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

A Comprehensive Look at How to Give Better Feedback

By Jeremey DuVall on September 14, 2017 — 11 mins read

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?

In Thanks for the Feedback, the authors break out three forms of feedback we can deliver to others. If you’re like me, the first two will quickly come to mind. The last one is a bit tougher both to keep in mind and to deliver to teammates.

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.”

– Thanks for the Feedback, p. 31

Ah! Appreciation. Compared to the other two forms, this might be the “easiest” form of feedback to give others in the sense that it’s generally (always?) positive. This is a big reason why I recommend starting with appreciation and praise when trying to build a feedback culture on your team.

The book does lay out three specific actions you can take to make appreciation more valuable to the recipient:

Make it specific.

The book pointed out an interesting dichotomy between critical feedback and positive praise/appreciation. In the former, we typically have a list of specific examples that back up our claim. If you’re giving someone feedback that they’re always late for work, you’ll likely have a list of dates that they’ve exhibited this behavior. We rarely use the same approach for appreciation though and default to generic “Good job” exclamations.

Specifics are a great thing when giving appreciation. Some questions you could ask yourself: How has this person helped me specifically? What specifically did they do well that I noticed? How did they make an impact in this project?

Keep it authentic.

Fairly self-explanatory. If you are giving appreciation, make sure you mean it. The person on the receiving end can tell if this is forced or genuine.

Make sure it comes in a form the receiver values.

This is an often overlooked characteristic to appreciation. If the appreciation comes in a form that the receiver doesn’t necessarily value, it might fall flat. By “form,” I’m referring to items like public vs private and the medium (all company email, Slack, private conversation, etc).

Two questions borrowed from Lara Hogan can make sure you deliver feedback in a form that the receiver values: How do you like feedback – the medium (IRC, email, in person, etc.)? and How do you prefer to receive recognition? (public or private)

Coaching

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

– Thanks for the Feedback, p. 32

When thinking about giving feedback, this is the type of feedback that first came to mind. It’s the type of feedback I first think about in the lead role and a mentor/mentee relationship. The book actually laid out two distinct examples of coaching:

  1. Helping someone learn, grow, or change.
  2. Identifying a problem in the relationship.

The former is along the lines of what I was thinking. The second example can come from a place of frustration, but it’s coaching nonetheless.

For example, let’s say I’m working in customer support, and I frequently work weekends to help out the team. I realize that my teammates aren’t working weekends for whatever reason. I could say, “Hey, why am I pulling all the weight here? Think you could help out on a weekend or two?” This likely won’t be very effective, but it’s coaching nonetheless. I’m identifying a problem in the relationship and asking “you” (the receiver) to change as a result. Often times, coaching comes from a positive point of view (“I’m here to help!”), but there are cases where it can come from frustration.

Depending on the context of the coaching and who it’s coming from, this type of feedback is likely to set off all of the feedback triggers. We talked through them one by one:

Recognize blind spots and start with “What” questions.

With truth triggers, the other party might feel like we’re completely off base leading to statements like “Yes, you might be right, but you don’t understand this particular instance.” Or, “You weren’t there so how would you know how to handle this?”

A better approach to these conversations is to recognize our blind spots from the start and begin the conversation with exploration versus diving right into “Here’s how you could do this better next time…” That way, you can hear their side of the story and get more context.

The distinction between What versus Why questions is also important. The latter has a hint of accusation and implies that whatever went on was wrong. Think of questions like “Why did you do it this way?” or “Why didn’t you do this next?”

Instead, use What to get the same information without the accusation. “Can you walk me through what happened here?” and “What would the next step here be?” are softer ways to get at the same information.

Are you the right person to give this feedback?

This one is pretty simple. When approaching a coaching situation, ask yourself, “Am I the right person to be giving this type of feedback?” Should this be coming from a manager? Am I too close to the situation to be giving this feedback? This will help you to sidestep potential relationship pitfalls.

Will this be a big blow?

As mentioned above, identity triggers are all about how the substance of the feedback contradicts the values and stories the receiver holds close. Taking some time to understand what this person values and how they’re likely to respond to the feedback can make a big difference. In the article on receiving feedback, we talked about understanding everyone’s baseline, swing, and recovery as it pertains to receiving feedback. Consider this when delivering coaching.

There’s also an opportunity to help the receiver contain the feedback story. That is, if I consider myself an honest person but receive feedback to the contrary, my mental story immediately goes from 100% honest to 0% honest; there’s little middle ground. Here’s one example of how you could help the receiver contain the story:

I noticed you approached this issue in live chat this way, but the user gave you a bad rating. I might suggest trying __ instead. To be clear, I found many glowing reviews amongst your feedback ratings. I just wanted to bring this one up since it stood out.

Evaluation

Evaluation tells you were you stand. It’s an assessment, ranking, or rating…Evaluations align expectations, clarify consequences, and inform decision making.

– Thanks for the Feedback, p. 33

Of the three forms of feedback, evaluation feels like the most difficult to both give and receive. Examples are everywhere.

The finish results of your last 5k are a clear ranking of how you stack up to everyone else.

The weekly sales report clearly ranks everyone by quota and let me know where I stood.

Similar examples exist at Automattic and at your organization. You could use support interaction totals, GitHub issues closed, lines of code written, or sales figures as indicators of your rank in the organization. Regardless of the metric you choose to use, evaluation clearly states where you stand within a group.

There are two considerations for evaluation:

  1. There is always a little evaluation in coaching. For example, if I’m coaching a Happiness Engineer on how to improve their live chats by showing them an example of how anotherHappiness Engineer handled the same situation with a better result, the former might read into my coaching and assume that they’re not doing as well as the latter even though that isn’t my intention.
  2. You shouldn’t skip evaluation. Although it can be difficult, evaluation is necessary because:

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

– Thanks for the Feedback, p. 36

Without evaluation-type feedback, we create our own evaluation based on the coaching/appreciation we’re given. That may or may not be the correct interpretation. For example, if I’m working in a sales organization without clear metric for how I’m performing, I might interpret offers to shadow sales calls from my manager as an indicator that I’m not performing well. In reality, they might be offering that same assistance to everyone, but without evaluative feedback, I’ll pull whatever cues I can potentially out of context.

Evaluative feedback is obviously tricky and likely to set off all of the feedback triggers we discussed.

Identify gaps in understanding.

I touched on this briefly in a previous post called “Find the Gap.” We can all agree that starting a conversation with something like the following is bound to set off fireworks:

Since your performance is below average, I wanted to chat briefly about what we can do over the next few months to improve.

While this approach satisfies the conditions for evaluative-type feedback (the receiving party would clearly know where they stand!), it lacks quite a bit of context:

  • Are you both on the same page?
  • What does “below average” look like?
  • Do you both have the same definition of “below average?”

Instead of walking into a conversation and immediately portraying our point of view, we can start by getting their perspective and identifying if we have a gap in understanding. For example, you could start with something as simple as:

Thinking back over the past six months, how do you feel about your performance? What has gone well? What hasn’t gone well?

You already have an idea in mind of how you feel the past six months has gone, but this is an opportunity to find out if there’s a gap between your evaluation and theirs. If they give themselves an A+ and you would give them a C, it’s nice to know that before you openly give them a C.

There are three possible scenarios:

  1. The evaluations match. That’s awesome! You can respond with something similar to: “That matches my views as well. I would describe the past six months in much the same way. ___ was definitely a success. I agree that ___ could have gone better as well.”
  2. They’re overly positive. This is the worst possible scenario because you have to reconcile your lower grade with their higher self-evaluation. You can respond with something like: “It’s interesting to hear you describe ___ as I came away with a different understanding. Specifically, I think ___ and ___ could have gone better. Can you walk me through your perspective on that?”
  3. They’re overly negative. This situation isn’t great either as they’re overly critical when you were ready to give them an A++. You can respond with: “I’m glad we’re having this conversation. I think the past six months went extremely well especially with ___ and ___. I’m surprised you gave yourself such a critical review. Can you elaborate on what specifically you feel you could have done better?”

You’re walking into the conversation with a narrative in your head already. Instead of blurting out your point of view from the beginning, start by getting their side of the story then tailor the conversation as a result.

Make it regular and purposeful.

Feedback needs to be regular to be meaningful. Giving feedback once a year or letting feedback slide off the calendar for other priorities gives the impression that it’s not important.

You’ll want both the giver and the receiver on the same page regarding the purpose of the feedback for it to be most effective. If the giver intends the feedback to be taken as evaluation, but the receiver hears something completely different, there may be unintended consequences. To make sure everyone is on the same page, you can experiment with something similar to this:

My intent for this conversation is for you to leave with a good understanding of how you’re performing as a ___ and anything we need to work on over the next 3 months to improve.

Know your people.

This falls back to many of the same ideas listed under coaching feedback above. Understanding how your colleagues respond to feedback is very beneficial. Again, you’ll learn this over time, but I think starting the lead/team member role with a few questions can definitely help:

  • How will I know you’re upset?
  • How do you prefer to receive feedback?
  • Can you tell me about a time when you received feedback you didn’t agree with? Walk me through how it was delivered and why you didn’t agree.

***

Both giving and receiving feedback are important aspects to focus on. The former gets far more attention in books, business articles, and the like. While I do believe that focusing on how you receive feedback can pay massive dividends, the distinction between the three types of feedback and how to sidestep the various feedback triggers can be immensely helpful.

 

Posted in: Leadership

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