Requesting and receiving feedback is crucial for an IT leader.  It is too easy to think we are doing an excellent/terrible job when the truth is quite different.  We discussed with Idan Manor, that feedback is also an effective way of managing 'Imposter Syndrome':

How to ask for and receive feedback as an IT leader? Ask people below, above and around you, display the behaviour you want.  Seek both casual and formal feedback.  LISTEN!

Just because people are not complaining doesn't mean that they have no complaints.  In many societies and cultures, it is difficult for people to give criticism or feedback.  Giving feedback is even harder when you are their boss! Let's look at how we can ask those around us for feedback, how we can digest that feedback, and how we should react/act on that feedback.

Demonstrate the Behavior You Want

To provide honest and  constructive feedback, one needs to ensure the feedback is:

  • specific and as close as possible to an event
  • given in a safe place in an appropriate setting and time
  • not judgemental or personal
  • constructive and actionable

The more quality feedback you provide to people, the more trust you build, the more likely you are to receive quality feedback from others when you ask for it.

Just because you ask someone for feedback, even when done emphatically and sincerely, doesn't guarantee they will provide you with the kind of feedback you need.  If someone doesn't feel safe and that their feedback won't be heard, why would they bother?  They could lose their jobs, or make themselves open to bullying, so why stick their necks out.

If you provide genuine and quality feedback to your team and also demonstrate a favourable and constructive reaction to feedback given, then you will likely build the trust and safety enough to allow others to provide you with the feedback you need.

If you demand feedback from someone, and they don't feel safe, then they will give you feedback.  However, this feedback will probably be very superficial.  I am pleased when someone who is not in a position of power, gives me feedback that makes me feel uncomfortable.  It shows that they feel safe enough to touch on difficult subjects.

When receiving feedback, try to:

  • Listen
  • Reflect
  • Respond

Listen, even if you want to react.  If the feedback is painful, your instincts will be to defend yourself.  If it is coming from a superior, you will want to prove you are right and haven't messed up, if it is coming from a subordinate, you probably feel like your authority is being challenged.  STOP, breath, listen.

Listening is not just about being quiet.  Listening is also about asking lots of questions to clarify your understanding of what they are saying. Don't think about how you are going to argue point X or try and catch them out, or think about how you are going to respond.  Just focus on listening, making sure that you clearly understand what they are saying, and they are satisfied you have heard them.

If the feedback is particularly tricky or hard to digest, it is perfectly fine to continue the meeting at another time.  Make sure they understand that you value the feedback and want to continue the conversation, i.e. "What you are saying is important, and I need to reflect on what you have said so far.  Can we meet again on Tuesday at 10 am to continue the conversation?"

Reflect on what has been said with an open mind.  You need to show enough respect to the person giving you the feedback to seriously consider what they are saying.  If it is a subordinate, they are risking a lot giving you feedback they probably know you will find it difficult to digest.  Reward that bravery and trust by seriously considering it.

Some people can abuse the trust and use negative feedback as a tool to erode your self-confidence and manipulate you.  But these people and behaviour are not that common, and the rewards of trust and respect far outweigh the risks.  That being said, if you feel that the feedback is not genuine, then be careful.

When you are reflecting on the feedback, try to understand the context.  You may be surprised and think "That was not my intention at all!" But what is important is what was seen/perceived.  You may not have believed you were angry, but if you were seen shouting at someone, or it was perceived that you were aggressive, then it is crucial to try and understand why.

There may be a cultural misunderstanding; what you consider as talking, in this office/context is considered shouting.  There may be leaking for other parts of work/life, i.e. you may be dealing with a family issue which has affected your behaviour at work, and you may not even realise it.

You can also ask the person giving you the feedback if you are in the right frame of mind, questions like:

  • "What do you think I could have done differently?"
  • "Why do you think people reacted like that to my comment?"
  • "What would have been the best outcome for that situation?"

Respond by thanking the person who gave you the feedback.  If this was a subordinate, it takes a lot of guts to tell your boss something you think they need to hear.  If it was a superior sharing their observations then be thankful too, they didn't need to do that so show you value their time and effort.

Remembering that impression is more important than intention if you realise that the negative feedback is due to a misunderstanding, don't forcibly argue.  It is essential to try and understand how the misunderstanding came about how it can be rectified and avoided in future:

"I didn't mean to make Sam feel unappreciated yesterday at the team retro.  How do you think I can clear things up with him?  What could I do to try and understand his input to the team better?"

It is vital to finish off by coming out of the meeting with a clear idea of the next set of actions.  Feedback is much more useful if it is actionable.  Being told that you are seen as disorganised is not as helpful as "You are seen as disorganised, maybe try writing down all the things you want to call out at standup on a card and run through that for the next two weeks.  Let's meet again then and see how that went."

Types of Feedback

There are two types of feedback:

  • Positive
  • Negative

Positive feedback is usually a compliment or encouragement.  It is used to help promote the behaviours you want to see more of or to help someone get comfortable enough to shine.

You can give positive feedback to everyone around you, including your superiors.  Providing helpful observations to your boss can help them understand how to get the most out of you and build trust, i.e.

"I found the agenda you provided with the meeting invite helpful.  We got through a lot of stuff quickly!  If you need any help drafting up the agenda for next week's department catch up, I would be keen to help."

When providing positive feedback, it is vital to ensure your feedback is genuine!  You should treat positive feedback with the same care and rigour you would when delivering negative feedback.

People can be immune to positive feedback.  They may ignore or not accept positive feedback.  Poorly given positive feedback may not register, or even worse, create mistrust "Why is she telling me I am doing a good job when I know I am not?"

Negative feedback is some form of constructive criticism that is trying to stop unwanted behaviour or encourage new behaviour.  It is usually hard to deliver and digest, and if poorly done, can cause a lot of harm.  If done well, negative feedback can build a lot of trust and foster loyalty.

To try and define good quality vs poor feedback, we can further define feedback as:

  • Useful
  • Useless

Useful feedback is delivered well, in an appropriate setting and is both digestible and actionable.  Digestible feedback is framed in a way that the recipient has a chance of relating to and accepting it, i.e. "You are the evilest person I have ever know, and you should see who I am related to!" Might not sink in as well as "I understand we have some tight deadlines this month, just giving you a heads up that Sam's kid is in the hospital so she might not be fully focused if you force her to work over the weekend."

Actionable feedback is feedback that the recipient can change.  It is not vague or unachievable, i.e. "You are not very nice!" or "You should grow another 30 centimetres."  If the feedback is around something that is going to be a lot of work to change, then working together on a plan consisting of small and achievable activities might be helpful.  The remediation plan doesn't need to come from the person giving the feedback, but they should still help with brainstorming and listening.

Good negative feedback will help someone come to realise something difficult, which they may have avoided thinking about previously, but also offer the hope and reassurance needed to move forward and beyond.

Useless feedback is not digestible or actionable.  The person getting the feedback doesn't understand what triggered the feedback, what they did that made the issue.  They also don't know what they can do to make things better in a measurable way.

Creating and Maintaining a Safe Environment

Never give negative feedback in public!

If you tell someone something awkward in front of others, they need to save face, and you may create an enemy for life.  Empathise with the person you are going to give feedback to and try and think "What environment/context will make them feel safe?" For some, a quiet table in a coffee shop not frequented by people from work may be right; for others, they may prefer a private meeting room at work.

Beyond a safe environment in which to share one on one feedback, one also needs to strive to create and maintain a generally safe environment at work.

A safe environment is one where those providing the feedback feel confident that their input will be welcome, acknowledged and considered.  They must be satisfied that giving feedback someone might not want, but needs, to hear and won't affect them adversely.

To give someone genuine feedback, particularly a superior who can make one's life miserable, is very brave and should be received with appreciation and respect.  If you demonstrate a healthy attitude to receiving feedback by being appreciative and respectful when people tell you things you don't want, but need, to hear, then you will go a long way to creating and maintaining a safe environment.

Building and maintaining a safe environment includes:

  • Being curious
  • Rewarding candour
  • Showing vulnerability

Be curious and ask lots of open-ended questions.  Focus on listening and not criticising.  If something doesn't sound right, refrain from criticising and instead ask "Why?" in a positive and curious frame of mind.  Keep peeling back the layers.

As you learn more and more by being curious and open-minded, give credit and compliments where they are due.  Be genuine but be generous.  People are usually passionate about there work, so sincerely appreciating what they have done, as individuals and as a team, can build a lot of goodwill that you may need to draw on when more difficult conversations need to take place.

Reward candour by being grateful and gracious when people give you negative feedback, especially if it is not done privately.  You, as their manager, represent the company and sometime you will be a bit of a punching bag.  Don't take it personally and help them to unwind.  Then work out what you (they and you) can do to make things better.

If they are giving you negative feedback that does relate to you then again, LISTEN and once you are sure they know they have been heard, genuinely thank them for the feedback.

Regardless of the root cause of the feedback, whether it is frustration with the company or issue with yourself, you need to work together on actions and a plan to try and fix things.  To acknowledge a problem and then to take steps to remediate it, sends a compelling message.  This message can be re-enforced by regularly reporting progress.

Show vulnerability by acknowledging your mistakes and then trying to be better today than you were yesterday.  If you show your shortcomings to the team you are saying "It is OK not to be perfect" "Mistakes happen when you do stuff" etc., then you are allowing others to talk about their weaknesses and mistakes.

It is much more fun working in an environment where everyone is open about their flaws and supports each other to improve.

The Gap Between Act and React

I remember reading in a Stephen Covey ("7 Habits of Highly Effective People") that we, as conscious beings, don't have to react to our environment.  There is a gap between what happens to us and what we do.  With some, that gap is so small that they react to their environment.  If you work on extending that gap, you can observe what is happening to you and then decide how you want to act.

Owning how we respond to feedback carries responsibility but also freedom.  If we feel upset about what someone has said to us, we need to stop and think:

  • Why is this upsetting me?
  • What is the best way for me to respond?

This strategy is not just useful for negative feedback, but can also be appropriate for the positive feedback.  We don't want to make someone regret complimenting us.

Asking for Feedback

Firstly, you need to think about who you want to get feedback from?  The answer should be EVERYONE :-)

You can request feedback from:

  • Those who report to you (you can go down a few levels)
  • Those above you (you can go up a few levels)
  • Colleges in the same team/group
  • Colleges in other teams/groups
  • Vendors, suppliers and external contractors
  • Customers

When asking for feedback, consider:

Be specific rather than be general.  If you ask someone for feedback that might not jog their memory or help them understand what you want.  Instead, talk about something specific like "How do you think the team reacted when I presented our Vision and Mission this morning?"

You can be unspecific about the period if you are specific about behaviour/pattern, i.e. "Do I tend to talk over people?"  You can then try and work out when you did that and what the triggers and warning signs may be.  I tell a college it is OK to kick me under the table.

Ask for recommendations rather than just feedback.  Feedback might make some people feel uncomfortable because they have to talk about your behaviour.  It can feel personal and none of their business.  Asking for a recommendation can be more comfortable.  You are just asking for a tip or two, and it doesn't have to feel judgmental.

However, after you have got a few recommendations from a range of people, you can probably start to see some patterns of behaviour you may need to change.

Ask for both positive and negative feedback "What do you think I did well in that meeting?" "What do you think I could have done better?"  People might find it less confronting to give you positive feedback.  Once they are comfortable giving you feedback, then you can ask them to tell you something not so pleasant.

I think positive feedback is underrated; therefore, not used enough in the workplace.  Positive feedback is not a compliment but specific feedback about a behaviour.  As long as it is genuine and useful, then it can go a long way to helping foster high performing teams.

Why Seek Feedback?

"Great leaders are great learners."

Your role, as a leader, would require you to give a lot of feedback, but you can get away with receiving very little, especially with those who report to you.  Seeking out feedback gives you more opportunities to practice receiving feedback.

Being good at receiving feedback can help you be better at giving feedback.  On a practical level, it enables you to empathise with people who you need to provide feedback to.  You get to experience being on the other side of the table and get a feel for what works and doesn't work.

It is important to remember that what works for you might not work well for others.  People have different personalities and cultural backgrounds, so you need to be sensitive.  A great way of gauging how well you are delivering feedback is to... get feedback :-)

Another reason to seek out feedback and work on being good at receiving feedback is that it builds trust.  If you have taken on board and worked through feedback given to you by someone, then if you need to provide them with difficult feedback, they will likely be more open and accommodating.

What is feedback?  Feedback is some observation or advice provided to someone to help encourage or eliminate particular behaviour.  It should be specific and given in a safe place as soon as possible.  Quality feedback is actionable.

What is the feedback sandwich?  Feedback sandwich refers to padding negative feedback with positive feedback before and after.  For this to work, the positive feedback needs to be genuine, and the negative feedback needs to be useful.  The initial positive feedback can build trust/repore, preparing the recipient for the well delivered negative feedback, and the final positive feedback can act as encouragement.