Feedback is not a dirty word
4 min read

Feedback is not a dirty word

Feedback, performance reviews, appraisals. A collective shiver just went down all of your spines. These words are so highly politicized in today's work environments it's no wonder people can't stand them.

For many years I too dreaded the idea of getting critical feedback. I sought recognition and praise, but avoided anything critical like the plague. I was self-aware enough to have some idea of my own failings, but shame and defensiveness kept me from exploring and discussing them.

For a long time such was the status quo. I was a talented engineer, and people let me do what I did best: hack away in the corner and build new products. Anyone who gave a hint of feedback was met with such derision that no more was forthcoming. In retrospect, a lack of feedback during that period stunted my growth.

This all came to a head when I founded a company and started building out a team. Suddenly I had a lot more responsibility and was, somewhat reluctantly, thrust into the limelight. I was forced to grow, indeed the company's future depended on it.  I got a coach and I started researching how great companies were built.

It turns out that a good feedback system is an absolutely critical aspect of a functioning organization. At a macro level, pockets of disagreements within feedback-lacking organizations grow, causing resentment, distrust, and ultimately organizational failure. At a micro level, feedback is the only way to achieve true personal growth. You are not objective enough about yourself to grow effectively without external feedback.

As an aside, I geekily like thinking of feedback like a chatter algorithm in a self-healing Kubernetes cluster.

So given that feedback is so critical to a company's success, why do so many companies fail at it? Well, in my experience they fall short in three main areas: training to give feedback, training to receive feedback, and making it part of the culture.

Giving feedback

Giving and receiving effective feedback is a skill like any other, and it needs to be part of your on-boarding training if your team is going to be any good at it.

Fortunately there are some excellent resources like Nonviolent communication and Conscious Leadership which provides a good structure to do it. At Clearbit these are required reading for anyone joining the company, and I urge you to check them out.

Effective critical feedback should be:

  • Given in private
  • Given regularly (i.e. weekly) at a time when someone is expecting it
  • Come from a place of love and good intentions
  • Is specific and avoid sweeping statements (e.g. not "I think you're lazy")
  • Be in a nonviolent communication format (provide below)

The key to giving feedback is to prevent activating people's 'lizard brain' and provoking a feeling of anger or fear. These are powerful emotions, and once invoked cloud higher-level thought. There's a reason we call a flash of anger 'seeing red'!

The good news is there's a simple way of communicating feedback that avoids provoking anger and defensiveness. Simply communicate in the following format:

"When you do specific action, I feel emotion because the story in my head is your fear"

Ensure that specific action is a fact, something that a camera would record. Emotion should be a core emotion, like anger, sadness, or fear. Don't avoid being vulnerable when describing your fear, make it as real and raw as possible. But also bear in mind that this just a story in your head - other people may see situations differently and have different stories.

An example might be:

When you didn't write any tests for that pull-request you submitted last week, I feel fear because the story in my head is that you don’t place enough value on testing, and that without tests we will introduce bugs that will upset customers, affect revenue, and ultimately destroy our chances of creating a successful company.

Receiving feedback

The reason why you feel that knot in your stomach whenever you are about to receive feedback is that your ego views it as an attack, provoking a fight or flight response. Your ego thinks you're about to be killed, it's no wonder you feel nervous!

The key is to learn to evaluate ideas objectively, and view feedback as a gift. Now this is easier said than done, and will require constant effort and practice. I definitely recommend reading the two books mentioned above, but let me give you a little shortcut.

When people are giving you critical feedback, as soon as they're finished repeat back to them what you heard. Say 'What I'm hearing is XYZ, is that right?'. It is important that the person giving feedback knows that you're hearing and listening to them. Not only will this mechanism do that, but it will also ensure you have some breathing time to think. Keep asking, 'is that all?' and repeating back until you're sure you've sure you've squeezed every last ounce of feedback out of them.

Now take that piece of feedback and take a second to think about it objectively. Be curious, run through the possibilities. Even if you don't agree with all of it, or the format that it was delivered in, are there aspects of it you can take to improve yourself? If you accept the feedback, suggest an action to resolve it. Thank them - giving feedback isn't easy, and by doing so they've shown they care about you.

Making it part of your culture

As a leader it is your responsibility to set a good example, and ensure that giving and receiving regular feedback is part of your culture. Do not leave it to an annual performance review. People should not be in the dark all year as to their performance. Furthermore tying feedback to compensation is the best way to politicize it.

There is a simple way to achieve this: make it part of your teams weekly one-on-ones. Have a structured section at the end of a one-on-one for mutual feedback giving. Make sure that it's a requirement of all your managers, and ensure that it's recorded somewhere (we use Asana).

Lastly, publicly seek feedback from your team and discuss it. The leadership team gives me written feedback at our meetings, which I take and publish to the entire company. I address the feedback and discuss ways I'm trying to improve. Not only does this demonstrate vulnerability, but if people see that you view feedback as a gift, they will start doing likewise.

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