Taking feedback

I’m going to try something very non-traditional for my blog. I don’t know if it’s a good idea or not but we’ll give it a go and if everyone hates it, I’ll find a different vehicle.  I’ve had a career of roughly 30 years now and I’ve been in countless situations from developer in a small startup, founder of a startup, dev in a large company, and now Vice President of a large team in a large company (and everything in between). Over my career, I have been managed by many people and I have managed many people. I have tried hard to observe and learn from everyone around me but, even more importantly, observe myself, as objectively as possible, and learn from my own behavior, mistakes, success and interactions.

I’m going to start a series of posts on some of the things I’ve learned over the years. These don’t particularly have anything to do with DevOps or software development.  They are just “life lessons” from being in a lot of teams and working with a lot of people.  Lord knows if I’ll ever make it a meaningful series, but I’ll start with one and see how it goes.

The topic I choose to focus on first is taking feedback. I start with it because it is one of the most important things in life – both personal and professional. I think it’s also on my mind because it’s review season at Microsoft and this is an intense time of giving and receiving feedback.  I think it’s also on our collective minds at Microsoft because it’s a key component of The Growth Mindset.  The Growth Mindset is an important part of the culture Satya has been trying to engender since he became CEO.

All day, every day, we get feedback. Sometimes it is direct – someone explicitly tells us. Sometimes it is very subtle – it might be reflected in body language or tone of voice. Or feedback might be reflected in actions or conversations that happen later as a consequence of something we’ve done or said. Feedback may be telling us something we’ve done poorly, could have done better or should have done differently. Or Feedback may be compliments or congratulations. It’s all feedback.

Actively seek out feedback

I like to believe that all of us have the goal of “being the best person we can be.”  Each of us gets to define for ourselves what “best” means and it won’t be the same for everyone – and that’s OK.  But, if each of us is independently striving to be the best we can be, how do we do that?  We can’t determine progress without some measurement and feedback – from our peers, our managers, our team, our friends, our family and yes, even our adversaries.  Feedback is critical to gauging the effectiveness of our attempts to “be our best”.

Not only should we welcome feedback but we should actively ask for it.  Some of this is very simple and subtle in our style of conversation.  When trying to explain reasoning about something we might stop and ask “Am I making sense?”  It’s an invitation for feedback – both on the idea and on the presentation of the idea.  We might also ask “Are there any other things we should be considering?” or “Do you have any thoughts, questions or comments?” or any of a multitude of ways of creating an open space for other opinions and for feedback.

Our invitation for feedback can also be more personal – “Hey, you didn’t seem terribly comfortable in our discussion earlier.  Is there anything I could have done differently to make you more comfortable?”  Or “Now that this project/milestone/event is done, is there anything I can learn from it to improve?”  Or “We’ve been working together for a while now, do you have any feedback for me on how I could help make us more successful?”  Or, again, any number of other questions that explicitly request feedback on our behavior, actions, communication, judgement or attitude.

I’ve observed in my life, both at work and outside, that people try very hard to avoid getting feedback.  I think there are many reasons people avoid it.  Feedback is uncomfortable.  Often it is a suggestion on how we can do something better and, therefore, implicitly an indictment of something we didn’t do well enough.  I think we also, often, fear that we can’t or won’t know how to address the feedback.  I suspect some view it as a sign of weakness – if I ask you for feedback, then I must be implying that you are better than me.  Or if you give me feedback, you must think you are better than me.  There are probably many other reasons.

Embrace feedback

I have also observed that our initial reaction to negative feedback is defensive.  We explain or justify our actions.  We try to convince the other person that they are wrong and that there were good reasons we did what we did.  Sometimes there are, but now is not the time for it.  We make up reasons the person giving the feedback doesn’t have the perspective or experience to understand.  We trivialize the issue.  One of the most common reactions is we distort the feedback to interpret it as something that we can decide is bad.  Let’s take an example.  You tell me that I tend to interrupt people in meetings too much (I do BTW).  I take that feedback and think, hmm, I’m being told that I shouldn’t say anything in meetings and that I should just let everyone else talk and make the decisions.  No, that’s not what you are telling me, but it’s a defensive reaction to turn the feedback into something I can feel comfortable dismissing.

Another defensive reaction I often see is to turn around and give feedback in return.  If someone starts to tell us about something we could be doing better, we turn around and point out things they can do better.  It’s another defensive reaction that says “You aren’t better than me.” and helps us feel better about ourselves.  Sometimes we do have legitimate feedback for the other person.  The time they choose to give us feedback is the wrong time to pull it out.  We must focus on taking the feedback and we can make a mental note to come back and give feedback at another time.

The first rule of taking feedback is listen and understand.  We must learn to tamp down that defensive reaction.  We must first hear the feedback with no explanations or disagreements or anything.  We must validate the feedback, where appropriate, and not be afraid to acknowledge things we can improve – it’s not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign off self confidence.   We must then ask questions to clarify the feedback and make sure we understand what is actually being said.  Then it’s good to ask for suggestions on ways to address it and/or test your own ideas – “How do you recommend I make sure I get a chance to express my opinion without cutting people off?”  “Is there someone who does this well that you’d recommend I watch to learn from?”  Etc.

We must not be afraid to acknowledge things we can improve or things that didn’t go well – it’s not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign off self confidence.  I often tell people that feedback is sometimes an “IQ test”.  Everyone else already knows it – they are just checking to see if you know it.  Refusing to see what everyone else can see plainly undermines our credibility.

The other day, my wife said to me, “You make me feel stupid when we are herding cows by yelling at me about the things you think I am doing wrong.”  I think she was surprised when I said, “I know and I’m sorry.  I sometimes get very frustrated and I don’t handle it well.  I will work on being better.”  We went on to have a conversation about what happens, how she feels and how I might behave differently.

Of course how feedback is delivered can have a huge effect on our ability to take it.  Feedback given in public is always hard.  There’s a maxim “Public praise, private criticism” for exactly this reason.  Feedback delivered by someone who is angry, sarcastic or aloof can also be very hard to take.  These things are all opportunities for you to give feedback on how to give feedback (at a later time, of course).  Ultimately, our goal will be to try to look past the style of feedback delivery and focus on the feedback and what we can learn from it.  If the style/forum is really inappropriate, we might suggest that we “take it offline and discuss it further” – when the person is less angry, when we’re not in a meeting with 20 people, when we’re not in front of the kids, …

Once we’ve gotten the feedback, clarified it and collected some ideas, it’s time to process that feedback.

Feedback is feedback

This is probably the most subtle point and I don’t know if I can communicate it effectively.  At some level, all feedback is valid.  It is the perception of another person based on some interaction with us.  As such it’s important that we listen, understand and think about how we can improve.  Yet, not all feedback is to be taken as given – meaning the person giving the feedback may have heard something that wasn’t true, misinterpreted something, or may simply not have the perspective we have.  In the end we are the ones to decide what to do with the feedback.  We may decide that the feedback is valid and provides clear ideas for improvement.  Or we may decide that we disagree with the feedback but it provides insights into how we could do differently to prevent misperceptions.  Or we may decide that the we simply don’t agree with the feedback and we are going to file it away and keep an eye out for future feedback that might make us revisit that conclusion.

Perhaps my most important point though is that feedback is not a verdict on us as people.  It’s input.  We control the evaluation of our self worth.  That’s not an equation anyone else can compute for us – and, partly, it goes back to my opening where I said each of us gets to define what “our best” is and it’s different for everyone.  Receiving feedback is not condemnation of us as people.  It is data for us to evaluate, to dwell on and to decide how we want to use it in our journey of self improvement.  We can’t measure ourselves by what people think of us but we can’t ignore it either.  We need to harvest it.  And it’s critical that we remember that just because there’s something we can improve, it doesn’t eclipse the hundreds of things we do well.  It’s just an opportunity to add one more thing to that list.

I’ll try to use an example that’s a bit “external” but demonstrates the point.  I have this blog.  It’s mine.  I write it.  I own it.  However, I often draft posts and then send them around for comment (including this one :)).  Some people have very strong feedback on what I should or shouldn’t say, how I should say it, etc.  They will sometimes, copy my draft into a Word document and turn on change tracking so they can give me extensive feedback.  It’s good.  I value it.  But, I never paste the Word document into my blog.  It’s my blog.  It’s my voice.  It’s my message.  I go through the Word document, read every comment, every re-wording, every deletion, and I decide which I’m going to take and which I am not.  Sometimes I don’t like the wording they’ve changed but I understand what they didn’t like about mine and I can see how to reword it in a way that’s still mine but addresses the feedback they had.  If multiple people give me the same or similar feedback, I’m more likely to think hard about it – even if I’m inclined to disagree with it.  I value the feedback.  I thank them for it.  I send them back the updated draft (if the changes were significant) and I may, if I dismissed or altered some significant feedback, explain why.  But the analogy here is – I’m deciding what’s good and what I want.  I welcome feedback and even actively seek it out but I decide how to act on it and I own the result.  You can think about all feedback – no matter how personal or impersonal similarly.

Closure

My last piece of advice is, when possible, we should acknowledge feedback and thank people for it.  We should also, sometimes later, after we’ve processed it, go back and share our thoughts and actions on how we are going to use the feedback.  It’s also good to solicit future feedback – “Thanks a lot for sharing the feedback.  Here’s what I heard and here’s what I’m going to try to do.  If you see me failing to do those things or if you have other feedback for me, please let me know.”

Conclusion

Feedback is a gift.  It doesn’t always feel that way but, putting all the emotions aside, it’s one person trying to help another person be better.  It’s not a judgement and it’s not an assertion of superiority, it’s help.  We should actively seek out feedback.  We should embrace that feedback and understand it.  And we should decide what actions we are going to take based on that feedback.

No one is perfect.  Everyone can improve.  Pretending to believe that no one else can find things we can do better only shows our insecurity – it doesn’t convince anyone that we are right.

Thank you,

Brian

P.S. I mostly avoided the topic of how to give good feedback to avoid this getting too long.  If people like the idea of this series, I may write a future post on that.