Getting meaningful feedback


The only way to improve at anything is to 1) want to improve, 2) know what to work on, and 3) put in the effort. #1 and #3 can be done solo, but #2 typically requires input from others. This post aims to talk about why #2 can be difficult to get in systematized feedback processes and what to do about it as an individual in any organization.

Organizational approach

Most organizations have Feedback cycles, intended to:

  1. Assess employee’s strengths and weaknesses for their own betterment
  2. Identify top and bottom talent for the purposes of promotion, compensation, etc.

The trouble is optimizing for one of these goals often gets in the way of the other. And creating a scaleable, meaningful and lightweight feedback system is, well, hard. As a result, many corporate feedback processes end up being:

  • Infrequent: because the process of evaluating people for promotion is so time consuming, cycles are infrequent — usually every 6 or 12 months.
  • Overly focused on positives: if employees know someone’s title or compensation is at stake, they’re more inclined to give positive feedback than critical feedback.
  • Heavyweight: in order for written feedback to be thoughtful, it takes a lot of time to write.
  • Muted: feedback might go to your manager who might give you her take on it, which is often muffled or nicer than the original.
  • Biased: in the process of making feedback systems scalable, they often become prone to more biases. When I was at Google, for instance, employees chose their peer reviewers, allowing them to select people who were likely to say nicer things about them (selection bias). Elsewhere I’ve seen photos shown of people at a certain level to see how an employee I was evaluating compared (turned out all the photos were of white men :|). Humans have tons of unconscious biases and many feedback processes unintentionally amplify their effect.

Alternate approach

Okay, so how do you get real feedback then? Well, ask for it! When? Constantly.

This may seem awkward at first, but it can become second nature with repetition. I have a few people on my team who ask for feedback nearly every time I meet with them. I don’t always have something to share, but their openness to feedback makes me extremely comfortable sharing it with them — resulting in more regular and meaningful directional feedback conversations.

Bonus!

Asking for feedback has the benefit of opening the door to an honest conversation about how both people are performing. Most people, when asked for feedback, will wonder about themselves and request feedback back. If you have constructive feedback you want to give someone else, asking for it yourself is one of the best ways to open up the conversation.

Then what?

First, thank the person. Realize that, in the vast majority of cases, they are telling you because they want you to improve. And remind yourself of the alternative — them thinking the same things and not telling you.

Second, choose a few things — no more than three — to focus on. Write them down on a sticky note, put em on your monitor, and ask yourself how you’re doing every week for a few weeks.

Finally, share what you’re working on with your teammates. This might feel like exposing your vulnerabilities, but in most cases those teammates already perceive those things about you (if they don’t, maybe those aren’t the right things). Acknowledging that they are areas you are focusing on will 1) make them less likely to hold those things against you, 2) show them you are working on improving, and most importantly, 3) enable them to help you improve.

Rinse, repeat, and continue until you don’t need any more improving ;)

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