A Comprehensive Look at How to Give Better Feedback

A woman sitting on one side of the table as she receives feedback from two individuals

A few months back, I published some notes from a presentation I gave at Automattic all about why receiving feedback tends to sting. While everyone is focused on developing the skill of delivering feedback, I truly believe becoming a better feedback receiver is worth spending some time on. The skills go hand in hand. While you can’t always control how feedback is delivered to you, you can control your reaction to that feedback.

Still, there is an art to delivering feedback. When delivered appropriately, feedback can grow the relationship you have with colleagues, teammates, and even friends/family. When delivered inappropriately, it can create animosity.

If you remember the three types of feedback triggers, you’ll know that the three reasons feedback tends to sting are:

  • Truth triggers – We’re upset by the substance of the feedback. It’s unhelpful or simply not true.
  • Relationship triggers – We’re upset by the dynamics with the feedback giver. Either we feel mistreated by this person or we feel as though they’re not in a position to give us feedback on this particular topic.
  • Identity triggers – The feedback we’re receiving conflicts with our own internal narrative.

Similar to receiving feedback, I led a workshop awhile back at Automattic on the topic of giving feedback. Here are some extrapolated notes from that topic. They’ll address specifics like:

  • Feedback comes in all shapes and sizes. We’ll talk about the three specific types of feedback and why you’re likely falling short on one of them.
  • Now that I know why colleagues are set off by feedback, how can I tailor the feedback I’m giving to avoid the three triggers mentioned above?

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Be Unnecessary (And Two More Tricky Leadership Principles)

I’ve been reading, learning, and writing a good deal about leadership over the past two years. It’s one of my favorite topics because the applications expand far beyond your business career into your personal relationships, family, and more. Regardless of whether you’re in an official leadership position within an organization, you’ll benefit greatly from developing leadership skills.

In my mind, one of the best ways to learn about leadership is to read, absorb, and apply lessons from the greats. I wanted to distill some of the more counterintuitive principles I’ve picked up from reading books like The Score Takes Care of Itself, Extreme Ownership, and What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.

  1. Be a leader, not an achiever.
  2. Make yourself unnecessary.
  3. Take all the blame.

Here’s more about those leadership principles and how they specifically apply.

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How to Kickstart a Feedback Culture on Your Team

I distinctly remember a time when a feedback conversation blew up in my face.

I was managing a team of personal trainers at a recreation center on my college campus. During a shadowing session with a newer trainer, I sat down with them to go over some suggestions I had. In my gut, I knew this wasn’t going to go well.

Immediately, the trainer grew defensive. Instead of listening to what I had to say, we were arguing back and forth. Firmly entrenched in my own viewpoints, I argued back. The conversation didn’t get out of hand, but it was clear we weren’t making any progress. Both parties were set in their own thinking and showing no signs of budging.

Perhaps you’ve been in this exact situation—approaching a new teammate with some critical feedback. You want desperately for the conversation to go well. In many ways, that first feedback conversation sets the tone for the rest of the relationship. Recovery from a bad start is possible, but it’s uncomfortable and difficult for everyone involved.

Starting a cycle of feedback on your team is equal parts important and delicate. The trick is to not start with direct, critical feedback but rather progress that direction over time building a relationship along the way. Here’s a step-by-step progression for moving from 0 to “This could be better” without burning bridges.

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Moving Up the Care Personally Axis (Radical Candor)

I just finished up with Radical Candor, a book on leadership by former Google and Facebook executive Kim Scott. Scott lays out two axes that exist within leadership—care personally and challenge directly. Together, they create the radical candor framework.

A visual depiction of the radical candor framework
This post on First Round Review offers a great breakdown if you just want to learn more about the framework. Image from Radical Candor.

Care personally is just that—demonstrating to your teammates that you give a damn about their well-being and success.

Challenge directly is all about helping them improve, giving them feedback, and pushing them to excel.

I want to talk about moving up on the Care personally axis and moving towards Radical Candor pulling both from the book and personal experience.

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