Saturday, 23 February 2019

Giving nice feedback

For a work environment to be successful, there needs to be trust among the people working there. Scrum echoes this in the main rule of the retrospective - everyone did the best that they could with the resources they had available at the time. Blame culture is being stamped out by progressive companies. People want to be able to approach senior management without fear (and senior managers want to be seen as humans). Everyone should feel comfortable in their workplace at all times.

All of this is a really good thing, of course. But it seems to me we are also in danger losing something important when it comes to personal feedback. Individual development often involves confronting uncomfortable truths about ourselves before deciding what to do about them, and a part of doing that is knowing what to look at. I've had too many conversations recently with people complaining that they don't get critical feedback. They know they are doing a good job - they are getting plenty of positive feedback - but they know they aren't perfect and want to know what to look at to develop.

So are we being too nice? If we don't give critical feedback when asked, is it because we don't see a problem? We don't want to upset people? Or is it we want to spare ourselves an awkward conversation? Speaking for myself, I very deliberately lean into being supportive over critical (yay me) but if I'm honest I can also see some of the last in my behaviour. Since people have been asking for more feedback, I've tried to change my own behaviour and be more open and offer more (constructive) criticism.

Initial findings are good. Firstly, I've had very positive feedback from people who've been pleased to have something pointed out. I've seen pennies drop and cogs start turning in people's brains. It feels like I'm helping people think, which is the object of feedback regardless of the context. Secondly, it has helped my own development. The first time I gave some properly honest feedback I could feel my own fear and anxiety welling up. But the person wasn't upset or horrified and they still talk to me. Over time, having awkward conversations has gotten a lot easier - and this is a really important skill to develop when moving into management. I'm really grateful to this person for making me think a bit differently about all this and one day I might find the courage to tell her.

Clearly, honest feedback is something to be given sensitively. Although the above might read like it, I haven't been walking round giving the benefits of my "wisdom" to anyone unlucky enough to be within shouting distance. I'm still very careful about who I talk to and when, and it's only people who are asking for it and I trust to have a sensible conversation.

How feedback is delivered is also important. For me, the classic "shit sandwich" technique misses the point somewhat here. We are not talking about problems, we are talking about development opportunities. We are not looking backwards at everything that was "bad", we're acknowledging the past and looking forward at how things could be in the future.

It's also important to ground the conversation in a concrete reality. That means talking about the impact - some of which might not have been noticed at all. For instance, "you are very smart, but are naturally quite blunt" is feedback but invites a "so what?" response. "You are very smart, but are naturally quite blunt and this means people who work with you can find you intimidating" is rather more significant. It speaks to a real (unintended) problem and also leads to a useful discussion about communicating ideas, bringing people along, working with people from other disciplines, and so on. This is all good stuff and it also gives the person enough to kick-start some positive self-analysis.

Of course all this must come with the caveat that it's aimed at helping good people be better. It's important to work with each individual in a way that suits them.

What's the conclusion here? Giving feedback is important, and I think it's very easy to make it meaningless by avoiding the difficult conversation. This does a disservice to those around us. Being too nice doesn't help anyone grow.