it. It pays to care about your team more than your branding. 


2. Get ready to listen - if you need to engage a coach, or a counsellor - someone who can help you see some clarity - do it. You have a lot of personal work to do first before you can go and change a whole culture. 


3. Actively listen. What is your engagement survey telling you? What is your exit interview telling you? What feedback have the team given you directly that you’ve ignored? You need to dig deep on this stuff. You need to get personal. You need to be courageous in asking for this feedback. 


4. Be prepared for this to take time - if you’ve asked for feedback and shown you’ve listened, maybe next time you ask, the feedback will be a bit braver, go a bit deeper. Now we’re really getting to the heart of things - we’re really getting to the heart of what is impacting on the engagement of your team and what’s really going on. 


5. Consider who in your immediate circle, you haven’t disagreed with for a while. We all disagree and share different opinions as part of growing and being creative. If there are people you haven’t done this with in a while, these might be your “yes” people. 


6. Trust your team - in fear cultures, trust vanishes. Be bold, extend the trust back out. Ask your immediate team for feedback, show them you trust them to be honest and that there will be no repercussions for their honesty. 


7. Make commitments and then go and get them done - if you are truly listening, then there will be things you now want to change. Make commitments to the wider team, tell them what you intend to fix. Don’t make another stunt out of it. Then go and get it done. 


This next point is REALLY important - if you make commitments and then don’t deliver, this is going to get SO much worse for you. 


Transformation can be achieved. You can turn it around, but you have to listen. 


If you haven’t already got an anonymous employee engagement survey in place, get one quickly. In advance, make the commitment that you are going to take action, no matter what the feedback is and how uncomfortable. 


If you want help to turn around your culture, check that you’re not leading with fear or just want to avoid getting anywhere close to it - Space HR can help. www.spacehr.co.uk. 



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