Tuesday, 25 August 2020

On the Giving and Receiving of Feedback

What is Feedback?

I joined ThoughtWorks in 2015 after working at a startup for 10 years and a few other companies before that. The culture shock when I moved to ThoughtWorks from the (hero and blame) culture of my previous employer was huge. It was so huge that I struggled to adjust in my early months and at various stages in the first year was close to failing the probation period and / or quitting.

One of the weirdest things for me at the time was the culture of feedback. In all of my previous jobs personal feedback meant a once a year conversation with a manager in which the manager picked fault with your performance in the previous year and ignored anything good you had done in order to justify a miserable annual pay rise and a disappointing bonus. Feedback was thus only used for bad news, was so infrequent as to give no opportunity to improve and was strictly a one way process which, like most nasty things, only flowed downhill.

When I moved to ThoughtWorks (my current employer, Codurance, has a similar culture of feedback) my experience was very different. Firstly, in the two day induction there was a module on giving and receiving feedback. Secondly, personal feedback for the purposes of salary review was a very different thing. Instead of a manager (neither ThoughtWorks nor Codurance has the concept of reporting lines) using feedback as a way to beat down your salary expectations, the responsibility is put on the individual to gather feedback as and when you see fit in order to improve yourself in your role and possibly to support your argument for a pay raise at a later point. The key point being that it is up to you to seek feedback and also up to you how to solicit it, how to record it and how or whether to act upon it.

Instant Feedback

Instant feedback is extremely useful when used well because, at the risk of sounding obvious, it gives you a short feedback loop. Anybody familiar with Agile values should appreciate the value of short feedback loops. For example, have you ever been in some kind of feedback discussion, focussing on a large period of time, when somebody says to you something like "sometimes you can be arrogant"? This is all well and good and you might be inclined to say, or think, "I'll try to be less arrogant" but the chances are you weren't aware of being arrogant when apparently were being so. You may well, therefore, ask "can you give me an example of when you perceived me as having been arrogant?" Unfortunately, the person talking to you probably can't and therefore you are unsure what behaviour is being thus characterised and you can't act upon this feedback.

Giving Instant Feedback

I was taught to give instant feedback following three simple rules:
  • Do it as early as possible after observing something.
  • Tell the person what they did or said.
  • Tell them how it made you feel.

As Early as Possible

This is quite obvious. The earlier feedback is given referring to a specific incident the fresher in the memory of the feedback giver and receiver it will be. Moreover, you have the readymade example so need to ask for a specific example of a general behaviour.

What Happened

This should be quite clear as well. Tell the person what they did or said that is causing you to give them some feedback. Provided you have followed the first rule of instant feedback, there should be no dispute or interpretation at this stage. You are simply stating a fact of what happened.

How it Made You Feel

This may seem a little strange but is actually extremely important. The reason why you tell the person how it made you feel is because they cannot dispute this. Only you know how something made you feel. The difference between saying "you were trying to make me look small in front of the client" and "your comment made me feel like you didn't respect me" is enormous. The first comment can easily be met with an indignant (and very possibly justified) "No I wasn't!", the second comment can only prompt further useful discussion.

My Experience

Once I was used to dynamic of receiving and giving this type of fast feedback it became hugely useful for me when I received it and hugely satisfying to give it. Yes, there were sometimes hard conversations but almost always the conversation contained at some point a phrase such as "I had no idea that could make people feel like that, thanks for letting me know, please point it out if it happens again." I felt liberated and most importantly never again took part in conversations that went "You do things that to belittle people....it's just the way you talk to people....I can't think of a specific example, but you do it all the time..." The most satisfying aspect of all was that I could see, both when I gave and received feedback like this, is how much more valuable the early, instantly actionable, feedback was compared to if we had waited some considerable time before attempting the same conversation.

The Reinforcing and The Constructive

Just to be clear, this type of feedback giving should also include positive, reinforcing feedback. I realised that just as not having a specific example for behaviours that you think should be curtailed, not having a specific example for a behaviour that should be amplified is extremely frustrating. So my habit became to frequently give small nuggets of feedback, good and bad, but always immediate and actionable. It is my belief that none of that feedback was resented or ill received.

Longer Term Feedback

Longer term feedback is a bit harder to do effectively but unfortunately it seems to be much more common than instant feedback. There are many problems with it, mainly that the passage of time will have dimmed memories of certain incidents as previously mentioned. It also may be way too late to take any useful action on the back of the feedback that has been given as it could be many months after the actions that prompted it.

Why Engage in Long Term Feedback?

Annual Pay Reviews

As I've mentioned above the most likely reason that people may be having a conversation about actions and behaviours that have occurred during some long period of time will be to support the case for pay reviews. Most companies will have an annual pay review involving all their staff in which they have some kind of allegedly fair compensation formula which will reward everybody as they deserve but which in reality will force the whole of the organisation at every level of magnification to rank the peers and force their pay awards into some kind of normalised distribution that will result in a pre determined fixed rise to the total wage bill. Have I mentioned that I'm not a fan of this type of one-way-no-discussion-allowed feedback?

Project or Milestone Retrospectives

Sometimes teams break up, or reform at least, at the end of a project or at some significant milestone. It is also possible, particularly if you are a consultant, that people will regularly rotate in and out of engagements. In recent years I haven't spent more than nine months working for the same client. So it is often seen as appropriate to give and receive some kind of retrospective feedback from the people with whom you have worked for a time and from whom you may soon be separated.

Career Progression Discussions

A third use case for a retrospective style giving and receiving of feedback is to gain some kind of view on your colleagues' perceptions of your readiness or suitability for some kind of career progression. It could be that you believe that you are deserving of a promotion and you want to verify whether you are being reasonable or not. It could be that you have certain blindspots to your own shortcomings, or even your own strengths, and therefore you want to engage your colleagues in order to understand what some of these blind spots might be.

Some organisations, in fact many, will combine the annual pay review conversation with career progression conversations.

So How do I Do It?

how do you approach the giving and receiving of long-term feedback? This is a question that wasn't really addressed in a systematic fashion in the time I was at ThoughtWorks. In fact, other than saying things like "We have a feedback culture" or "We value the giving and receiving of feedback", I haven't seen many organisations that give their people much guidance on how to give and receive periodic feedback. 

Most of the time I have seen people sending emails to a group of colleagues soliciting feedback. More often than not it will say something like "Please reply to this email with some feedback." I never found it easy to respond to such requests. Too often, the response ends up being strong in terms of praise and very weak in terms of actionable points. Sometimes people request a meeting to discuss feedback. In those circumstances it can be even harder to give anything other than bland, "well done" type feedback. I think there are a number of reasons why this is but primarily it is because it is hard for many people to to give constructive feedback. Most of us are just too nice. The other reason I think is similar to what I mentioned above in that it can be very hard to come up with useful examples (because of the passage of time) of things to improve on which makes it difficult to mention certain areas.

Make it Comfortable

Having gone through a couple of frustrating cycles of less than useful feedback I alighted almost by accident on a method that seemed to work well for me, and which I shared with many of my ThoughtWorks colleagues. Firstly, one should recognise that feedback is useful and should be regarded as a gift. Therefore, make it as easy as possible for people to give you feedback. So when I would send an email soliciting feedback, I would give the recipients the option of how they felt most comfortable with giving the feedback. I would typically use something like "I'm happy for you to answer my questions by email, or if you'd prefer, we can meet face to face in the office, over Zoom, or in a pub after work if you like."

Make it Explicit

Finally, and I think this is the key, make your request for feedback more explicit. Instead of saying "please give me some feedback on my performance", try something like:

I'm looking for some feedback on my project performance. In particular could you please consider the following questions:

    • Is there anything I do as a Technical Lead [or whatever] which you think I should be doing less of?
    • Is there anything that you would expect a Technical Lead to be doing that I'm not doing?
    • Is there anything I could have done better in my direct interactions with you?
    • Can you think of any times when you haven't got what you expected from me personally?
    • What do you think I need to do more of to be considered as a Principal [or whatever the next level is]?
    • Is there anything I need to stop doing to be considered as a principal?
My experience was that five or six targeted questions yielded up actionable points that I could actively work on improving or eliminating as appropriate. I would have a pool of perhaps 8 or 10 questions that I would use for a single round of feedback and would share a different subset with different people depending on how we had worked together. For example, I would be more likely to ask another of the technical leads about interactions with our stakeholders, because they were probably in a lot of the same discussions, than I would be to ask the same question to my team's graduate developer.

Conclusion

  • There are two types of (very different) feedback. Instant feedback for immediate, actionable feedback on recent specific events and longer-term feedback on performance over time. Be clear on your reasons for giving and your expectations for receiving both.
  • The golden rules for giving instant feedback are do it soon, stick to the facts of what happened and tell that person how their actions made you feel. Most importantly, do not attempt to speculate or second guess the recipient's motivation for their actions.
  • Make it as comfortable as possible for people to have what could be an uncomfortable exchange.
  • Be explicit in your request for a long term feedback.

 

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