The meaning of feedback.
I define feedback as a process in which the effect or output of an action or behavior is ‘returned’ — fed-back — to modify the next action or behavior. Feedback occurs when an environment reacts and provides information, and when someone who is attuned to the situation can translate that chaotic information into well-formed thoughts.
Why is feedback important?
When you get feedback from a mentor, your boss or co-workers, you have an opportunity to achieve growth. Feedback tells you how others perceive you. Even if it is not an accurate description of reality, it is an accurate description of other people’s perception of you, which is a key factor for your success.
The perception that your boss has of you, for example, determines your ability to get a raise or promotion. The perception that your team has of you determines your ability be respected and be (or become) a leader. The feedback from your mentor or a trusted advisor is a gift that you should consider very seriously, as it comes from someone that you decided hast he experience and knowledge to help your growth.
What is there to know about feedback?
Effective feedback is feedback that is heard, understood and accepted by the recipient. There are many ways to communicate and receive feedback, but making it effective is an important and tricky art to master.
How to Give Effective Feedback.
#1 – Focus on clear goals.
When giving feedback, focus on specific goals. The goals might be obvious, but they need to be stated nonetheless. If you find yourself giving feedback without stating the goal, you are most likely assuming goals that might not be aligned with the feedback recipient’s goals.
Example of feedback without a clear goal:
Your emails this morning was too wordy. Next time you should make it shorter.
Example of feedback with a clear goal:
When you send emails, your goal is for the recipients to read it. The recipients are very busy and do not have time to read long ones. You might want to shorten the length of your messages to 1/3 of what you are currently sending.
#2 – Make the feedback actionable.
Feedback must be actionable. That means that the recipient should be able to change the action or behavior that you are pointing out as problematic. If they can’t change it, then the feedback is not effective.
Example of non-actionable feedback:
You are a slow developer.
Slow in comparison to whom? How is somebody going to become faster? What actions can be taken to that effect?
Example of actionable feedback:
I noticed that you tend to be slower than other developers at your level. To become a faster, I suggest working on the following three things:
#3 – Make the feedback personalized and specific.
Feedback should be specific and personalized to the recipient. Generic feedback can leave the recipient wondering if it applies to them, or if you were just making conversation.
Example of non-personalized and non-specific feedback:
Software developers need to be team players.
Example of personalized and specific feedback:
Some members of the team believe that you do not share your knowledge with them. For example, the code you wrote works, but nobody knows how to use it. My suggestion is to find a way to document it and share your knowledge so others can make use of it.
#4 – Make the feedback clear.
Feedback needs to be clear and understandable by the recipient.
Example of unclear feedback:
You need to become a code-ninja.
Example of clear feedback:
To improve your coding skills you need to work on your speed of execution and make sure that the work you do doesn’t break other developer’s work; to achieve that I recommend three things: …
#5 – Make the feedback timely.
Feedback should be relative to something that occurred recently. Everyone involved in the conversation needs to remember what happened.
Example of un-timely feedback:
Let’s talk about the email you sent three months ago.
Example of timely feedback:
Let’s talk about the email you sent this morning, and let’s discuss what you could do to improve communication in the future.
#6 – Make the feedback ongoing.
Providing feedback once and never touching on the topic again is not effective. Feedback should be an ongoing process that follows the evolution of a situation.
Ongoing feedback could be as simple as pointing out an issue, suggesting a fix, and a few days later mentioning the topic again with an indication of progress or lack of achievement.
It could also be a long-term action plan with milestones and an ongoing discussion on a particular issue or set of issues.
#7 – Make the feedback consistent.
Since feedback is ongoing, it also needs to be consistent over time. If your feedback keeps on changing, you are going to create confusion, and eventually, you’ll lose the respect of the person you are trying to help.
It is possible that, as situation a evolves, the initial feedback needs to be modified. That’s fine, but it needs to be clear to everyone involved what changed and why your position changed accordingly.
How to Ask for Effective Feedback.
Asking for feedback is important to grow. However, many people don’t know how to ask for it and put the burden on the person they are talking to.
To get effective feedback, you need to ask by taking most of the load and making as easy as possible to get an open and useful answer. Here are some tips:
#8 – Be clear that you want honest feedback.
Many people ask for feedback because they are fishing for compliments. Don’t be one of them. When you ask for feedback, make it clear that you want an open and honest assessment. Explain what your concerns are and what you are trying to improve.
Positive feedback might make you feel good about yourself, but honest and direct feedback is much more valuable for your growth. Being told that you are doing something well is nice, but being told how you could improve is much better.
#9 – Be Specific.
Being specific is perhaps the most important guideline when asking for feedback. Make your question specific, for example by asking about a particular situation, behavior or action.
Example of asking for non-specific feedback:
What can I do better?
Asking “what can I do better?” puts the burden on the other person. What you are going to get is probably a mumbling and rumbling of a bunch of unfocused thoughts. It is challenging to answer that question, so don’t ask it that way.
Example of asking for specific feedback:
During the last code review, I pointed out some design mistakes. Should I be less pushy next time? How can I improve the way I approach code-reviews?
#10 – Focus on the future, not the past.
What is done, is done; asking for feedback about something you did in the past can be uncomfortable because giving it feels like criticizing. It is much easier to get effective feedback if you ask about what you can do in the future.
Example of focus on the past:
Was I too pushy at this morning team’s meeting?
Example of focus on the future:
I feel like I was too pushy today at the team meeting. What can I do in the future to not come out as pushy?
This is better because it allows the person you are asking to tell you if they agree with your concern — that you were pushy — and to suggest ways to fix it.
How to Receive Effective Feedback.
#11 – Listen carefully, without judgment.
Do not give the impression that you are judging any feedback you receive, regardless if it is positive or negative. For many people it’s hard to give feedback; if you judge it, it might be the last time you’ll get it. Getting feedback is a gift that you should take without questioning. You don’t have to agree with it, but you have to listen without giving an impression of judgment.
Remember that when you receive feedback you are not getting a description of reality, you are getting a description of how you are perceived. The power of that information is not in the correctness of the assessment but the honesty of the perception.
If you get positive feedback, the only right thing to say in return is “thank you.” That’s it! Do not elaborate or dwell on it; otherwise, it sounds like you are fishing for compliments.
If you get negative feedback, make sure to understand it. Put aside your emotional reaction, and instead ask more questions if you don’t get it.
#12 – Take notes.
You want to remember the feedback that you are given. Especially if the feedback is negative, it is easy to become overwhelmed with emotions and forget what it was said. To avoid the problem, take notes and write it down. Recording it as it was stated will help to make sense of it later when you have time to think about it calmly.
Additionally, taking notes broadcasts the fact that you are paying attention and taking it seriously. Even if you disagree with the feedback, taking it seriously is important because there is always something true behind perceptions.
#13 – Paraphrase and summarize.
Try to repeat the feedback you received in your own words, and ask if your version is a good summary. Doing so reinforces the concepts in your mind, and indicates that you are listening carefully. Additionally, it prevents misunderstandings. I cannot count how many times I have paraphrased something that somebody said, only to realize that I got it all wrong.
#14 – State what actions you are going to take as a result of the feedback.
Receiving feedback is only as important as your willingness to do something about it. Come up with ideas of what actions you will take as a result of the feedback. Brainstorm your thoughts with the person who gave you the feedback. Doing so reinforces your willingness to take action and demonstrates how seriously you took the feedback.
Remember that you might not agree with the assessment. That’s fine; your actions might have to be aimed to change the perception of the action or behavior you are discussing. Perception is always (a) reality, and taking measures to shape it is key for growth.
#15 – Follow-up.
If you ask for feedback, you need to take action and follow up with the person that gave it to you. If you ask for feedback once and never ask if things improved, you are not demonstrating being serious about the suggestions you were given.
Your mentor or your boss will eventually stop giving you feedback if you simply ignore it or forget about it. Do not ask for feedback if you do not intend to do anything about it.
If you don’t agree with the feedback, you must at least agree with the perception you have been made aware of. In that case, you should have taken action to change the perception, and following up is necessary to confirm that your efforts were successful, or not.