Feedback. That one thing everyone wants, that we all understand is essential for our growth and development, but that we rarely seek. So rarely is feedback given well.
Feedback is the ultimate ‘vitamin’. It’s frankly easier to ignore it, do the bare minimum, deliver a ‘shit sandwich’ by hiding it amidst praise, or hope the issue resolves itself.
I’ve been a manager (on and off) for around seven years. First as a design manager, now as a founder. Learning to give and get good feedback has been a real journey, that I’m absolutely still on and expect to be on for a time yet.
There’s been several false peaks and realisations on my journey so far. I’m going to try and tackle a few of the fuck-ups and ‘aha’ moments here because I believe in the power of feedback now more than ever — not just to improve the work, culture and health of an organisation but to dramatically change a person’s personal and career trajectory. The biggest learnings come from hard truths — growing hurts*.
*hard feedback will always hurt on some level — it has to in order to be effective. The delivery of that feedback, however, should be empathetic and kind.
This is not going to be the definitive read on feedback — there are incredible books on that (a few listed at the end). These are just a few hard learned feedback lessons from my 18 years of work and study.
Learning to give, by getting
As a designer I’ve been receiving (at times stinging) feedback for nearly 20 years, since well before graduation.
In fact some of the harshest was during university. I vividly remember my design tutor Simon pointing at a peer in an open critique and saying ‘You could be as good as him but you’re not because you’re not trying.’ When asked in second year of university if I could name my favourite designer, I couldn’t think of any, but could list dozens of lacrosse players (I played for the university), a fact Simon pointed to as evidence of my lack of commitment.
It was incredibly effective feedback. Within weeks of those comments I’d doubled down and worked hard for the next 18 months.
Lesson 1: Carrot vs Stick
I have Simon to thank for a lot of the work ethic that followed. But for me it wasn’t praise but critical feedback that drove me to change. I learned that I can be coaxed into meaningful action by being made to feel guilty. Why? Probably one for therapy to uncover, but I have a need to please…
Not everyone responds to those cues in the same way. Finally working out, after years of reflection, what it was about that feedback that drove me to action makes me less afraid of seeking it today, but for someone else it may have been the final straw for them to throw in the towel.
As with so much of feedback, or crucial conversations, the form of feedback people most like to give and receive is hugely important. It should never be not given (see below, Successful vs Happy), but can be structured appropriately for the person. For me, the stick works more effectively than the carrot.
Lesson 2: Guilt vs Shame
Brené Brown, someone far more qualified than me to write about feedback, talks a lot about Guilt vs Shame — guilt is feedback on a behaviour or event whereas shame is driven from feedback on a person’s fundamental self. Guilt drives behaviour change, shame reinforces existing behaviour (if this is just who I am, why bother to change it?)
I was guilted into feeling I should work harder, but not shamed into feeling I was fundamentally a lazy person. In fact, built into that feedback quite literally was the confidence that I could be better. ‘You’ll never be as good as him’ likely would have had a completely different outcome.
I didn’t realise this until reading Brené’s book years later, but now try to position any feedback as a critique of what someone did, rather than who they fundamentally are.
Learning to give better, by screwing up
Lesson 3: Planned vs ‘Quick feedback’
My performance when giving feedback at Progression has not always been stellar. As a founder, feedback is a level harder because;
a. It’s more weighty — am I giving feedback as your manager or as the CEO?
b. Often it comes more from a place of high context across everything but low context on the thing someone’s working on.
This is especially true when we’re working on something that I’ve never done before, or with a report with a title or set of responsibilities I’m less familiar with.
I’m also often very time poor, so it’s easy to pile into all conversations thinking of them as my next meeting, without considering the weight of the conversation for the other party.
We’re often advised to ‘give feedback in a timely manner’. That can feel like a need to rush your feedback out so it’s top of mind for both you and the recipient.
But there’s feedback and feedback. Feedback on a project or the execution of a piece of work is very different to performance feedback. I’ve not always been good at separating them and not letting one bleed into the other.
Something I spotted myself doing last year was not planning major ‘crucial conversations’ in advance. Rather than doing the work ahead of time to plan what I needed to say, I’d wing it (another character trait of mine, useful but with major drawbacks).
That often meant having the sort of out of body experience halfway through what I thought was going to be a chat, where I realised I was in a crucial conversation and didn’t have a plan. I can guarantee (and was told) that my feedback was then confusing, rambling and not actionable.
If I’d taken the few minutes to plan where the conversation needed to get to, it would have saved everyone time and pain.
Lesson 4: Leaning in vs Avoiding
Another failure state I’ve ended up in is holding back feedback altogether.
In the moment, it’s very easy to not say the thing, turn a blind eye or hope it gets resolved naturally. I think we’re all guilty of that to an extent, to the point where someone who doesn’t hold back is very noticeable.
Due to the nature of my role I suspect I’m very hard to give feedback to. That means I have to work extra hard to get feedback — even when I ask directly. Not getting feedback is, to me, deeply suspect. There’s absolutely no way I’m getting everything right. Am I the emperor wearing his new clothes? Candidly I haven’t fully solved this yet — all I’ve found to do is try to build psychological safety to tell me hard things, publicly thank feedback givers and just keep asking.
For my part, holding back feedback, while more comfortable in the moment, has always resulted in a harder conversation later, plus an enormous amount of wasted time on everyone’s part while we go down the wrong path, or someone spins their wheels not knowing whether they’re doing something right.
That leads to perhaps one of the biggest learnings I’ve had as founder over the last year.
Lesson 5: Successful vs Happy
Day to day people might think they want to be happy. But it’s my belief that really, actually, long term, people want to be successful.
Wait, can’t you be both? Bear with me, this should start to make sense.
Making people happy feels great in the moment, but may hide the short term discomfort needed to make them long term successful. In this sense you could instead call happy ‘comfortable.’
However, if you focus on doing what’s needed to make people successful (in whatever way you choose to define it, professionally or in another aspect of life) that will actually drive more sustainable happiness.
Making People Happy means saying everything’s hunky dory, giving vague praise, doling out the perks, never saying no. Happy means not giving good direct feedback in case it hurts.
Making People Successful means telling them what they need to know in order to move forwards. It means at times challenging directly in order to unlock growth.
In the book radical candour this concept is known as ruinous empathy. I now believe ruinous empathy under the guise of support is responsible for an enormous amount of long term frustration, lack of clarity and lack of growth.
I’ve repeatedly aimed for happiness over success for my team, and in doing so done people a massive disservice. That’s lead to frustration and churn — by making people happy I’ve actually been seen as a bad manager. Don’t be me.
Ultimately I’m not sure you can learn how to give and receive feedback well without practicing it (and messing it up). The pain of hurting someone with badly delivered or timed feedback, or them not developing because you never gave them feedback, has to be felt.
Just like you wouldn’t expect to run a marathon on your first attempt, you must practice giving and receiving feedback in order to get good at it.
Getting bad feedback? It might be an opportunity.
Feedback isn’t always a gift. Feedback delivered badly is quite the opposite. If you’re in a situation, having read this post, where you think you’re receiving bad or unhelpful feedback, it’s worth acting on that. There are still both opportunities to learn, and even opportunities to practice your feedback-giving during these times.
In retrospect I’ve missed lots of opportunities to make use of bad feedback. It’s natural — bad feedback delivers only a red mist of anger, frustration, confusion and doubt — or at least it always has for me. It’s hard to think clearly during those times.
Next time this happens, ask yourself these questions:
- Is there an opportunity to ask for more clarity? There’s clearly something important in this feedback, even if it’s not being said. I can’t count the number of times I’ve chosen to take no value from feedback because of how it was delivered, when actually the core of it was important for me to process.
- Is there an opportunity to give feedback in return? Perhaps by asking for feedback in a different format, medium or at a different time, you can make it more useful next time.
- If there’s a bad feedback culture can you educate your organisation around giving good feedback?
If all else fails feel free to bookmark and share this article (or the reading list below). It might just help.
- Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron Mcmillan and Al Switzler
- Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. by Brené Brown
- Radical Candor: Fully Revised and Updated Edition: How to Get What You Want by Saying What You Mean by Kim Scott
- Nonviolent Communication - A Language of Life: Life-Changing Tools for Healthy Relationships by Marshall B. Rosenberg