Lessons from Leadership is Language on Feedback

That title couldn’t be any more explicit. I spoke with a colleague who shared a challenging situation she’s in. After our talk, I couldn’t help myself from thinking what if I were in that situation and had to be the one to make that difficult conversation. I also took it as an opportunity to revisit what I read about from Leadership is Language by L. David Marquet, and relate aspects or lessons from the book on to the context of giving feedback. Of course, I can’t share the exact examples here, but I tried to give close enough explanations.


Give information, Not instructions

  • Instead of saying “You should do this or that,” try to provide the information that would reasonably lead to that suggestion (or maybe even better suggestions from them).

Focus on behavior, Not characteristics

People will have better control over their behaviors, than on characteristics they have.

  • Instead of saying “You’re an ineffective ______________,” try citing the specific behaviors that led to the idea that they’re an ineffective whatever.
  • Same when it’s positive. Instead of saying “You’re a great team member,” say the behaviors that you’d like to be repeated.

On the process, Not the person

While I think asking one’s self “How can I be a better <insert role here>” is good for introspection, asking that to another person might not always be taken positively. I think we are naturally defensive and we can’t expect everyone to be consciously going against that natural tendency. Asking “How can you be a better leader?” might somehow be misinterpreted as “You’re not a good leader, you suck, you really need to improve…”

  • Instead of asking that, shift focus on certain processes. Say that person’s responsibility includes owning say the peer review process, then instead of asking “How can you be a better peer reviewer,” ask “How can we improve on the peer review process,” “What do you think can we try to better track the peer review comments,” etc.

Observe, Not judge

I think this ties up with the previous items on focusing on behaviors and giving information. By trying to take a non-judgmental stance, ideally we get to show that we are not condemning the person, that we are open to working with the person to address the objective information provided.

  • Instead of (judging the person) “You wrote that report poorly,” or (judging the work) “That report is poorly written,” provide the observations instead “I noticed three spelling errors in the report”.

I just reused the example from the book here. With that example, it feels easier, clearer or more achievable to address the “three spelling errors” compared to a poorly written report.

On achieving excellence, Not avoiding errors

I think asking how to avoid errors is a fair question to ask because that is something you want to achieve. This also works well for me for introspection. But related to what I mentioned previously, asking that can be taken negatively even if you don’t mean it to be. “How can you avoid so-and-so” might come across as rubbing salt to the wound or might feel like the focus is on what the other person is doing wrong.

  • Instead of asking “Why do you keep on missing those bugs” (which also feels accusatory and it’s often not the case that people intentionally try to miss bugs), ask “What do you think can we try to find those bugs sooner?”
  • Instead of asking “How can your outputs be less buggy,” ask “What do you think are we missing in our process so that we can get things right in fewer reviews as possible?”

In writing about this, I have had a little more time to think about it. But the challenge I guess is making these conscious word choices on-the-fly or when the situation unexpectedly calls for it.

Honest KC needs to put some brakes on it

I gave a rather tactless feedback during a meeting I was in earlier today. Somehow, we stumbled on to the weekly tidbit email. I might have implied or maybe even explicitly said that it was rather useless, either way that cat’s out of the bag. I was wrong, my feedback could have been more constructive. What I could have said is what I had emailed months ago that their weekly tidbits could be more helpful if they provided some content and/or context to it.

I mean, the one I received and gave feedback to was a tidbit with an image containing the text:

Test Managers, level up your basic excel skills! ☺

That’s it. No link, no content, no context. It doesn’t give me a background on why, what good will this bring, what is it for, where is this coming from, etc. And even if I had been interested in that tip, it would have been helpful if I was given a lead to some recommended reference that had been helpful to them in the past that way I wouldn’t need to scour the internet for some really good and quick reference. That aside, I also think that there could have been more testing-y skills to level up on over Excel skills.

Anyway, should I have even bothered? Well, maybe I could have just ignored it, but it comes in once a week into my mailbox without the option to unsubscribe. I do recognize that the intent is good. But you know what they say about good intentions — aside from paving the way to hell, good intentions aren’t enough.

On performance evaluations

Some of the testers in our team who were sourced by our company’s “QA division” recently asked me for feedback. They provided me with the template which I assume their managers had them use. It has five items for which we’d have to rate our level of satisfaction with them on a scale ranging from “Excellent” down to “Very dissatisfied”. And there’s the fail-safe/catch-all “NA” for not applicable or don’t know.

I’m not really so much of a fan of performance evaluations (perf evals — hey, coincidentally this does sound like perf evils). I reckon feedback should just be given whenever and only as needed. In the past I’ve had experiences wherein the mandatory quarterly evil forms were filled in way too late. This produces a couple of problems: (1) it’s way more difficult to recall the individual’s contribution and areas for improvement, and (2) the feedback is no longer as relevant as it could have been. Oh, and there’s also the overhead of gathering and deriving data to quantitatively objectify the ratings. Ultimately, these are subjective anyway.

On the other hand, I also acknowledge that giving feedback doesn’t come so easily particularly when it’s negative. We have a tendency to hold back out of fear of offending, fear of conflict, fear of retaliation, or out of altruism, or we can just be that forgiving (“it’s probably a one time thing”, “I’ll give her another chance”). And so, for some, these mandatory evils provide an excuse to unleash.

But the bottom line is feedback is feedback and its value diminishes with delay. To remedy this, here are some stuff to try:
(a) Explicitly welcome feedback. Say how you’d like to receive it or what’s the best way to give it to you.
(b) Condition yourself to offer positive feedback when there’s an opportunity to do so. And just as you must give that positive feedback, you must give that negative feedback when the need also arises. In both cases, say it nicely!
(c) Remind yourself to do (a) and (b) as these gets forgotten especially during crunch time.
(d) Foster or support an environment wherein giving feedback is the norm, and where people feel safe in giving and receiving feedback. Encourage others to try (a) and (b).
(e) Others? Please feel free to suggest via comment.

On feedback

“Praise in public, chastise in private.” — I can’t recall exactly where I got that but the idea sort of stuck. It just made perfect sense to me. I reckon I’m not quite needy when it comes to external validation i.e., I don’t crave for having my good work publicly lauded. I’d appreciate it and it does give me a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling. But it’s just not my main motivation. I guess I like it better when I get good feedback when I least expect it. Say when a colleague leaves me a thank-you note, or when someone tells me that another colleague liked having worked with me. But that’s just me. Other folks might actually prefer the public recognition, so it wouldn’t hurt to give it when it’s deserved.

On the other hand, when I make a boo-boo, I think I pretty much give myself a hard enough time already. There’s the feeling of guilt or inadequacy, and the feeling of being so sorry for messing up. From there, I’d like to bounce back and think of how to keep the problem from recurring. I’d like to be able to turn things around and work on the problem. For my case, I don’t think publicly scolding me or telling me off would help me in bouncing back. And I suppose that also goes for other people. Public humiliation is an unnecessary evil. It gives off too much negative energy just to achieve something which can be accomplished with an open, straightforward chat.

So there… Praise in public, chastise in private. The praising part seems easy enough. As for chastising, well, I’d like to do away with it altogether but sometimes there’s just no going around it. Anyway, I stumbled upon a post (which I wish I found sooner) and it lists out some ideas on structuring feedback (link):

  • It must be given soon after the behavior or event occurs. Don’t wait until a behavior becomes a pattern to discuss it.
  • It must describe precisely what occurred, with enough specificity for the person to have no trouble recalling the behavior or incident.
  • It should be limited to one issue at a time. People are more likely to become defensive if a list is presented rather than just addressing a particular issue or behavior.
  • Language must be non-evaluative when delivering the message. Do not ascribe attributes, motives, attitudes, or intentions.
  • Give feedback only related to the useful, actionable information. If a person has no control over the behavior, it may not be appropriate to give feedback about it.
  • Feedback should establish an opportunity for growth and/or change. Focus on the future desired state to underscore your ongoing investment in the relationship.

And I think the three steps to keep minds open when speaking up also helps. I got it from Egonomics and previously posted it before (link):

  1. Establish permission — Just as you knock before entering, you establish permission before you speak up. You don’t want to come in uninvited.
  2. Make your intent clear — Instead of having others think the worst, just be outright with your intentions. You don’t want to be misinterpreted.
  3. Be candid — Just be straight to the point. But of course, exercise tact. You don’t want to bore people with details nor be rude.