Alexander Reelsen

Backend developer, productivity fan, likes distributed systems & the new serverless era

On feedback - my personal primer to improve feedback
Dec 1, 2020
8 minutes read

TLDR; I have been thinking a lot about feedback in the last decade, its ways of channeling, giving & receiving. And especially the lack of feedback or badly delivered feedback. This is a post about what we can do to deliver better feedback, no matter if you need to deliver feedback to your boss, team mates or your subordinates. And do not worry, I have failed at every single item I list.

This blog post has been sitting several years in my drafts folder, but still is rather up-to-date, so I figured to flip the boolean draft flag and publish it.

Good feedback in a trusted environment is the easiest way to improve yourself and can lead to awesome results, if delivered in a good way plus the willingness to work on it on all sides.

Also, if you are all coming from the same culture, you can keep doing your thing. However it is becoming more unlikely by the day, that in IT you will be coming from the same country, culture, religion, speak the same language as the workforce is becoming more diverse. We need to take care of that on feedback sessions as much as in our daily communication.

Distributed is harder

Distributed feedback is harder. You only have this 1:1 on fixed intervals and cannot easily leave a comment at the coffee machine. This also means you have to properly prepare for this, write up some feedback before starting the discussion. This is required on all sites of the participants. I would also expect this in case of not being distributed, but 🤷

Different feedback for different people

If you got a new hire, you need to have more 1:1 sessions with it than with a 5 year old employee. Moving around teams/employees requires more sessions at the beginning. If you are a new team lead, it usually means you have to incorporate all the technical details and talk to your boss plus finding time to have feedback talks with your team. This can be super tough, but you should start with a very high frequency at the beginning and then sort things out over time.

One of my prime examples for this is the standard rule of three positive and one negative fact to talk about. In certain cultures people might think they are doing an exceptional job as the majority of the feedback talk will be about positive things. In other cultures people will think they are about to get fired. Know your audience.

Feedback within big groups

Big. Groups. Do. Not. Work. No matter what you do, this always will feel like searching for a scapegoat or go off-topic really quickly. Big. Groups. Do. Not. Work.

Prevent rituals

If the structure remains the same, it is a fallacy for repetition. Change the format every now and then. Come up with something different (but do not come up with it unannounced, see below). One of the prime candidates for this is the pre-filled google doc, where to put in the positive and negative things.

Don’t shy away from bad feedback, ensure its constructive

It’s the only way to improve. There is nothing more I despise than a feedback session where all is fine. How am I supposed to improve? If you have nothing to say, it might make more sense to just cancel the whole meeting. Just kidding. There is always something to say. See the next point.

Do not fall into the No, I dont have anything to share trap

This is one of the worst cases that can happen. It’s a killer. Just remember the five basic axioms of Paul Watzlawick. The first one says One cannot not communicate. This is key. If you decide in a feedback dialog to not share any feedback, you are communicating many potential messages. Either you do not care or there is something you do not want to share.

If you do not have anything to share on a bi-weekly or monthly 1:1 I would always assume you are holding something back, or you are frustrated.

Trust your senses

If someone seems unhappy, poke around. If he does not want to open up, maybe ask a colleague if there is more to it. Sometimes it is just enough to know that there is something wrong, even if you are not able to pinpoint exactly. Maybe you are seeing a pattern across several colleagues. Maybe this person has stressful private issues going on. Empathy might be all what is needed.

Framing

One more methodology to prevent at all costs. I remember a review with my superior and mentioning that I was unhappy because my learning curve dropped sharply over the last couple of months. Instead of just noting it down or digging deeper about my complaint he said that I did XYZ, which I never did before, so this must have been something new, so my statement is not true. As a recipient of feedback it is not your job to fit it into your view of the world, but how you can improve the situation based on that feedback in the future for both parties (which I am sure my superior thought he did at that moment).

No unannounced requests for feedback

I admit it. I am not super spontaneous. I need to time to think. About all the things. Always. So if you come up with a new feedback channel/tool/website/you-name-it and just want me to fill out what is in my head, then I have a hard time to do it.

No-go phrases & actions

This is extremely subjective, and also has some very clear cultural reasons. Especially European and American/English culture tend to be extremely different. So be prepared for a very german list here

This is an interesting question

No, it’s not. Or you are buying time to think about it. Then you should just say that. No feedback talks need to be ad-hoc, you can always follow up later.

Let me get back to that/you

… and then nothing happens. This can be a huge trust erosion.

You are right, but…

Just do not do this. You are basically disagreeing right after you faked agreement. I don't agree, because... might have been the better choice. Or collecting both side of the story and see how they match up.

How am I supposed to do that?

This is a classic action from many books, to copy the question and provide empathy and also make the other side think about the question, as if it is an impossible thing. I trust people usually enough that they do not talk about impossible things :-)

Also, this can backfire, as it might give someone the assumption he is talking to the wrong person.

Reflect on things

Know the other side you are talking to. Is it just someone listening for feedback to check that part of your discussion of the mark or do you know that person cares genuinely. If the latter, I am willing to bet some money, that this person expects you to already have reflected a bit on what and why you say things, and your feedback will be taken way more seriously.

Revisit previous feedback

This is something I almost never see. If you say XYZ needs to be worked on, then why don’t you talk about it two feedback rounds later, if work is being done improving that. Feedback talks sometimes seem to be a dumping ground of things. It’s sometimes hard to create actions out of feedback and that requires thought, but you still should not let it slip.

Do not cancel your 1:1’s without replacement

Even though I may repeat myself, I find 1:1’s very important. So naturally this is something that deeply offends me (being an offender myself of course). If you are doing 1:1’s (which you should) but you cannot make it, the worst thing to do is to cancel the 1:1 without offering any replacement date. Especially if the duration between two 1:1 is a couple of weeks or a huge holiday has just passed or there are pressing items to work on that require syncing.

Books

I find it personally very hard to recommend good books here. This is so deeply into the human side of things, that books can mainly uncover behavioral patterns, but it is very hard to improve based on books. I have rarely seen this work. I think training is the only thing that helps, having 1:1’s and reflecting on those you do.

  • Never split the difference by Chris Voss. This is a pretty light book about negotiation. You will not learn anything on feedback, but rather examples of people trying to manipulate you during feedback sessions.
  • Radical Candor by Kim Scott. This is an interesting book and I cannot recommend it enough. Many great examples that open candid feedback is much more better for everyone involved. One of the few books, I read more than once. However this kind of open feedback also gets tricky as soon as politics are involved.
  • The culture map by Erin Meyer. If I’d need to pick one book most specific to this topic, this would be my favorite. It lays out so many examples of how generic and business communication is either high/low context and direct or indirect that you are easily able to understand what you need to take care of when communicating with people from a very different culture than yours and what is required in terms of communication mechanism when several different types of cultures are sitting at the same table.

Talk about your feedback sessions with colleagues

I feel that there is not much talk about feedback (no matter if receiving or giving it), when working in a technical job like software engineering. I think you should talk a lot more with your colleagues about how their feedback sessions look like, what is important to them, etc. You can learn a lot, not only about the general perception of feedback, but also what worries your peers.


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