The vast majority of people will agree that feedback is the most important tool we have to improve ourselves and others. How else are you supposed to know if you’re doing a good job if nobody tells you? How are you supposed to improve if your weaknesses remain hidden? Understanding these two oversimplifications allows most people to buy into the idea that feedback is a valuable tool. Many of us even pay real attention to the act of asking for feedback or offering it. The problem is that 90% of the time, we’re doing it wrong.

I typically see two main categories of feedback being handed out:

  1. The “good job” feedback.

This is the easiest type to give, and it’s really important. Letting someone know they did a good job on a task is very powerful. Giving feedback directly after the task’s completion makes this even more impactful. Rapid, positive feedback has three huge benefits:

  • Positive feedback adds to the bank account of trust in the relationship.
  • Letting someone know their strengths can help build a person’s confidence.
  • It creates a culture of positive reinforcement.
  1. The classic “compliment sandwich.”

A lot of critical feedback is in the form of “I think you did this well, and this could be better, but this other thing was good.” The compliment sandwich is a really useful way to deliver difficult feedback safely, without hurting someone’s feelings.

So what is wrong with these two approaches?

These two approaches themselves are not broken, but the way they’re used is. And it’s not the person giving the feedback’s fault either! It is the person soliciting the feedback who is to blame.

Requests for feedback should be specific — based on intended outcomes or incremental improvements in an area where someone is focusing on improving.

Why don’t we ask for feedback the right way?

Motivation is a big reason for starters. Most people have jobs where they are stressed all the time, totally disengaged, or lack any support from their peers and supervisors. In these situations, it’s difficult to imagine finding the motivation to work out where you should improve. Why should you make strides in a workplace you don’t care about?

The other reason we don’t do feedback correctly is because it’s hard. It requires effort and direction. Knowing what you want and then working towards it is much harder than just showing up. Many people don’t realize that their careers and their lives are in their hands, so it’s a perspective that requires a person to step back from their day-to-day life and actually think about. No one, and I mean no one, does this instinctively or naturally. It’s a habit and a skill that we have to learn.

How can we fix this?

The solution to many of life’s problems is in the cunning use of paper and pens (or pencils). Writing down your ideas is a life-changing skill. I’m not going to go into the psychology and the validity of this point, but if you want to read more about it, you can here, here, here, and here — and a million other places. If you start with a simple list of your goals and then a shortlist of your strengths and weaknesses, you’ll be off to the races.

Start with your goals. What do you want out of your life, your career, and your current job? Just those three for now.

When you’re done, list what skills and experiences you’ll need for each one of those three goals. (Don’t write down anything about changing other people.) Next, write down which skills and experiences you already have and where you are weak.

Create a list

For example, a very stripped down version might look like this:

  • I would like to be a manager or a team lead in the next few years. Managers need to:
    • Skills
      • Be able to manage up.
        • I’m not great at communicating with my manager the way she likes.
      • Understand business goals.
        • I think I’m good at understanding why we are working on something.
      • Design and measure specific data for success.
        • I think I’m very good at defining success metrics.
      • Design processes and make sure they’re being followed.
        • I’m pretty terrible at making plans and getting others to follow them.
      • Communicate clearly with their direct reports.
        • I’m a little shy when it comes to voicing my opinion.
        • I’m too much of a people pleaser.
    • Experiences
      • Develop a background in the type of work they’re managing.
      • Have led smaller projects in the past.
      • Learn about management from books or school.

Write down some feedback questions

Now pick two, ONLY two, to start with and start working on them. Once you know which two you’re going to work on, write down an example feedback solicitation for each one.

  1. Pick one strength and start getting confirmation that you are actually good at it. For example:
    • I’ve created a list of success metrics for this next step of the project. Could you look at it and let me know if this is good? I’m trying to make sure that I’ve got this down.
  2. Decide to strengthen one of your weaknesses. For example:
    • Can I ask you for some feedback? I’m trying to voice my opinion more in team meetings while still trying to work toward consensus. Did you feel like I spoke up more than usual in that last meeting?

And there you go! Those are feedback questions. There are two huge benefits to this technique:

  1. You are now the one driving your career and skills growth. It’s no longer a random crapshoot of lessons you’re picking up from the work environment through hints, clues, and osmosis.
  2. It signals your intent to the people you are soliciting feedback from. This tells them you are serious about improving in some aspect. Your actions demonstrate that you are open to change and are inviting others in to help. Your openness tells them you are a thoughtful person who cares about growth. It lets them know that it’s okay for them to ask you for feedback, too. In this way, feedback can be like sizzling fajitas at a restaurant: When the first person orders it, everyone else hears the sound and smells the sizzling peppers and starts ordering the same thing.

Unsolicited Feedback

Every now and again, you are going to want to give someone unsolicited feedback. Hopefully, this is mainly in the “good job” category, but sometimes you have to make people aware of a problem that they are not working on. General feedback like this still has utility, but use it lightly. Treat these situations as though your target had asked you, “Where do you think I can improve in [x] specific area?” and then hit them with the compliment sandwich. With any luck, this new data can become the focus of their next set of skills to work on. Sadly, it’s often ignored.

You can’t guarantee that taking your career into your hands, building out a plan, and then executing that plan will work. You cannot predict how people will react when you ask them for clear and specific feedback. If no one around you is going to enjoy the sizzling fajitas effect of your earnest feedback attempts, then they don’t deserve you!

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I help cruise lines turn their technical ideas into reality. I'm experienced in all stages of innovation and technology management. I've also been programing since I was 8 years old, and have somehow retained the ability to have normal human interactions. Occasionally I speak about how Industrial Psychology and Neurophysiology can be interrogated with IT and systems management, because I spend a lot of time thinking about the subject, as strange as that may seem.

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Keeping Culture Alive During Covidland

It’s been almost a year now since we closed our office and sent everyone home. The first few months were filled with uncertainty, change, and a fair dose of anxiety, but we got through it. It made us a stronger and a closer group of people in many ways. But working together is not just about doing the day-to-day tasks and surviving the occasional pandemic challenge. There are a million little things that we miss when we are not physically in the same space.

One of the most interesting lessons from the past year has been learning what we take for granted when working in an office. I personally miss lunches with a table full of smart, funny, interesting people. I miss the group dynamics around a physical whiteboard where the ideas are coming faster than we can write them down. But what I miss most are those tiny interactions; the conversations in hallways, doorways, and around the fish tank (we don’t really have a water cooler).

These small moments are what elevate work relationships into friendships. They are where we humanize our coworkers, build empathy, and learn that they are full 3D people with 3D lives and 3D dreams. You walk out of a conference room with someone talking about their kids. You don’t just hang up your Zoom call with them and go back to your email.

I think that these moments, as small as they may seem, are extremely important in a workplace. My work is not just a job, and my coworkers are not just some random group of people with whom I accomplish tasks. To me, work is about creating shared meaning and sharing a mission. While you can work cooperatively with a group of strangers to achieve a goal, it will not be as fulfilling as working with a group of friends to completely blow a goal out of the water. I wake up every day partly for the work, but mainly for the people.

So if these small moments in-between “work” are so important in strengthening the bonds between colleagues, how do we make sure they are not entirely lost during long periods of remote work?

The truth is that I don’t really know, but I can tell you what we have tried. I think that Sourcetoad has one of the best company cultures I’ve ever seen, and so it’s worth sharing some of the successful changes we’ve made.

Weekly All-Hands

The first change that we implemented was moving to a weekly all-hands meeting. In the before times, Sourcetoad had a monthly “Sandwich Day,” which was an hour and a half, fully-catered company extravaganza with animated slides, company updates, silly jokes, educational segments, and trivia games with prizes.

We still hold these longer form all-hands meetings once a month, but we discovered that we needed something shorter between Sandwich Days to stay in touch with each other. I actually started out with a weekly company-wide email, but it was too impersonal and never really worked.

We now have a weekly, 30-minute meeting with a few quick updates and a little extra silliness. We try and dedicate about a third of the time to an open Q&A session and address any questions raised in a dedicated Slack channel throughout the week.

Fika

Many American workplaces have adopted the Swedish idea of fika — a simple daily (or twice daily) coffee or tea break with the purpose of slowing down and taking a real intermission from work, even if just for a few minutes. At Sourcetoad, we have started two different fikas (or is it fiki?).

  1. A weekly, optional fika for anyone in the company to drop in on and chat.
  2. A rotating fika for new hires to slowly work their way through the entire organization. These are small fika groups where new team members meet with groups of two or three employees to have a 20 minutes coffee break and get to know each other.

Work From Home Challenges

One of our most successful initiatives has been our #WFH-challenge Slack channel. Many companies have been doing these, but we took to it like a fish to water. The challenges were almost daily at first: take a photo of your work area, list your top ten favorite movies, show us something in your house with green thread, etc. They kept everyone engaged but also allowed us a view into each other’s personal spaces and lives.

The number of challenges per week we are doing has decreased as time has gone on. We have gotten more and more used to working remotely. Sometimes we’ve even missed weeks. But they are one of my favorite additions to our work culture. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Guess who is in these childhood photos.
  • Post the oldest photo or selfie you have on your phone.
  • Tell us what has been the most surprising distraction while working from home?
  • Wear a crazy hat competition.
  • Draw your own island using this tool.
  • Post your favorite COVID meme.
  • Find something within arms reach, take a photo, and tell us something about it (why you have it, where you got it, etc.)
  • Post a link to a website, blog, or subreddit that you’ve spent a lot of time on during quarantine. (Safe for work only!)
  • Wear formal clothes to the all-hands.
  • Describe the show you’re binge-watching in the most boring way possible.
  • Post a photo of your favorite spot to take a walk.
  • Change your Zoom background in our all-hands meeting to your ideal fantasy world.
  • Tell us what is your favorite play/musical, and why? Bonus points if you sing/act out the play.
  • Post your favorite recipe that you’ve discovered during lock-down.
  • Caption this photo competitions, the most popular being:

Movie Night

Sourcetoad has always hosted movie nights, so moving them online was important to keep our culture alive. Our team went through dozens of solutions for everyone to watch movies together. From home-built Plex servers to experimental chat systems, they tried it all. In the end, we settled on two solutions:

  1. Youtube movies and the Youtube Party browser extension.
  2. Netflix movies and the Teleparty browser extension.

Combine these with headphones and an open Zoom call, and you have something approximating an in-person movie night!

Game Night and Happy Hour

Game Night and Happy Hour used to be another Sourcetoad ritual. Every Friday night, as developers started logging, product managers sent their last status report, and the marketing team finished doing whatever it is they do — we would kick off an informal party. Generally, this involved opening a beer and one of the drawers in the office that holds one of thirty classic game consoles. We would then argue about IPAs over lager and Atari over NES.

Thus, the sacred tradition of Game Night had to also move online. However, our team has adapted extremely well (as us nerds could be expected to). The most popular method has been to connect a Jackbox account as a Zoom participant and have everyone join via their phones.

The other games that have gone down the best have been:

  • Codenames – A game where you try and get your team to guess the right words.
  • Skribbl.io – An online Pictionary-style free-for-all.
  • JigsawPuzzle.io – As the name implies, online group jigsaw puzzles.
  • Jackbox – I’ll add it again here because it’s so good!

Conclusion

Hopefully, this list of ideas and thoughts gives you some hope for the future of work and some ideas to implement today in the remote world. I’m personally looking forward to those small interactions in the hallways between meetings again. Still, at least for now, I’m able to enjoy a cocktail and a terrible Nicolas Cage movie with some of my favorite people online.