Receiving Feedback

May 9, 2018| Daniel Jones

People aren’t scared of failure - they’re scared of criticism. Defensiveness increases the transaction costs of getting even the simplest problem solved. If we can better equip people to receive feedback, then we can remove a major source of lost productivity and lost potential.

At EngineerBetter we have a Git repo of documentation to provoke thought about whether we’re doing the best we can. This blog post is an expansion of one of the docs in that repo.

People aren’t scared of failure, or at least, they’re not scared of being involved in failing projects. If they were, then I dare say we’d see far fewer failed IT projects in the industry. Rather they’re scared of criticism and the devaluing of us as peers that goes with it. Seth Godin makes this point well in Tribes.

Criticism is however a form of feedback, albeit with at best harsh and at worst negative connotations. This makes it vitally important though - receiving and acknowledging accurate criticism prevents us from continuing to get in the way of our own success. Feedback is a key element of eXtreme Programming, and with good reason that I’ll get to after some tasty, actionable morsels.

Three Types of Feedback

An initial problem with the giving and receiving of feedback is that the word feedback means different things at different times to different people. So it’s good to be explicit about three very different sorts of feedback:

When you’re receiving feedback (perhaps uninvited!) or have solicited feedback, which type is being given? Which type were you hoping to receive?

Take a hobbyist songwriter. Upon sharing their latest recording that they made over the weekend, they may ask their colleagues for feedback on their new creation. In this context, they’re much more likely to be seeking appreciation or coaching.

Contrast this with an artist in a recording studio, making a tricky second album and spending thousands of pounds/dollars/euros for the time of an experienced producer. When asking “does this track work?” they’re more likely to be after an evaluation that is frank and succinct.

Appreciation

Appreciation is the sort of feedback that is of least actionable use, and is hugely important to many people in terms of their ongoing happiness. Appreciation is the recognition of the effort you’ve spent, the skills you bring, and your attributes that others value.

Many people have experienced a manager that was a good motivator, and often their secret weapon is the simple tool of appreciation. “It was great that you’ve worked hard on the beta launch,” etcetera.

Coaching

For coaching you may read ‘encouragement’. Coaching is however entwined with evaluation: in order to determine that someone needs coaching in an area, one must first identify deficiencies. For example, “Nice, you wrote that in a functional style. I reckon if you keep doing that, you’ll understand the paradigm in no time.”

Pair-programming provides the perfect arena for coaching. As a pair, you have hands-on and immediate visibility into someone’s performance, and more importantly, their emotional state. Is now the right time to correct something? Can I tell my pair what to do right, instead of what they’re doing wrong?

Coaching is an on-going process. It’s not an annual review, and it’s not a quarterly catch-up. It’s something that should be embedded into an organisation, and everyone should be prepared and willing to coach their colleagues.

Evaluation

Evaluation is the cold, hard, nitty-gritty of what you’re good at, and what you’re not good at. Sometimes you just need to know exactly how good you are (or not, as the case may be!).

In the realms of professional development evaluation should form the basis of things like formal reviews and salary negotiations. Stark and explicit information is what’s needed here, because this is where it really counts.

Folks that aren’t used to receiving feedback or are not particularly self-critical may struggle with uninvited evaluation.

Criticism

Looking at the above three definitions, it’s fascinating to consider how appreciation, coaching and evaluation look through the lens of criticism. The term criticism suggests that the evaluation is going to be negative; that the coaching could be (but not necessarily will be) delivered with scorn; and that the appreciation will disparagement. No wonder folks are scared by the prospect of receiving criticism!

Negative Reactions to Feedback

It’s common to have negative reactions to feedback, whether it’s well-intentioned or not. I’m sure we’ve all had instances where some information on our performance was delivered, and we had a near-instantaneous negative emotional response.

These negative reactions are often caused for one of three reasons:

  1. Veracity
  2. Relationship
  3. Identity

Veracity

Sometimes you just don’t agree with the facts being put forward. That may well be because we all seem to be very good at spotting things that we don’t agree with and discounting them as “wrong”, without ever really digging into why there’s a difference of opinion or interpretation.

Differences of opinion about the same event often occur due to one of two factors: different data about the same event (ie one party has knowledge that the other doesn’t), and/or different interpretations of the same data.

Instead of ‘wrong-spotting’, use this as an opportunity to ‘difference-spot’ and dig into why there’s a difference of opinion.

This is exactly why story-pointing in an iteration planning meeting is important, even if those points aren’t used in a meaningful velocity metric. By forcing people to boil down their understanding into discrete numerical values, we expose differences in understanding and interpretation. Maybe someone thinks the story will be easy because they know something I don’t?

Relationship

Regardless of whether you’re part of a formal social hierarchy there are often people who you don’t believe should be entitled to give you personal feedback. In the case of a hierarchy this could be due to the feedback giver being of lower status. In less formal situations it may be due to a lack of familiarity and shared bonds - not many folks appreciate a total stranger strolling in and proffering their thoughts uninvited.

Is the reluctance to accept feedback from this person due to personal differences, the roles you’re asked to perform, or the structure of the organisation you’re in? Separating these out will help avoid making things personal unless they really are.

How happy you are about receiving feedback doesn’t necessarily correlate with the accuracy of the feedback. Can you separate out the relationship issue from the feedback being offered? Is your reaction well-founded in the first place?

This is one of the many reasons that flat organisations are happier and more productive: if everyone’s at the same level, then there is no case of “I outrank you, you can’t speak to me like that!” (It’s also been shown that humans are much more likely to do unethical things when instructed to do so by someone with perceived authority, but that’s a whole other blog post.)

Identity

The strongest objections to feedback can arise when the information offered conflicts with our sense of self.

We’re all pretty invested in our own identities, especially as we get older and believe ourselves to be more fixed. Accepting that our self-perception might be inaccurate can be challenging, although hugely enlightening.

I can’t recall where I first came across the phrase, but ever since I’ve been keen on the phrase “Your beliefs are what you do, not what you think or say.” This can seem limiting in the context of feedback that clashes with our sense of identity. “If my behaviours define me, and my behaviour is being criticised, then I must be terrible!”

Fret not. We all have a tendency to think that our current emotions will carry on forever, that when things are bad they’ll never get better. This is patently not true, as anyone who has ever had to console an upset child will know.

Additionally we ourselves are not fixed. We learn, we grow, and we change. Although our behaviour now may be suboptimal, it needn’t be forever. A non-fixed mindset is valuable in the fast-moving world of technology, and studies have shown that people with growth mindsets are happier in life.

The Importance of Feedback

Criticism without love and empathy is a scary thing. It leaves us feeling exposed and vulnerable. “If these people think I’m rubbish, do they like me? Will they tell the manager? Will I lose my job?”

It’s no wonder then that criticism elicits defensive and counter-offensive responses in people, which lead to friction in the workplace. That friction is manifested as a lack of receptiveness to change and new ideas.

Feedback and the ability to act upon it are fundamental features of any anti-fragile system. Feedback (or information from the world) allows a system to adapt by reinforcing beneficial behaviours, and this ‘doubling-down’ on doing what works leads to the non-linearity characteristic of a complex adaptive system. Any system that can’t learn, that can’t invest more effort in the positive, and move away from the negative, is at best robust and at worst fragile. It will eventually be disrupted by a change in its environment that it was oblivious to, and will fail.

Nowerdays we recognise this in systems design, and use techniques like fast-failing, chaos engineering, self-healing and team retrospectives and post-mortems to enable our systems and organisations to learn and adapt. How seriously does the IT industry take these concerns at the personal level, though?

Feedback loops are exponential. Much like compound interest, the earlier feedback is sought and the more frequently it is delivered, the larger the returns. The organisation that can learn sooner and quicker will have an exponential return on this learning, as explored in the book Exponential Organisations.

At EngineerBetter we see on a daily basis how increasing the rate at which organisations introspect and learn increases their productivity and ability to adapt. If we can innoculate people against the fear of criticism by teaching them how to deliver, receive, and think about feedback, then we can enable a step-change in individual’s personal development too.

Further Reading

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