Sunday, December 22, 2013


When most people think of feedback, they think of complaining to their superior.  I think that's the case because we don't ask for feedback frequently enough -- we just wait for things to get bad.  We also don't think about how to give feedback, as most of our feedback turns into rant-y emails or angry surveys.  And finally, we don't think about how to receive feedback in a way that builds trust with the giver and leads to positive change.

Most people don't feel comfortable passing on unsolicited feedback.  People who want to share their opinion about everything without being prompted are often viewed by society as annoying or self-centered.  Even I'm not a fan of these people.  If you want to be open to feedback from everyone, you need to ask everyone and provide a wide-enough variety of ways to give it.  The worst form, in my opinion, is anonymous feedback.  However, it is important to have that channel always open in case there is a reason why somebody doesn't trust connecting their name with criticism.  Other non-anonymous feedback channels include online surveys, email, phone calls, or face-to-face office hours where people can drop in and share thoughts.  I personally prefer face-to-face, but if that is all you offer as a channel, you are not truly asking everyone for their honest feedback.
Finally, ask for both positive and negative feedback from both content and frustrated people.  Feedback is not for ranting, it is for understanding multiple points of view.  If you only hear the negative feedback from a small group of people, you might make changes that alienate the quietly content crowd.

The goal of giving feedback is to help the asker better understand your world so they can empathize with your needs and goals.  The goal of giving feedback is NOT to come up with solutions.  I'll say it again because it is the opposite of everything we have all been taught: FEEDBACK ≠ SOLUTIONS.  I say this because this misconception leads to two issues: (1) people who have a problem but don't know how to solve it shy away from giving feedback so they don't sound negative, and (2) people who come in with a solution assume that they are the expert in solving this problem (when they often are not and come from a limited perspective).  Exception: framing your solution ideas in the right context.  You could say "Possible solutions I thought of that could at least solve my immediate problem include ___ but I don't know how those might affect other problems people face".
On a similar vein, feedback is not a rant of opinions or judgments of the current situation.  Useful feedback is rooted in fact and feeling.  State clear objective observations that you make.  Even if your perceptions are flawed, nobody can deny what you perceive.  Similarly, even if your feelings appear ridiculous to others, nobody can deny that you felt the way you did.  The more feelings and observations you can share with the giver, the better, as this paints the clearest picture of your world so the asker can understand and empathize with you.

Receiving feedback is so much more than looking at a pile of surveys.  In fact, it starts before the giver says a word.  You have to establish trust with your givers by making it clear (1) why you want their feedback and (2) that honest, critical feedback will not affect their job security.  For leaders with a lot of fragile relationships at work, this trust will have to develop slowly by consistently upholding these promises with the smaller group that does trust you.  For other leaders, this will come easily due to prior relationship-building.
After establishing trust and asking for feedback, you need to give people your full attention while listening.  Face-to-face, this means looking them in the eye and maybe jotting down notes so you remember things.  It also means giving head nods to acknowledge things the giver says and restating what the giver said in your own words to make sure that you understand it.  With surveys or email, listening means carefully reading the responses for understanding and sometimes sending follow-up emails or surveys that restate the problem to ensure understanding.  Do NOT pass judgment on the giver as you listen.  Do NOT try to solve their problem.  Empathize with them by understanding what they see and feel.  Make sure you really get their situation.  Then stop.

Well, the feedback exercise as stated above doesn't really fix anything.  All it does is create clear, honest understanding from multiple perspectives for the person who is asking for feedback.  The next step is to pick a process to start designing solutions / refinements to the original implementation.  If it were me, I would write a clear email that highlights the key needs of all involved and send it out to my co-workers.  Then, I would invite anyone who is interested to come to a brainstorming session to help design solutions that will address most or all of the earlier needs.  In general, the team approach is best because it leads to buy-in and shared decision-making across the organization.  Regardless of how the decision is reached, make sure that you reach out to anyone whose feedback would not agree with the new solution and explain why you made the decision you did.  A good giver of feedback will accept a difference of opinion and appreciate that you took the time to understand his or her need before making your decision.

Expect every initiative to be a failure by planning for short feedback cycles and time for redesign.  The nice thing about these short cycles is that the problems will likely get ironed out quickly, better solutions will emerge, and people will buy into those solutions more wholeheartedly.  The time spent on these feedback and redesign cycles will be far less than the time co-workers spend complaining about your 3, 4, and 5-year plans and initiatives.

People won't naturally behave as I describe above.  This requires formal training and constant reinforcement from the top to the bottom of an organization.  In college, we spent 2 hours of freshman orientation practicing the giving and receiving of feedback with a formal trainer because the school believed it was that important.  The orientation leaders (the R2s, similar to RAs on each floor of a dorm) also received additional training with feedback so they could help to teach peers when they needed it.  I've been fortunate to receive related training multiple times from 4th grade (peer mediation training) through college, with the most effective training coming in the form of role-plays broken up with discussions.  I know that giving and receiving feedback can be taught and anyone can learn.

Warning: I write in a declarative style that makes me sound like an expert on the topic.  I'm not.  I have strong opinions on what I believe works, hence my writing style, but I am open to feedback on ways I can modify this to provide a better framework on feedback.  (I didn't notice the irony of this ending this post like this until after I wrote it.  I swear!)

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