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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The Unpracticed Art of Receiving Feedback

Receiving feedback, particularly critical feedback, can be challenging.

When I first stepped into the role of team lead at Automattic, I knew one of my biggest areas for growth revolved around feedback. Sure, I’d led a team in the past, but this felt like an entirely new ballgame.

I dove in headfirst into reading all about feedback. I scheduled feedback sessions with everyone on my team and encouraged them to give me feedback as well with leadback surveys. Overall, I thought I had a handle on the feedback thing.

About a year ago, I stumbled across the book Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. Not only did the book have an amazing tagline1; when I put it down, I realized I had earmarked nearly every other page. It changed how I viewed feedback in general.

Giving feedback was only half of the equation; receiving feedback was the other (arguably, more important) half. I realized that focusing on the latter could help with the former.

In January of 2017, I gave a workshop to my colleagues at Automattic all about receiving feedback covering many of the concepts from the book and examples of how I was putting them to use. A few people told me the workshop was helpful so I thought I’d share it here.

Continue reading “The Unpracticed Art of Receiving Feedback”

The precursor to giving feedback

When talking about feedback, we focus on the delivery. If we phrase this better, the whole conversation will get easier.

What if team members actively were asking “What could I have done better? How can I improve?”

Giving feedback is akin to giving a gift. If you walk up to a stranger on the street and hand them a wrapped box, you’re in for an awkward interaction. There’s no relationship established. This person has no idea who you are. Why in the world would they accept a gift from you?

Marching a team member into your office and “giving” them feedback can operate the same way. Why should they care what you think?

The answer is to create an environment where feedback is invited. The receiver is eager ask for your opinion.

How do you create that environment? Three easy suggestions:

Avoid jumping to conclusions. Ask questions like “What happened here?” Don’t assume you know. Build an environment based on understanding versus catching teammates doing something wrong.

Let them bring things to the table. This is a simple, effective flip. If we’re doing a performance review, I could list out areas for you to improve. Or, I could ask you to do a self-assessment and send that over before our conversation. The latter is going to be far more effective. You’re guiding the conversation, not me.

Understand them as a complete person. What makes them get out of bed in the morning? What kinds of projects do they find exciting? Build this relationship early in 1-1s. When it’s time for feedback, there’s a deeper relationship established. You have demonstrated that you care about them as a person.

Find the Gap

I was introduced to the Gap Map in Thanks for the Feedback. It helps to explain why feedback can be so tough and presents a strategy for conversation.

Think of the following progression:

  1. My thoughts and feelings.
  2. My intentions.
  3. My behavior.
  4. My impact on them.
  5. Their story about me.

In a relationship, we’re truly only aware of #1 and #2.

Here’s the flip side: You’re mostly blind to #3, #4, and #5. They (the receiving party) has a full vantage point to observe your actions and your impact. They form their own story about you as a result.

It’s like one huge game of telephone where the message can get seriously garbled along the way.

A disconnect between #1 and #2 (the information I’m privy to) and #3, #4, and #5 (the information I’m blind to) creates a gap.

Example: I want to invite other ideas from the team in the brainstorming session (my intention). As a result, I go around the table and ask leading questions that reinforce my position (my behavior). They feel steamrolled and undervalued (my impact on them) and think I’m a jerk (their story about me).

Example: I want my sales team to finish at the top of the company. My main mechanism to make that happen is to reinforce sales figures and celebrate anyone at the top of the leaderboard. This leaves everyone else feeling neglected and sends the message “Numbers above all else” to everyone on the team.

The good news is that simply recognizing you have blind spots is part of the solution. Realize that you don’t have all of the pieces to the puzzle. You have to consult with others to get the full picture.

The gap also presents a framework for having tough feedback conversations. Our gut reaction when presented with a gap is to argue our point and convince the other side that their wrong. The aren’t wrong at all. They just see things differently than we do.

Let’s say you send out a feedback request to your team. For the past year, you’ve focused on setting and communicating clear goals to the team. When you receive the results, you’re dismayed to find out that your team sees the goals as oppressive and overly demanding.

You could:

A) Argue back and forth about why their wrong and you’re right.

B) Say, “That’s definitely disappointing to hear. It certainly doesn’t match my intention for our goals [recognizing the gap]. Can you walk me through some specific examples of when the goals felt too demanding?”

With option B, you recognize the gap and ask them to shed light on your particular blind spots. No one in this conversation is wrong. They just have a different vantage point.

Come With a Blank Slate

Consider these two ways of asking for feedback:

  1. We need to increase our sales numbers. I was thinking of moving Sarah over from Marketing to lead a new team for Q4. What do you think?
  2. We need to increase our sales numbers. How do you think we should do it?

The first option puts a suggestion out on the table. It’s couched in a way that looks like feedback, but it’s really asking for agreement and support. You could phrase it differently as “Moving Sarah over from Marketing is the best move here, right?”

Depending on your relationship with the receiving party, many will just agree with your original suggestion. As a trend, we dislike disagreements and try to avoid them. You’ve given them an easy out.

The first option allows you to check off the box for “Asked for feedback.” The other side didn’t really get to offer any kind of opinion. It’s an example of adding too much value to the conversation.

The second option asks for actual feedback. You’re not imposing some kind of secret agenda on the other side. You ask a question, and then you actually listen to what they have to say.

The hardest part of these conversations is closing your mouth once you’ve asked the question. My internal dialogue: “Ask the question. Then, shut up.”

The Three Forms of Feedback

Identifying the three types of feedback can help you as the feedback giver or receiver.

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.

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Receiving Feedback as a Team Lead

I recently read a pretty kickass article by Mercer on Kayako’s blog, How to Invite and Acknowledge Feedback as a Manager. Feedback is critical to your performance as a lead/manager. Over the past year and a half, I’ve tried to build in more opportunities for team members to give me feedback in a variety of situations (voice vs text, anonymous vs non-anonymous, in-person vs remote).

The article popped into my Pocket at a particularly timely moment. We just completed our third “leadback” survey of the year on Sparta, and I’m in the process of reading through the results and figuring out next steps.

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The Problem with “Constructive Feedback”

It’s hard to sound or be humble when saying, “I’ve got some constructive feedback for you.” This sounds like you’re saying that you know a truth that the other person doesn’t know, and you’re going to tell them this truth. It’s sort of like saying, “You have a problem, I’m going to tell you what it is, and you’re going to fix it. And moreover, you’re gonna like fixing it.”

Kim Scott writes about the problems with “Constructive Feedback.” (h/t Simon).

If you’re looking for a follow-up read, this piece about giving high performers feedback has been helpful.

Our Current Process for Handling Feedback

Yesterday, I read an article on NPR about performance reviews titled “Yay, It’s Time For My Performance Review! (Said No One Ever).” As you might expect from the title, the piece detailed where current annual performance reviews are falling short and how they need to adapt with the future of work.

The annual performance review has quite a few problems:

  • They’re too infrequent. Trying to summarize a year’s work in one meeting is insane.
  • They’re often lopsided with feedback flowing only one direction.
  • There are too many layers of abstraction. Managers might not work closely enough with an employee or on a project to fully appreciate the challenges.

Giving feedback in general is difficult, and no system is ever going to be perfect. We’ve been working hard on providing feedback at Automattic, and while we still face many of the same challenges above, I think the system we have in place (for my team and a few others) works decently well.

Here’s the full system laid out in detail. If you have any thoughts, suggestions, or alternatives, I would love to hear them in the comments!

Before diving into the feedback system, I want to give a hat tip to Simon. I stole much of this current system from working with him at Automattic.

Our Current Feedback Schedule

First, we needed a way to address the issue of timeliness. Providing feedback once a year is just not enough. We operate on a continuous four month cycle consisting of:

  1. Peer reviews – Having a colleague review and provide feedback on customer interactions.
  2. Leadback survey – A questionnaire providing me direct feedack on leading the team.
  3. 3-2-1-Oh – A more comprehensive deep dive into goals, performance, etc between myself and the team member.
  4. (Off)

So, January through April would be one cycle, and then we’ll start back at the top. This cycle ensures that the team member gets direct feedback on their work every other month (in the peer review and 3-2-1-Oh).

In addition to this cycle, every team member has a 1-1 with me at least every other week if not every week. I detailed more about what goes into those 1-1’s here.

Peer Reviews

If you work in customer support, you likely have a similar setup at your organization. We pair up members of the team to review one another. If you’re the reviewer, you read through 20-30 random customer interactions of the reviewee.

From those interactions, you’re looking for overall patterns or trends (both positive and negative). We’re not looking for a spelling error. We’re looking for things like tone, approaches to a problem, etc. The reviewer and reviewee meet for 45 minutes to go over the feedback. Often times, the reviewer gets as much out of the feedback session as the reviewee in terms of things they’re taking back to their own workflows.

Ideally, these peer reviews serve three purposes:

  1. Team members get valuable feedback from their peers and improve their craft.
  2. Team members get comfortable giving feedback. Like anything else, giving great feedback is a skill.
  3. We create a culture of feedback. When someone notices an error in a ticket, they don’t feel shy about bringing it up directly with the person.

Leadback Survey

It’s imperative for leaders to get feedback from their team members. I end each 1-1 with some variation the following:

What can I be accountable to you for the next time we talk?

It adds a layer of accountability, and frequently, members of the team will give me things to do whether that’s clarifying the direction for the team or taking care of a specific roadblock.

Still, think of the last time that your supervisor asked you for feedback on their leadership style? It’s super intimidating! There’s a strong desire to only provide positive remarks.

The leadback survey (again, which I stole from Simon) comes as a Google Form generally consisting of three “sections” each comprised of a multiple choice question and explanation section. Here’s an example from the last leadback survey I sent out:

Question: I know exactly what I need to do when I come to work each day for Sparta to be successful as a team.

Follow-up: If you selected anything other than “Yes,” walk me through a recent scenario where you weren’t sure what to work on to push Sparta further as a team.

The responses are completely anonymous. At the end of the month, I read through all of the responses and write up a p2 post summarizing the answers and detailing how I’m going to try to address each point.

I’ve done two of these so far. I generally try to pick 1-2 themes that I want to focus on and repeat a similar line of questioning in back to back leadback surveys to gauge improvement. Each survey then contains 1-2 returning focus areas I’m looking at for improvement and 1-2 new focus areas.

3-2-1-Oh’s

This is a popular feedback framework across Automattic that breaks down like this:

  • 3 things you do/have done well.
  • 2 areas or skills you’d like to develop further, the more specific the better.
  • 1 way your team lead and Automattic can support you.
  • And — oh! — a sentence or two on what most excites you and how you want your career to develop here.

(If you’re interested in more about the format, Andrew wrote about it here.)

I setup a 1-1.5 hour timeblock with every member of the team. Then, I ask the team member to do their own 3-2-1-Oh self-evaluation and send it over to me a week in advance. This allows me to read through their responses, make notes, and send them my thoughts in return. When we get together, we’ve already read over each other’s responses and have a better framework for the discussion.

The most difficult part of 3-2-1-Oh’s is condensing four months worth of work down into six bullet points. The goal is for these sessions to be iterative. They should build upon one another. Andrew elaborated a bit on this in his article linked above:

It’s better to keep someone on course through a series of small adjustments than through a U-turn. My goal is to have these conversations on a quarterly basis. Trying to improve a host of things about your work in that limited amount of time isn’t realistic. It’s better to narrow your focus and then regularly revisit and adjust goals.

Here’s what typically goes into a prep session as the team lead (when I’m reviewing someone else’s 3-2-1-Oh):

  • Randomly checking tickets/chats. I read through 20 support interactions to get a sense of how the individual is handling support. Yes, they get this through the peer review as well. This is more of an accessory to the peer review process.
  • p2 posts/Trac tickets/GitHub reports. I’m looking for everything from how much and how often they’re communicating to how detailed and well-organized your bug reports are.
  • Collecting feedback from peers. I reach out to everyone else on the team and those the individual interacts closely with asking for feedback (all anonymous).
  • Notes from previous 1-1’s. What kinds of larger tasks/projects did they attempt over the past few months? Did they deliver on the items we discussed in 1-1’s?

Coming out of a 3-2-1-Oh, we should have a shared sense of where we’re trying to head over the next four months and the incremental steps we need to take to get there. The feedback is then summarized and sent over to HR (the team member gives it a stamp of approval).

***

That’s a snapshot of how we’re approaching feedback currently on Sparta. The normal caveats apply. The process is likely to evolve; your mileage may vary; and other teams at Automattic handle feedback differently.

I would love to hear about your feedback cycle if you have one though! We’re always looking for ways to improve.