The Three Forms of Feedback

I’m in the process of reading Thanks for the Feedback, which is the best leadership/professional growth oriented book I’ve read this year. The book focuses on receiving feedback (how to accept criticism, avoid getting defensive, etc), but I’m taking a ton away on the art of giving feedback as well.

I have several posts I want to write that came to mind while reading through the book, but one of the first (and simplest) takeaways was the different forms of feedback that exist. We often think of feedback as this one thing, but the authors point out there are actually three main types of feedback. When giving feedback, it’s important to recognize which type of feedback you’re trying to use and get both parties on the same page.

Appreciation

At a literal level it says, “thanks.” But appreciation also conveys, “I see you,” “I know how hard you’ve been working,” and “You matter to me.”

We’re all aware of the importance of appreciation on some level. It’s crucial to recognize members of your team for the amazing work they do. Compared to the other two forms of feedback, it can feel much easier to give. You’re praising someone on your team and making sure they feel acknowledged and valued.

The authors list out three characteristics for appreciation to be effective:

  1. “It has to be authentic.”
  2. “…appreciation has to come in a form the receiver values and hears clearly.
  3. “It has to be specific.”

I would add another. Appreciation should be timely. Don’t wait until your big quarterly review to tell someone how much you appreciate their work. Make a habit of finding something to appreciate each week and let them know in your weekly 1-1. Better yet, let them know as soon as it happens.

The second characteristic in the list above—”come in the form the receiver values and hears clearly”—is extremely important. If someone on your team prefers public praise (either an all-company email recognizing their awesome work or something of that nature) but you deliver praise privately in a 1-1, you might well be missing the mark despite best intentions. This should be a question in your first 1-1 with someone on your team:

How do you prefer to receive recognition? (public or private)

Coaching

This is the type of feedback most of us are probably familiar with.

Coaching is aimed at trying to help someone learn, grow, or change.

Reviewing someone’s work and suggesting minor changes, nudging a teammate in a different direction on a project, and helping a teammate figure out next steps in their career are all examples of coaching. When we think of feedback, this is most likely the type of feedback we’re thinking of.

The authors lay out two different situations that necessitate coaching:

  1. “…the need to improve your knowledge or skills in order to build capability and meet novel challenges.”
  2. “In the second kind of coaching feedback, the feedback giver is not responding to your need to develop certain skills. Instead, they are identifying a problem in your relationship: Something is missing, something is wrong.

The first situation feels more safe. I recognize a gap in your skills, and I’m going to push you/develop a roadmap to close the gap. The second is more difficult. I’m pointing out that something is broken and inviting you into the discussion to help fix the situation. This is difficult because you might not feel like anything is broken at all. We may disagree. You may feel hurt and confused.

Evaluation

Coaching and Appreciation easily come to mind when we think of feedback. Evaluation? Maybe not so much.

Evaluation tells you where you stand. It’s an assessment, ranking or rating.

Think of the last time you ran a 5k. You knew exactly what time you finished and where you finished in the field. This same kind of evaluation exists in the workplace. Sales teams have ranked spreadsheets that indicate how well everyone is performing relative to one another. Yearly performance reviews normally contain some variation of “You’re doing well. Here’s a raise,” or the less-desired alternatively.

Evaluations are always in some respect comparisons, implicitly or explicitly, against others or against particular set of standards.

Evaluation can sting. A bad evaluation literally comes across as “You didn’t do good enough” or “You didn’t measure up.” Depending on how you handle feedback (story of another post), this can put you into a spiral downward.

These kinds of examples paint a negative picture of evaluation, but evaluation can be positive as well. The authors point out that “You can do this” and “I believe in you” also fall into the evaluation category, but on the positive side.

Why are evaluations necessary? They “align expectations, clarify consequences, and inform decision making.” Think about the last performance review you had at work. It likely included some evaluation. You probably heard about your performance (either good or bad) and consequences (maybe a raise). You also probably had a better framework for thinking about decisions (“What I’m doing isn’t working?” or “I’m right on track.”).

Evaluation contains three distinct parts:

  1. Assessment ranks you. It tells you where you stand.” Either you’re on track for management or you’re not.
  2. Consequences are about the real-wrld outcomes that result from the assessment: Based on the assessment, what, if anything is going to happen?” Since you’re not on track for management, you’re not going to get a raise or a promotion until your performance improves.
  3. Judgement is the story givers and receivers tell about the assessment and its consequences.”

Since evaluation can be incredibly difficult to give, the temptation is to avoid it entirely thinking that coaching and appreciation can fill in all of the gaps. The authors point out that this is a mistake:

When evaluation is absent, we use coaching and appreciation to try to figure out where we stand.

All three types of feedback are necessary. If I don’t receive evaluation-based feedback, I’ll use other clues (coaching and appreciation) to make up a story in my head and fill in the feedback gaps. “Why does my lead give me so much coaching on how to reply to customers in emails? I must be doing a terrible job at it.” “My lead singled me out on the last email for my recent sale. I must be nailing it.”

Get aligned

Just being aware of the three forms of feedback is helpful. The authors provided some tools for aligning both the giver and the receiver in a feedback session that I thought were pretty helpful. If I expect appreciation and you give me coaching or if I expect coaching and you lay the smackdown of evaluation, a problem is going to arise.

Here are three simple questions from the book to ask yourself before a feedback session:

  1. What’s my purpose in giving/receiving this feedback?
  2. Is it the right purpose from my point of view?
  3. Is it the right purpose from the other’s point of view?

It’s also totally acceptable to bring this up directly in conversation (despite how weird it might sound). “My goal here is to show appreciation for the work you’re doing. Is that what you’re hearing?” Or, perhaps more applicable, “My purpose for this conversation is for you to walk away with a firm idea of how you’re performing. If that’s not immediately clear by the end of our talk, let me know.”

Our Current Process

I talked about our team’s process for feedback here, but as I was reading the book, I kept thinking back to our process and asking myself if we’re hitting all three layers of feedback. After reading the book, I have areas that I want to improve, but for some practical application, here’s how I try to think of each form of feedback in the context of our team at Automattic.

Appreciation
Delivered through:

  • Immediate conversations when someone does something awesome either in a private Slack ping or a team-wide ping depending on the situation.
  • Reinforced in weekly 1-1s with questions like “What can we celebrate this week?”
  • Compiled monthly in Spartan Kudos posts.

Coaching
Delivered through:

  • Immediately when something is headed in the wrong direction
  • Weekly 1-1 sessions
  • Monthly goal setting sessions

Evaluation
Delivered through:

  • Quarterly 3-2-1 sessions with everyone on the team

I would love to hear about how you’re thinking of the balance between appreciation, coaching, and evaluation in a comment (or on your blog)!

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