On Feedback

This is not a how-to guide for getting better at accepting feedback. That’s really hard, and Nic Werner already has an excellent blog post on receiving feedback if that’s what you’re here for. This is a tale to inspire you to actually want that feedback.

A few years ago, my boss started off a mid-year performance review by giving me some surprising feedback: “You’re really good at receiving feedback.”

What? What is that supposed to mean? Is that even a thing someone can be good at?

I recalled the many times I fought back when someone was only trying to help me improve. I cringed at how often I became argumentative when someone expressed that my actions affected them negatively. Receiving feedback well isn’t a skill I ever purposely worked on. It wasn’t even on my to-do list.

My boss was clearly mistaken, but I certainly didn’t want to disappoint him. If he believed I possessed this mystical talent, I wasn’t about to let him down. I decided to own this. I started asking for feedback more frequently, from anyone who was willing to provide it.

At the end of every demo and at the end of every email, my catch-phrase and signature had become, “Questions? Comments? Concerns?”. I made sure everyone knew I was up for continuing the conversation and hearing their feedback.

I made a “How’s my driving?” sign for the back of my chair when I was pair programming (ha! get it? … nevermind). It was mostly a failed attempt to be funny, but it also helped start conversations about wanting more feedback from my peers.

I started giving others feedback more frequently — both because I was starting to see just how valuable it could be, but also selfishly in hopes that someone might return the favor. Whenever I see an action or behavior that I truly appreciate, I’m quick with a compliment. But, it’s only fair to share constructive criticism too. I can only hope that others will do the same for me.

I told everyone, “I’m tough.” “I have thick skin.” “You couldn’t offend me if you tried.” “I can take anything you say to me, so long as you have good intentions in doing so.” Some of those lines inevitably put me in difficult situations that pushed me far past my breaking point. But, I learned to roll with the punches, and those bold statements slowly became more and more true over time.

With all of this open feedback, I got most of the really difficult conversations out of the way: my lifelong bad habits and personality “quirks”. I learned that I’m not very good at making or keeping eye contact in conversations. I was told (more times than I’d like to admit) to stop making a mountain out of every molehill. I was advised to be more cautious in my choice of words, and to keep my audience in mind.

I’m still not great at any of these, but it’s such a relief to be self-aware. I can choose to conceal my flaws (perhaps when client-facing), or wear them on my sleeve (to ask colleagues to point out my missteps as they occur). I know exactly what I need to work on, and I get a little bit better every day.

In retrospect, I’m still a bit suspicious that my boss only told me that I take feedback well because he knew I’d try to live up to the claim. Well, it worked, and I’m very thankful for that. The feedback I’ve received since that day is continuously helping me grow into a better engineer, product manager, colleague, friend, and human being.

Questions? Comments? Concerns? I’m always happy to hear your thoughts.