I’m listening


It’s Midyear Career Discussion time at Microsoft. Perhaps you just finished, but more than likely you’re still trying to squeeze yours in. How’d it go? How will it go? For you? For your manager? Well, that depends.


It depends a bit on your prior performance and your manager’s prior performance. It depends a bit on the feedback itself and how that feedback is given. It depends a bit on how your parents raised you and the comfort of your chair. But the biggest influence on the lasting impact of your Midyear Career Discussion is the way you and your manager respond to feedback.


Let me put this delicately to you. You have no frigging idea how to give and take feedback. Seriously—not one frigging idea. Think I’m wrong? You are only proving me right. If you actually knew how to give and take feedback your response would be a sincere and polite, “Thank you.”


Thanks for the advice


In fact, there are only two valid responses to feedback, “Thank you” and “Go on.”


The “Thank you” is simple and self-explanatory. Too bad most people don’t use it. Most people defend themselves, explain their behavior and results, and describe how they are already taking the right steps.


Please, slowly and carefully shut your mouth, empty your mind, and listen. Perhaps you can even take notes. Then, when the generous soul is finished, say, “Thank you.”


You don’t say it to be polite. You say “Thank you” because you mean it. Your relationships, your life, and our products and services would reek far beyond their current stench if people were not kind enough to provide an outside perspective and help us improve. Thank goodness they are willing to do it. To ensure they continue it’s essential to sincerely appreciate it.


Tell me more about me


In addition to “Thank you,” a valid response to feedback is “Go on.” As in:


§  “Could you talk more about that?”


§  “I don’t quite understand—could you describe that further?”


§  “Thank you, that’s helpful, what else can I do differently?”


Anything that encourages clear and continued feedback is appropriate.


Back off, man. I’m a scientist


What’s inappropriate is anything that questions or cuts off feedback. This includes:


§  “I’m working on it.” So what? You’re doing the wrong thing, you haven’t made much progress, or you are actually improving. Regardless, the feedback is valid and your comment is irrelevant and self-serving.


§  “I was trying to …” So that makes it better? Never confuse reasons with excuses. If you can get better, you should get better. No excuses.


§  “I disagree.” So this is news? You’re getting feedback. It’s opinion. The fact that you like your current approach is not a revelation. When the feedback seems wrong, you’ve either missed something or left the wrong impression—that’s precious information.


Keep in mind that you don’t have to follow whatever advice you get. All you are obligated to do is listen, consider the advice carefully, and thank the person for helping you.



Eric Aside


A particularly important time to keep your mouth closed, take notes, and simply say, “Thank you,” is during an executive review.


Now it’s my turn!


Now that you know how to take feedback, it’s time to learn how to ask for it and provide it. When asking for feedback and when providing it, there are three basic questions:


§  What is good [about what I’m doing or the work I’ve done]?


§  What could be better?


§  Any further comments?


You can structure feedback more, but the simplest, complete ask are those three questions. And it is those three questions that you want to answer when you provide feedback.



Eric Aside


Feedback is best provided immediately before or after behavior. The ideal is to provide positive feedback directly after desired conduct; and provide corrective feedback just before it’s needed. In other words, apply feedback at precisely the moment it is most constructive.


For example, a guy on your team sends a great email but forgets to copy a stakeholder. You reply to him right away, “Great mail—concise and insightful.” Later, just before he’s supposed to send the next update you write, “Remember to copy all stakeholders.” The reminder is more useful at that time.


We have come full circle


When providing your feedback, start with what’s good, talk about improvements, add on your other comments, remind about improvements, and then reiterate what’s good. That order is important.


§  You start with what you like. It sets up the conversation on an upbeat note and prevents the impression that all is lost. If you start with what’s wrong, your listener may never hear what’s right.


§  Next, you talk about ways to improve. Ideally, your listener should focus on just one change. One change is all that most people can handle at a time. Pick the most impactful improvement and emphasize it.


§  Of course, you’ll have plenty of other thoughts that aren’t as important. Feel free to mention those in the context of “a few other comments.”


§  Then come back to your main message—the one or perhaps two improvements that would make the most difference.


§  Finish with what is going well. It’s important to end on a positive note.



Eric Aside


Remember to always focus on the behavior or outcome, not on the person. People can’t change who they are, but they can improve their actions and results.


We don’t have much time


That’s it. Being concise is important. If you want your feedback to matter it should be clear, consumable, considerate, concise, and centered on the receiver. Your feedback isn’t about you and your glorious knowledge; it is about helping the recipient.


If you are on the receiving end of the feedback you should be just as concise. Feedback is precious, whether it’s from a customer, a peer, or your manager. Don’t get in the way. Encourage it. Savor it. Appreciate it. Thank you.

Comments (5)

  1. Dan says:

    This is a crock. (And yes, that’s feedback on your article, so I expect you to say ‘thank you’. ;))

    Seriously, I do agree that getting defensive is not a useful response to feedback. We should all try to leave our egos aside when taking feedback; learning to benefit even from unfair criticism is a useful skill.

    But learning to tactfully redirect criticism and correct misimpressions is also a useful skill. Of course you don’t fight head-on and argue that the feedback is wrong; but you do need to influence people’s opinions, which means genuinely listening, and then non-confrontationally providing alternate data.

    There are times when just sitting and nodding is appropriate; but there are times when it’s a recipe for getting rolled by the more agressive or the simply unaware.

  2. In his opinion column for developers this month , I. M. Wright discusses giving and receiving feedback,

  3. ericgu says:

    I like this article overall, but I think you are missing an important point. You write:

    "When the feedback seems wrong, you’ve either missed something or left the wrong impression—that’s precious information."

    There’s a third possibility that you are missing.

    That the person is incompetent, on a power trip, and/or trying to cover his/her ass.

    I’ve gotten feedback from a lead that I should do X instead of Y when every single person in the team (and I’m not exaggerating – we had meetings where we discussed that very topic) agreed that Y was the right thing to do. That was a mix of incompetence and power trip.

    I’ve also gotten feedback from a manager about not putting sufficient focus on something 5 months ago when a) we discussed my approach at the time and b) the same manager had given me positive feedback about what I had done immediately afterwards. He was doing it because his second-level had decided we were on the wrong course (power trip), so he was in CYA mode.

    Oh, and I once got told that I wasn’t doing my job correctly when I had been in an new role for 9 months with an open head as a lead and no meetings with my second-level. Apparently I was supposed to magically figure out what to do.

    I do agree that good feedback can be very important to improving, but to assume that all of it is good is pretty naive.

  4. alikl says:

    ericgu,

    I think there is no third possibility. For the "third" possibility you can always apply the following 😉

    From the article:

    "Keep in mind that you don’t have to follow whatever advice you get. All you are obligated to do is listen, consider the advice carefully, and thank the person for helping you."