Be Less Afraid of Giving Feedback


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My friend Camille told me once that women get too much feedback, and men too little. I think about this whenever I think about feedback because it captures some of the baggage we bring to giving feedback.

If you’ve got a lot of (low value) feedback you might think a lot about whether the feedback is useful, or whether someone already knows it.

If you’ve got very little feedback, giving feedback to someone else might seem like a strange and intimidating thing to do.

One of the things that can come from this in a formal performance review process is that people give their peers feedback (at most) twice a year. I worked with a guy who would bring up events from 3 or 4 months prior in peer reviews that he had never or barely mentioned in person (his manager at the time, “he does that to everyone” me, then and now: “that’s really shitty”). If this is connected to promotion processes, working with someone who considers peer review to be when they express every pent up grudge since last time can be not just irritating, but career limiting.

Then without a performance review process the risk is that people don’t give their peers feedback at all. They don’t tell them what’s good (“they must know, it was so complicated! But only a couple of weeks late and we only found a couple of bugs” whilst that person worries  “it was a month overdue and we had to do that point release…”) and they don’t tell them what they wish they would do better (“I wish you would be more thorough in code review, I really value the comments you make and I think it’s important we both understand this”).

Perhaps most insidiously, they don’t talk about the differences in interpersonal style where minor adjustments will make them happier (“when you message me a question without first saying hi it feels like an emergency and you’re ordering me about” / “when you message ‘hi’ and nothing else I have no idea if you just want to chat or if there’s something you need me to do and it stresses me out” / “I know with timezones that meeting will be later for me, but it’s hard for me to make an 4pm meeting on Tuesday because that’s my day to pick the kids up – can we do that time on Monday or later, say 6?” Rather than have that conversation, the question gets resentfully answered, the “hi” goes unresponded to, and the meeting is flaked on. The “petty” thing that it didn’t seem worth bringing up becomes a source of resentment – and the other person has no idea why. Perhaps they even feel they were accommodating you by having an 8am call so you could finish your day on time – but half the time you’re not even there, so why bother.

This is the core of the Leadership and Self Deception framework – that unexpressed (or pooly expressed) conflict creates cycles of resentment. The trick, then, is to break that cycle by seeing the other person as a person, not the source of your frustration, to understand where they are coming from, and express how you feel and what you want.

Building on this, is the idea of Radical Candor – the idea that you care personally and challenge directly. These two things are very important. You can miss one or the other (or both) and call what you’re doing  “radical candor” but that doesn’t mean it is and won’t prevent people from taking issue with it. When you care personally, you’re invested in that person doing well. When you challenge directly, you challenge that person – not your best friend, or your boss, or your Twitter followers. This isn’t to say that there isn’t sometimes value in abstracting feedback, or that subtweeting is always bad (I don’t judge). Just that if you have, and want to have, a good relationship with someone, you need to get to the point where you can tell them yourself. If you’re the boss, and you want people to tell you what they think directly, that work is heavily on you. With peers, and when trying to tell your boss, I’d suggest trying small things and working up.

Good feedback is timely, and contextual.

Timely means it’s not just close to the time that it happened, but that it’s a good time for them to do something with it – both practically, and emotionally. This is why post-mortem’s happen after the situation is resolved, once everyone has had a proper night’s sleep (or three). Once the crisis is over, people are more emotionally ready to deal with how it happened. And practically, they’re not distracted by having to deal with it.

Contextual means in in the context of what you’re giving feedback about. But it’s also contextual in what else was going on at the time, and your relationship with that person. For instance, if someone was brusque in a crisis, you might also want to consider if they are brusque in more every day situations. If someone is going through some kind of upheaval in their personal life, the feedback “you’re not as focused” is pretty meaningless – of course they aren’t as focused, but 1) what is the effect? 2) does it matter? 3) are there things that you can do to help them get that back (e.g. doing some planning together and breaking down tasks). And finally, the context of your relationship. If you don’t normally take much personal interest in someone, giving them personal advice is not a great place to start. If you just let someone down, it may not be a great time to ask them for more. It’s worth asking yourself, “Is this the right time? Is this the right context? Am I the right person?” It’s tempting to convince yourself that you are not the right person, so if you’re tempted to say no there, ask, “If not me, who?”

At the core of both Leadership and Self Deception, and Radical Candor, is the idea that it’s not just what you do, but how you do it. You can be right, but if you’re right in an obnoxiously aggressive way, it may not matter because people won’t hear you. If you’re right, but you don’t speak up in some way, what difference does it make.

The key thing I want you to take away is that conflict is usually much worse in your head than in reality and not saying things rarely results in improvement. Conflict is not inherently bad. It’s not inherently good either, but it’s not inherently bad. It’s just a function of humans interacting – the difference is what you do with it. Whilst corrosive conflict is destructive of everything around it, productive conflict makes for better decisions and stronger teams.

The challenge then, is this:

  • Think about a piece of feedback you’ve not expressed.
  • Use these frameworks to think it through. Is it still true? What do you really want to say.
  • Talk it through with someone you trust (your coach or manager, a peer in another org, someone outside the organization).
  • Give it.

Another helpful book: Thanks for the Feedback.

3 replies on “Be Less Afraid of Giving Feedback”

This is useful advice for managing many situations. Even NASA’s flight controllers (Mission Control staff) are given feedback AFTER the simulated or real mission: after the situation is handled and in context of the larger situation surrounding the mission.

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