Constant improvement and the pursuit of excellence is a defining cultural value of FullStack Labs. Understanding our individual strengths and weaknesses is essential to self improvement, and self improvement is essential to achieving excellence. But as humans, it’s difficult for us to accurately self-assess our strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, it is important to receive feedback from those around us, so that we may achieve greater self awareness, and improve in both our personal and professional lives. Feedback means both praise and criticism. In our personal life, this feedback can come from friends and family members. In the professional setting, this feedback can come from managers and colleagues.
Giving and receiving feedback (especially criticism) isn’t easy. Often when we receive criticism, our natural reaction is to become defensive and argue that the criticism is inaccurate or attack the person providing the feedback. Providing criticism is equally difficult. Telling another individual that their performance or behavior needs to improve in certain ways can be socially awkward and feel confrontational. Humans are social animals and most of us prefer to avoid confrontation, and to avoid situations where we might make another person feel bad. So, often, our natural instinct is to withhold criticism, especially in the professional setting.
Feedback is essential to growth and self improvement, so being unwilling to give or receive it can negatively impact both our personal and professional lives. With that in mind, we’re going to lay out the following framework for giving and receiving feedback at FullStack. Our hope is that if we all know how to both give and receive feedback, and we know to expect to both give and receive feedback, then it will make doing both easier.
Everyone at FullStack is expected to give feedback from time to time. Managers are responsible for their teams’ performance and performance improvement, so they will be expected to give feedback more often. But non-managers are also expected to provide feedback to their managers and their peers from time to time.
About a year ago, a new book was released by Kim Scott, Radical Candor. Kim has held top roles at Apple, Google, and Netflix, and has been a CEO coach at many leading Silicon Valley companies. In Radical Candor, Kim lays out the HHIPP approach to providing feedback, which we are going to use as a framework for providing feedback at FSL.
HHIIPP feedback is:
Humble: The person providing feedback should be humble. This means that they shouldn’t consider themselves to be superior to the person they are providing feedback to, and they should be open to the possibility that they are wrong. This doesn’t mean that they should grovel, or be unsure. It just means that they should be open to pushback, and be open to the possibility that they are wrong. They should deliver feedback firmly and with supporting rationale, but be open to reconsidering their opinion in the light of new information. “Strong beliefs, loosely held,” is a good description of this mindset.
Helpful: Ultimately, the point of feedback is to help the person receiving the feedback improve. So the person providing the feedback should approach the situation with this in mind. In order to clearly communicate the message, without beating around the bush, the communication should be clear, direct, and candid. But, the overall tone should be helpful. “Feedback is a gift, not a whip or a carrot,” says Kim Scott.
Give Feedback Immediately: When you give feedback immediately, you save yourself the burden of remembering to give it later, and, since the details are all fresh in your mind, you are able to be much more specific and helpful. You also give the person a better chance to improve immediately, as opposed to waiting for an annual review or other formal meeting.
Give feedback in person: Of all the steps in the HHIPP process, this is the most important. Criticism should always be given in private, and in-person...not over slack or email...and especially not in public slack channels. Since 90% of communication is nonverbal, you won’t really know if the other person understands what you are saying, or how they are reacting to what you’re saying, if you can’t see their reaction. Additionally, we all have the tendency to assume the worst when receiving negative feedback in writing, meaning we tend to think the person providing the feedback is upset or angry, when they aren’t. For example, a manager might send a message via Slack saying, “I noticed you were late to that last couple meetings, make sure to arrive on time in the future.” The person receiving it might interpret the message as “I NOTICED YOU WERE LATE, SHOW UP ON TIME OR ELSE”. Because of this dynamic, negative feedback should always be given in-person to prevent this miscommunication. Since most of us are remote, true in-person meetings aren’t possible, but Zoom video conferences are almost as good.
Praise in public, criticize in private: This piggybacks on the previous step. A good rule of thumb for feedback is praise in public, criticize in private. Public criticism tends to trigger a defensive reaction and make it much harder for a person to accept they’ve made a mistake and to learn from it. Public praise tends to make the recipient feel empowered, and it encourages others to emulate whatever they did that earned praise. Hey Taco has helped us provide public praise, so we encourage everyone to use it.
Don’t make feedback about the person: Feedback should always be delivered in a calm, non-emotional, professional manner. The feedback should always focus on the work the person has done, rather than be about the person as an individual. “I think that’s wrong” is more effective than “You’re wrong.” And “That was a great presentation because X, Y, Z” is more beneficial than “You’re great at presentations.” Additionally, feedback should be polite. “Please work on your UX skills” is more effective than “Work on your UX skills”.
Expect Feedback: First and foremost, everyone at FullStack should expect to receive feedback on a regular basis. This goes for everyone, from junior level employees to managers, all the way up to the owners of the company. None of us are perfect, and all of us should be striving for continual improvement. So feedback from managers, peers, and subordinates should be expected and welcomed.
Don’t panic: When you receive feedback from a manager you might start to worry, or even panic, that your manager thinks you’re doing a horrible job, which means your job is at risk, or at the very least you won’t be promoted in the future. This usually isn’t the case. None of us are perfect, and all of us are going to make mistakes, and therefore all of us should expect to receive feedback on an ongoing basis. Just because you may have made a mistake on one thing, doesn’t mean you are making mistakes on everything.
To help differentiate between regular, expected feedback, and more serious performance problems, we’ve implemented the “FSL Performance Improvement Process” which can be found here. Please do not confuse regular, helpful feedback with performance improvement warnings. Performance improvement warnings must be in writing, and must use this form.
Seek to understand, not defend: It’s natural to become defensive when receiving feedback. No one enjoys hearing that they made a mistake, or need to improve. Yet being able to receive, understand, accept, and act on feedback is essential to self-improvement--both for all of us as individuals, and for the company as a whole. So, we all must be aware of, and seek to counteract, our natural instincts to defend against criticism. Instead, we should first seek to understand. To do this we should:
For managers, one of the most challenging experiences we can have is providing feedback to an employee who immediately becomes defensive, disagreeable, and difficult. When this happens, the conversation quickly switches from discussing the problem and how to fix it, to discussing interpersonal issues and emotions. This is unproductive and frustrating for everyone involved. And even worse, it usually turns a small problem, into a much bigger problem. For instance, it turns a small problem like arriving to meetings late, into the much bigger problem of an employee being unwilling to accept responsibility, unwilling to accept feedback, and being unwilling to improve. Occasionally arriving to meetings late is not going to severely impact your career. Being unwilling to accept responsibility and improve, will.
Early in my career, I worked for an intelligent, successful, and extremely candid CEO of a successful software startup that was eventually sold to Accenture. He was known for being blunt and saying exactly what was on his mind. One day, I received an email from him that said:
“I’ve noticed a lot of misspellings and grammatical errors in your emails. If you send emails with misspellings and grammatical errors people are going to think you’re stupid, which will significantly negatively impact your career. I don’t want people to think you’re stupid, so you need to get better at spelling and grammar quickly.”
In all honesty, my first reaction was shock. I thought I was doing a pretty good job, and was surprised to hear this. My second reaction was denial...I thought he must be wrong, or at least he’s being overly critical and nitpicky. I asked him to provide me with examples, thinking that he would be unable to do so. He quickly provided several examples and said he could provide many more if needed. At this point I realized that he was right, and that this was definitely something I needed to improve upon. So, I put a plan in place and quickly improved over the next few months.
I didn’t like receiving this feedback. It was uncomfortable, and caused me a fair amount of stress and anxiety. And I’m sure that he didn’t like giving it...providing feedback is a semi-confrontational, and socially awkward thing to do. But had he not provided me with this feedback, I would have continued making the same mistakes, which very well could have negatively impacted my career in a variety of ways. I do think he could have delivered the feedback in a way that was easier for me to receive. Using “stupid” in his communication increased the likelihood that I would have an emotional and defensive response, and decreased the likelihood that I would accept and act on his feedback. So we shouldn’t use this type of language when providing feedback at FSL.
This experience lead me to the realization that good managers who care about their team are willing to provide direct, candid feedback to help their team improve, despite how uncomfortable and socially awkward it may be to do so. Bad managers who don’t really care much about their teams don’t give candid feedback, and instead take the easy way out of avoiding conflict, and avoiding uncomfortable conversations. So when your manager provides you with feedback, please try to empathize with them, and understand that it’s as hard for them to give you feedback as it is for you to receive it, and please remember that your manager providing candid feedback is a strong indication that they care about you and want you to succeed...so much so that they are willing to have difficult conversations and put themselves in socially awkward situations. Conversely, a manager that never provides feedback, and never challenges team members to improve is a manager that doesn’t care about their team enough, and places their own comfort above what’s best for their team members.
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