Feedback Doesn’t Have To Be Scary

“Can I give you some feedback?”

Take stock of how you feel after reading those words. Not great right? Your blood pressure and pulse probably spiked a bit. There aren’t many other sentences that put us more on edge in the workplace.

Right out of college, the scariest thing one could tell me was the manager wanted to see me in his or her office. Many of us don’t have close enough relationships with our bosses to have a frank and safe discussion. So, I kept my head down and hoped I could make it until my next review before I was in closed off room with my boss.

This decade, companies have been coming around on this idea. Thanks to articles from Harvard Business Review like this, or this, and much more found here, feedback is on our coworker’s minds. Companies are incorporating feedback from peers into review season – which, by the way, is upon us again.

Fortunately, I’ve been leveling up my boss experience with each job I have taken. The two I reported to at Bottle Rocket were dreams. Despite the need to give me some constructive thoughts on my work, they almost always made me feel safe in every conversation.

Then I reached ThoughtWorks, a place I can safely dub Feedback University.

Please don’t read that as a derisive term. When you report to a single person, it’s incumbent upon him or her to lay out a plan for your career. To show you a path to success. Therefore, the manager goes and gathers feedback about your performance and makes recommendations for improvements.

But what if you don’t report to a single person?

That’s my current structure. There are several people who oversee my career now, and they partner with me to lay out my path. It’s up to me to go find out from teammates how I’m doing so I can help decide what’s next.

So, after years of learning to trust others with my professional future and a year immersed in a feedback culture at ThoughtWorks, what have I learned?

It’s one thing to accept it, it’s another to seek it out constantly.

In all my previous jobs, feedback was something you did not seek. When most of it is constructive, why would I intentionally want to hear it? This is not to say I never heard compliments from managers, but my one-on-one sessions were not for feedback. I would report on where I’m at with client work and go on about my day.

During my first few weeks of orienting myself with the ThoughtWorks team, I had heard that we had a feedback culture. I just thought it was just like all other companies that stated they encouraged an open environment. Then, I started getting meeting request from team members asking for feedback.

“Wait,” I thought. “Why are you asking for me to tell you what you are doing wrong?”

Having no idea what to think, I would cobble together something and kept my head down. Of course, I was not seeking any out, so when do you think I had my first session?

When I did something wrong.

Here’s the thing about feedback. If you seek it out, it creates an environment where you the giver wants to provide you with the best possible information. If you wait for feedback to come to you, the giver is in a situation where they have to give it to you. Once I realized the situation I was putting them in, I forgot all about how I regarded the sessions.

Once I realized the situation I was putting them in, I forgot all about how I regarded the sessions.

There is a right and wrong way to collect it.

Once I decided to start gathering feedback, I didn’t have much of a plan. Just sat down and asked what people thought. Needless to say, what I received wasn’t very helpful. It was just their own personal feelings. Wasn’t necessarily all bad, but it left me more confused than illuminated.

Which led me, of course, to gather feedback on how I can better gather feedback. Giving your co-workers some specific questions or topics you want to discuss in advance focuses the conversation. It also steers the conversation away from personal feelings. The giver can focus on helping me.

I also didn’t receive it very well.

For much of my career, I thought I was the only person that got defensive in feedback sessions. It created anxiety for me and also worried it would cripple my career. Then I sat through a session at Agile 2016 on feedback and learned that most people have a tendency to get defensive.

What a relief that was for me.

The speaker suggested handwriting some notes to help take my emotions out of the conversation. The reason I like that method other than typing is I’m forced to listen and take down only the important things said. I hear the feedback giver from an improved context and keep the conversation moving.

The final piece is validating what you heard. Monte Masters will be proud to know this, but I take all the feedback I gathered and end the session with, “so what I think I heard you say was…”.

The quality of my feedback has vastly improved ever since.

It’s yet another thing we should be agile about.

What’s hilarious to me is in a day and age of small software releases, we collect feedback into big-bang review cycles. Granted, salary and title reviews usually happen every 6-12 months so it makes sense to correlate reviews with them.

It stands to reason, however, that much of the feedback you receive is out of context and less than helpful in those sessions.

By proactively seeking feedback in shorter increments, we avoid the confusion of big-bang review cycles. When I ask how the last couple of months has been from my teammates, then can give me more specific examples of successes and improvement areas.

This is another way to remove personal feelings from feedback because you can use facts and examples to support feedback. When you wait a year to give feedback, it’s almost always based upon how the other makes you feel.

This has been a wild year for me professionally. I’ve been stretched like never before, but thanks to this improved method of gathering feedback I know it’s headed in the right direction.

Please pass on any stories you have of feedback and what you learned. Here are some additional posts on feedback I found during research.


Tagged: agile, coaching, defensive, feedback, focus, leadership, loops

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