Getting better feedback

Recently, I came across the following post on Twitter.

The post resonated with me as it demonstrated a regularly encountered problem when collecting feedback for individuals, or looking for feedback for yourself. 

In many organisations, the request for feedback comes as part of a performance review cycle. During this process, an individual will review their goals, assess their career development plan and reflect on feedback from their peers.

As humans, we have a bias to want to be near people that look and work as we do. This bias means that we tend to notice when people act or behave differently from the way we do. We also have a preference for assuming that people ascribe success in the same way we do and want to follow the same path we are on.

When asked to provide feedback for a peer, I’ve found that we rarely give enough context around the goals the person was hoping to achieve, let alone their longer-term career aspirations.

As a good team member, we want to help this person improve, so we want to provide them with actionable feedback that can help. However, lacking the context, our internal biases, start their work, and we fall back to making a comparison against something we know well. Typically, this will be the path we’ve taken or against our career aspirations.

Feedback based around these assumptions leads to statements such as that in the original tweet – “be more like me”.

So, what can we do to improve the feedback we give? Or to help those we’re asking for feedback?

To get actionable feedback, we need to provide context to dampen the internal assumptions. Provide the person you’re asking feedback from with: 

  • High-level information about the career plan or aspirations your working on, for example, “I’m working towards being able to take the role of a Software Architect in the future”
  • Context around the specific areas you’d like feedback on – “To achieve this, I’m looking for feedback on how I can improve the way I communicate our technical choices.”
  • Details about the goals you’re working on – “This quarter, I wanted to reduce our technical debt by 25%.”

In these recommendations I’m making the assumptions you’re asking for your own feedback, you should modify as necessary if you’re asking on behalf of someone else.

By providing this framing, the person being asked for feedback is more likely to give you precise, actionable feedback based on your goals and aspirations rather than their own ideas of what you should be aiming for. 

Furthermore, by adding a constraint, I’ve found that it becomes easier for people to give critical or constructive feedback, as you’ve invited them to comment on an area you’ve probably already identified that you want to improve.

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