To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.Elbert Hubbard
Feedback is one of the most important interpersonal skills in the workplace, and particularly so in tech companies / roles. Your ability to deliver constructive feedback, and your willingness to gracefully accept it and even seek it – can make all the difference in your new career. It can give you an edge in a job interview, where tech recruiters often probe to find out how you handle criticism and how you approach your role to team results. And it can make or break your new career, once you actually get the job. In this article I’ll walk you through what effective feedback is and how to properly give and receive it.
So what is feedback?
Depending on your experience this far, you might equate feedback uninvited opinions, or with criticism; or you might think it simply denotes the formal requirement of the professional evaluation process, something to ‘look forward to’ at the end of each year…
But feedback, done right, is more than just a random criticism, comment, suggestion, advice, praise and the omnipresent snark remark. In fact, feedback is never about payback, pushing your personal preference, boosting your ego or anything else along these lines. To be clear: feedback is not a socially acceptable coverup for pettiness.
Rest assured, I’m not gonna give you a lecture-type piece on the different types of feedback. Instead, what we’re focusing on here is the hands-on, practical process through which a person is offered helpful information about the effects of something they do. Concretely, you can give / receive feedback about:
- A work result – for example, you’re a junior developer and have written a bunch of code. The code works well, but a coworker tells you that you might want to consider improving the readability & ease of maintenance by refactoring and throwing in some comments.
- A work process – for example, you attend a team presentation and are seated way in the back of the room; the font used in the PowerPoint is too small and the speaker frequently says ‘as you can see’… so you miss a lot of information. At the end of the meeting, walking back to your office together, you mention that it was hard to see from the back and suggest using larger font / better contrast.
- And also about the impact an action had on someone – for example, you might tell a coworker who unknowingly sings along to the music in their headphones that it’s difficult for you to concentrate 🙂
Make sense? I think so. Let’s continue.
Why (proper) feedback is VITAL in tech
Ok, it’s important in any workplace, but it’s even more so in tech, where it’s essential to your personal growth, and instrumental to the success of your product or service. How so, you ask?
Well, you know already tech is all about innovation, disruption, ideas. And the best ideas have the habit of showing up where people feel free to come forward, knowing that their input is valued and carefully considered. In such an environment, people are happy to pitch in and bring their diverse experiences to the table, leading to new features, bugs being fixed etc. It’s all about nurturing a healthy environment where people can thrive and be productive, while doing their BEST work.
Strive for continuous improvement, instead of perfection.Kim Collins
Effective, constructive feedback helps avoid costly or embarrassing repetitive mistakes, it keeps people on track and prevents companies from delivering subpar products or services; in so doing, it helps save time, resources as well as your own and your company’s reputation. But best of all, and quite counter-intuitively, it fosters a healthy team dynamic where everyone can grow and bring their best self to work.
How can I make sure my feedback is constructive?
Just as not any comment is feedback, not all feedback is helpful (or constructive). Delivering constructive feedback is both an art and a science. Here are 10 tips that will secure your spot in the feedback hall of fame:
- Stick to the facts: emotions often come into play during feedback discussions, and that’s normal; our brains are wired to react to anything that threatens us, even if it’s just a bunch of words. Avoiding interpretations helps regulate those emotions.
- Be direct but kind: deliver a crispy clear message with a positive, empathetic, caring tone; make your interlocutor feel that you’ve got their best interests at heart. Don’t insult their intelligence by beating around the bush.
- Strive for balance: don’t ‘pick’ on a coworker and shower them with negative feedback. Turns out that a ratio of 5 positives to 1 negative should preserve your relationship with your interlocutor while allowing them to benefit from your feedback. However, don’t attempt to ‘hide’ your negative comment by wrapping it between nice, meaningless comments (i.e. avoid the ‘shit sandwich’ approach).
- Focus on the future: no point dwelling on the past – you can’t change it. Instead, help the person move towards their goal – or a common one. And, most of all, focus on the behaviour at hand, don’t bring up ancient history!
- Similarly, focus the conversation on the behaviour you want, not on what you don’t want (in fact, this is where feedback differs from criticism).
- Focus on behaviours, not personal traits: character attacks lead to defensiveness that effectively, and involuntarily, halts the person’s willingness to consider the feedback.
- Focus on things that can be changed: no point commenting on something that is beyond the person’s control.
- Deliver positive feedback publicly, and negative feedback privately, unless you know you’re dealing with a very private person, in which case it’s best to deliver both in private. This will allow your interlocutor to focus on what you’re saying, not on what others are thinking.
- As always, practice makes perfect: the more you give quality feedback, the more you receive it with a positive attitude, the easier it gets.
- Finally, deliver your feedback in a timely manner: the closer to the moment, the better. Unless either one of you is particularly emotional, in which case, by all means, wait it out. But don’t postpone indefinitely – feedback delivered too late is seldom effective.
Is delivering feedback hard? Yes. And awkward? Definitely!
But there’s good news: it’s definitely doable 🙂 There are several models that provide a framework in order to help ease our pain. Here’s a ‘mashup’ that makes sense in our context:
- Check your motives. Make sure your intention is to help the person achieve their goals and grow, that you’re balanced, fair and to-the-best-of-your-abilities objective. That you’re not just blowing off steam or, worse still, that you’re not doing it just to rain on someone’s parade or to prove your ‘superiority’.
Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots.Frank A. Clark
- Prepare, but don’t take forever. Know exactly what you want to achieve with your conversation, and run through your arguments to make sure they’re as objective as humanly possible. Prepare examples to back each observation and prepare questions to ensure you have the full picture. And have one or more suggestions for improvement. Choose an appropriate time and place and stay as close as possible to the situation you plan to discuss. And most of all, check your motives – be sure you have your interlocutor’s wellbeing at heart.
- Ask for permission to offer your feedback (‘do you have 5 minutes to talk about …?’). This is essential on so many levels. First, you ensure that your feedback comes at a good time. If your interlocutor is on the run, or has something else on their mind, or is extremely emotional, your feedback will fall on deaf ears. Additionally, by getting their ‘micro-yes‘ (a non-committal, low stakes yes), you basically prime your interlocutor to receive your feedback; that yes is really the first step to engaging constructively with the feedback.
- Lay out the bare facts, and leave out the ‘blur’: stick to the topic you’ve identified under the previous point, and be super specific to make sure your interlocutor really understands what you want them to continue to do / not do anymore. Be straightforward but be sure you’re kind and empathetic throughout; this is no time for playing games, for dropping hints. If you thought it’s important enough to bring up, it’s important enough to deliver directly, in plain language. Simply describe the problematic situation rather than evaluating it, and highlight its impact. Be sure you give your interlocutor time to understand what you’re saying.
- Remember to focus on actions / behaviours not on the person (i.e. your code is unstructured – not you’re a crappy programmer)
- Remind the person that you care – this is the only valid reason to engage in a feedback conversation. Acknowledge any awkwardness. And smile. Warmth & empathy go a long way.
- Make it a conversation / ask clarifying questions – and listen (really listen) to the answers. Then wrap it all up in a final question; ask the person for their take on the situation (‘what are your thoughts on this?’). This will convert the situation from a monologue during which both of you secretly plot your respective escapes and wonder how best to avoid each other for the next few days, to a shared problem-solving situation. Discus whether any follow up will be needed.
Now, you might find it very difficult to give feedback, especially if it’s negative; one tactic to get over the nerves is to prepare what you’re going to say. Think through your opening line – just enough to get the conversation started, but please resist scripting the whole thing. It will sound insincere and will make your interlocutor feel under attack; consequently they’ll be all defensive and you won’t achieve anything with it.
What does effective feedback look like?
There are SO many models and frameworks out there, it’s ridiculous. Here’s my favourite, from psychologist / author LeeAnn Renninger:
Here’s are the steps she suggests:
- Get the micro yes. Do you have 5 minutes to talk about x? or I have an idea on how we can improve y – can I share them with you?
- Stick to data point. Specify EXACTLY what you want the other person to keep doing / start doing / stop doing. No ‘blur’ words.
- Show impact. Show exactly the impact of the action / behaviour – on the person’s goals, the team’s success or on you personally.
- End on a question. So this is what I think but what are your thoughts on this?
Final point on giving feedback: don’t just give feedback to correct something; be generous with your positive comments too and be as specific as you can. Don’t just say ‘Good job’ – explain what it is exactly that you appreciate; include plenty of details.
Watch this first. Hey, I see you! Don’t skip ahead, really watch it:
Ok, so now that we know what we’re up about – let’s dig in.
This video might explain why people seem to think a lot about giving feedback and not so much about receiving it (as proven by the fact that there are waaaay fewer Google searches for receiving feedback than for giving feedback). Keep in mind that your ability to receive feedback correctly can make or break your career, especially in tech – where… well, just go back to the top of this article, it’s all there.
So how do you go about receiving feedback properly?
- Pay attention – don’t tune out!
- Clarify. Ask clarifying questions to make sure you understand correctly their point(s) and find out if this is a one-time situation or if your interlocutor thought it was a pattern. Ask for examples (when you say x – can you give me an example? what do you think I could / should have done differently? etc.) My point is: avoid reading between the lines or making assumptions – these don’t work at the best of times, let alone when you’re ridden with emotions are you’re likely to be when receiving feedback.
- Take notes if you need to – so you can remember the important details.
- Rephrase / summarise what you heard to make sure you understood correctly; do this both at the micro level – for each point being made, and at the macro level – what you got out of the entire conversation.
- Do not justify your actions; this is NOT about the past, it’s about looking towards the future.
- Embrace the discomfort / do your best to stay positive. Remember that everyone feels uncomfortable when receiving feedback; it’s all normal! Try to stay aware of your attitude, body language, tone of voice. Breathe! Think of feedback as a gift: receive it graciously whether you like it or… not so much. You can then decide what you do with it. Refrain from any reactions for now – you can always get back to the person later. However, keep in mind, though, that this does NOT mean giving your interlocutor licence to be disrespectful or abusive!
- Express your appreciation – thank the person for their time & suggestions, even if you don’t agree with their stance.
- Signal willingness + desire to keep the conversation going (if, indeed, you want to!)
Once you’re done with the conversation, take a few minutes to think it over and:
- Reflect on what you heard – consider what is true and what is not, and remember to be 100% honest to yourself; you might need to sleep on it, quite literally, especially if you got some comments that you didn’t see coming or that you aren’t thrilled about
- Make a decision as to what you’re going to keep and what you’re going to discard
Mistakes should be examined, learned from, and discarded; not dwelled upon and stored.Tim Fargo
- Make a plan to implement the points you decided to keep and, for extra relationship points, get back to the person to let them know how you’re doing.
Pro tip: another take away from LeeAnn Renninger’s talk is the distinction between ‘pushing’ = giving feedback and ‘pulling’ feedback, actively asking for it. For extra points in receiving feedback, be the one asking for it. As she demonstrates, this puts you in the driver seat and establishes you as a solution-oriented team member, a continuous learner with an eye on the future. You can ask something along the lines of ‘what is one thing that you think I should do more of / stop doing / do differently’. And maybe call it ‘advice’ rather than ‘feedback’ – here’s why. This is something you can ask your supervisor, your peers, and even your direct reports. Do this regularly and you’ll be a valued and respected team member.
Bottom line: think of feedback as an opportunity to learn and grow – and you’ll do just fine. Here’s an image to remember the right attitude:
Pro tip: should you ever feel you’re getting upset and / or defensive – remember, feedback is really about perception and usually it says as much about the giver as it says about the receiver, if not more. If you keep this in mind, you’ll hopefully find it easier to take in feedback that you deem inaccurate or unfair.
In the meantime, here are a few articles if you want to dig deeper:
- How to be resilient in the face of harsh criticism (Harvard Business Review)
- The right way to respond to negative feedback (Harvard Business Review)
Ok, that’s all for now. Hope you enjoyed the read and that you find it helpful. If so, I’d like to hear all about it – comment below!
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