Thoughts on giving feedback
May 19, 2020
A good, blameless feedback culture is essential for working together efficiently as it forms healthy relationships, fuels personal and professional growth and aligns us with common norms. Feedback is one of the cornerstones of company culture.
All that said I’ve found that giving good feedback is quite problematic for most of the people (me included!). There’s a social stigma to giving so-called constructive feedback (see, even the name is somewhat of a euphemism), we feel we’re expected to be nice to each other and surely telling someone they were wrong is not nice. We also tend to be way too simple and not specific when giving praise - no, a simple ‘well done’ is usually not considered as useful feedback.
Let me share with you a few key points about giving useful feedback. I promise it’s all easy and trivial, you just need to consciously practice it.
One of the most important things is getting buy-in for providing feedback. That gives back some of the control to the recipient and helps in having a more open mindset compared to unsolicited feedback. Simply ask if the other party is open to talk about the certain topics. Give some context so they can decide. E.g. “May I share some thoughts about the daily standup we had today?” Be objective and be specific. These support each other, generalization tends to lead to giving feedback on perceived character traits which is a huge anti-pattern (“You always commit bad code."). There are a few feedback models out there, what worked the best for me is the SBI (Situation - Behavior - Impact) model. This helps in giving enough context and specificity and being objective. An example: “During the standup today you didn’t mention you were blocked in your work and by this we missed our chance to deploy today, resulting in a delay in delivery.”
- Don’t use the feedback sandwich technique (starting with a compliment, then negative feedback, then an optional compliment again). Unfortunately it’s still something certain coaches suggest - my advice is that it’s not OK. There’s a reason some call it sh*t sandwich. It shows that you’re not confident in your communication and gives mixed signals, practically killing the actionability of your feedback.
- Don’t include suggestions in your feedback! That’s the next step, but it’s not part of the feedback. It’s very easy to slip into this anti-pattern: “Why didn’t you just use library X? That would make so much sense”. First, this is not feedback, this is question, second it’s not objective but you’re talking about your opinion, not the other person’s behavior and its effect.
- Follow the SBI model even for praises! We tend to oversimplify positive feedback. A pat on the shoulder, a thumbs-up or a ‘nice job!’ has its place and value but the point of positive feedback is more than just recognition: it’s also to make the other person understand what exactly went well in what context and how to repeat that in the future. It’s much nicer to hear “By helping me out with data about the costs during my presentation yesterday we successfully convinced the board to fund our roadmap, thank you for that!” vs. “Thx for the help!”
- It’s even better to focus on data than behavior (if you can).
- Always leave room for the other party to express their thoughts on the matter and even disagree. You can facilitate this by asking how they feel about the issue.
- Make sure to agree on a course of actions together. It’s not enough to drop your feedback and leave. You can help guide this process but the ownership lies with the recipient of the feedback (and yes, they can choose not to take action but they should be clear about that and their reasons). Ask guiding questions like “What are our action items here?” or “How can we make sure next time you feel safe to talk about your blockers during standup?”.
- Remember I said don’t generalize? Well if it’s a positive feedback it can actually help and encourage if you talk about patterns in the recipient’s behavior. “I’ve noticed that you give awesome presentations lately, for example this last time about Kubernetes….”
- It’s completely OK to talk about your feelings in the situation you’re describing, just make sure you’re explicit about them being feelings and not facts. “When you interrupted me during my presentation last Tuesday I felt really disrespected and undervalued” (v.s. “You don’t respect me”).
- Timely feedback is key. Give feedback as soon as you can - hopefully the same day the event that you’re giving feedback about happened. Why? First, both of you still have the context fresh in your minds, second, this way a mental connection is formed between action and reaction.
- Unless you have good experience in it don’t give instant feedback. Make sure you give yourself some breathing space and time to consider how you want to deliver your message. This is especially true for emotionally loaded situations.
- As a rule of thumb praise publicly and criticize privately. Of course it’s completely OK to repeat praise in a private setting and rephrase/clarify it.
Finally, giving good feedback is as much about forming the habit as skills. Make sure you practice it, I guarantee you can find good occasions almost each day if you look closely.