About Feedback

Feedback is “information about reactions to .. a person’s performance of a task, etc. which is used as a basis for improvement.”. There are many ways to give feedback. The faster and more direct, the better. Sompe people feel they aren’t good at giving or receiving feedback. It is a powerful tool to change the minds and behaviors of others. Don’t hide behind shyness or fear of damaging a good relationship as I did some time ago.

Even before I was a manager, I was responsible for my team. My superior was overwhelmed with over 20 developers, so he delegated some tasks to me. I had no authority, but I still coached some of my team members, but I was shy about giving them feedback. In hindsight, this was not good.

I was afraid they would not like me after I gave them critical feedback. I dropped hints instead. I told them “Ah, there you are at last…” when someone was late. My hope was that they would get it. They rarely did. I learned to give better feedback.

Let me explain it with examples. A similar situation, but on three different occasions.

A team member comes too late to the standup. Let’s call him John. The first time I let it slip. A few weeks later it happens again. The intervals get shorter, he is late more frequently. I decided to talk to John in private and confront him about the situation. “You were late for the stand-up today. This seems to happen quite often.” He replied “This was the first time. Cut me some slack. Besides, I thought it is not a big deal.” By ignoring the incident I let it fester into a problem. I had to de-escalate the situation and telling John what I and the rest of the team expected, he came on time. This created unnessary friction, but he accepted the feedback and improved his behavior.

Half a year later, I had a similar situation with another colleague. Instead of waiting, I talked to him the second time. “Today you were late and I remember you were late last Tuesday as well. Please make sure to come on time in the future.” With quick and very specific feedback, the issue never became a problem in the first place. By that time, I was team-lead with more experience.

On a third occasion, I repeated what I had learned. I gave yet another colleague specific feedback, but this didn’t solve the problem. The situation escalated and spilled over into other areas. Here, feedback didn’t help, because the coming late was just a symptom of a bigger issue. Still, it was helpful to learn that there was something else that needed attention.

I learned that good feedback consists of:

  • Preparing a response by gathering facts
  • Talking about it right after the incident
  • Focussing on the future instead of the past
  • Give critical feedback in private and positive feedback in public

When you try to gather facts and they seem too fuzzy, don’t give feedback yet. Note down the current situation and wait until it happens again. Confront the person only once you are convinced that it is enough as a clear argument. Make the feedback as specific as possible. Explain what you wish or expect. If the receiver has to read between the lines or guess what you want, you are doing it wrong.

If the situation is fresh it is easier to talk about it. The longer you wait until you have the conversation the less effect the feedback will have. You can always wait for the next time though.

Nobody can change the past, but you can always shape the future. When you concentrate on the past the feedback receiver is bound to defend themselves. It is easier to accept what happened and talk about how to prevent it from now on.

Nobody likes to be criticized, especially in public. Make it as easy as possible for the receiver to keep an open mindset and accept your input. Create an opportunity to give negative feedback in private.

Giving positive feedback in public has multiple benefits. First, you give feedback quickly and directly. Second, you praise the receiver in front of others. Thirdly, you convey to others that this is good behavior and you will compliment them too if they follow this example.

Try to use feedback more often. It is a great way to change the culture of a company.