Feedback takes many forms, some is explicit and some can be inferred, even the absence of interaction is a form of feedback. Some if obviously well-intentioned, and some less so, some is invited and some is thrust upon us.
When you accidentally cut someone off in traffic, the feedback they give may be in the form of a horn and a hand gesture. There is no question this is feedback, it may even be useful when you have stripped away the anger and your defensive response – I did after all miss something, they are helping me see something I didn’t see myself and now I will at least have the option of improving my behavior in similar situations in the future.
Improvement is MY choice
Please note the word ‘option’, the decision to change my behavior is mine, I can choose whether I respond or how I respond, giving a peer feedback does not compel them to change the way you want them to, regardless of how forcefully you may give the feedback.
Many times you will receive conflicting feedback, or sometimes you just disagree with it. When someone gives you feedback and they are asking you to change behavior remember it is you that needs to change and there is no one Youer than You. It is up to you, you can choose what or whether to change.
A Feedback Culture
I work in an organization where there is a very strong culture of self-improvement and professional development, but there is also a distinct absence of management, we therefore rely heavily on feedback from our peers. Our internal processes encourage formal and informal peer feedback.
In an Agile community we rely heavily on feedback loops for improving our processes, stand-ups, demos retrospectives, not to mention the metrics we encourage in our development practices. These are all opportunities to respond to the feedback as a team to help us improve.
However, individual feedback from peers is much less structured and much less objective so it becomes much harder for the giver or receiver to be objective in the way they give or receive the feedback. Peer feedback is by nature personal and when things get personal the stakes get higher. We give feedback in a subjective way, and we receive and we respond to feedback in a subjective way, both are cursed with perspective.
Ostensibly the goal of feedback from the perspective of the giver is to affirm behavior we approve of (e.g. clapping and cheering) and to discourage behavior we dislike or disapprove of (booing). Context is also a factor we may be motivated personally or professionally.
For the receiver of feedback it is ostensibly to aid us in seeing things we are unable to see, to gain another person’s perspective on something. We may get to see things we can’t or don’t see for ourselves e.g. Am I speaking too quietly.
Whether the feedback is invited (“Can you hear me?”) or not (“Speak up!”) we are benefiting from another’s perspective on a situation.
Sound’s great! But the attitude of the giver and receiver play a much more significant role in peer to peer feedback, and in how effective or valuable that feedback is, and what the consequences on the relationship are.
Let’s go back to the person I accidentally cut-off in traffic. Whilst there is benefit in being reminded that I need to pay more attention to my blind-spots I doubt very much the person cut-off and is giving me hand-gestures was overly concerned with my personal development or in helping me become a better driver. The reality is that their goal was not to help me improve, it was to vent their frustration, to express anger and to feel better in themselves by ranting at me, my welfare was not even remotely the concern.
And so it is with peer feedback, there are times when I really want to express my opinion, I don’t care whether the person improves, what matters to me is that I get my say and I can express MY feelings. This can come off as spiteful rather than supportive. and leave the person feeling a victim.
Victim or Beneficiary
The “feedback culture” has created an opportunity for some people to express a desire to ask to “give feedback” when really they are taking an opportunity to give someone a piece of their mind in a situation where the ‘victim’ feels they cannot respond. By calling it feedback we get a free punch and if they react badly or refuse to be verbally punched we can claim they are not acting in the spirit of feedback. I worry this is damaging our culture and is a misappropriation of feedback, the result is the artificial harmony we were trying to get away from. Dressing an attack up as feedback does not change it.
Before giving another person ‘feedback’ we need to reflect on it ourselves and consider whether our true desire is to help the person improve. Do we truly desire the subject to be the beneficiary of our feedback or is the act of giving feedback more about satisfying your own need for satisfaction and they are just the victim of your feedback.
Spirit of improvement
Please understand that I am not saying that the horn and the hand gesture are not feedback – clearly they are. Nor that I can’t respond to the feedback and improve. It is a question of the spirit of the feedback as much as the message itself. If I feel the feedback is given in the spirit of helping me I am far more likely to respond favorably, if I see the feedback as a veiled attack I am as likely to resent the message and in some extreme cases I may retaliate – I am less likely to see it as an opportunity for improvement.
Is your true desire is to help the person improve or do you want to make them feel bad? Do you want a good relationship in future? Then perhaps be more considerate of your approach. We all make mistakes, and we can all improve so let’s make the effort to be kinder in our delivery of the message – not necessarily the subject. Feedback needs to be clear and should not shy from difficult issues but the delivery can make all the difference.
When we rely so heavily on relationships and on feedback it is important to apply the TRUNK test for offering feedback:
Is what you are about to say TRue, Useful, Necessary, and Kind?