Sunday, April 20, 2008

Receiving Feedback

My last post on feedback was on giving constructive feedback. Here, I'll focus on receiving feedback.

In the question of feedback - what, where, when, why, and how - the receiver of the feedback may not have control over many of the elements. To some extent, your ability to receive feedback effectively is determined by how effectively the provider shares it. But you do have some control.

If you have a regularly scheduled one-on-one with someone, or performance review meetings, you should always be prepared for feedback. Prepare yourself for these meetings with an attitude adjustment that suggests "I am open and willing to receive feedback constructively so that I can improve". If you enter meetings with this mental preparation, you are way ahead of the game.

Another attitude adjustment that helps you to receive feedback openly is to consider the alternative. That is - what if the person providing this feedback just stayed quiet? I assert that you always gain information and knowledge (even if it's simply an impression of the regard that the giver of feedback holds for you). Treat it as an information gathering exercise. You will learn

  1. What that person thinks about your behavior - or even you

  2. By extension, if that person holds that view, then others may as well

  3. Hopefully - examples of the behavior that the reviewer deems in need of improvement

  4. Suggestions of how you can improve

First, let's cover the "when" and "where" of feedback. I've already mentioned naturally occurring events where feedback will be shared. But it sometimes occurs (and should more often occur) in an ad hoc manner. If you sense that you are not in a good mental or physical place to deal with feedback at that time, it is well within your control to request a postponement of the discussion. Try something like this: "Adrian, I am very interested in hearing your feedback, but would it be OK if we schedule some time to discuss this privately - perhaps tomorrow morning? I feel like I will be in a better place to listen and take your feedback constructively at that time".

"What" feedback provided is primarily - but not exclusively - determined by the person providing feedback. If I tell Jeff that the coffee he has been providing me is too hot, that is the primary message. But if Jeff probes on what the temperature should be, what I feel the temperature has been and such, he can steer the feedback towards the constructive content he needs in order to improve. In this way, he can control the "what". In addition, he can use it as an opportunity to probe for related (or unrelated) feedback.

"How" the feedback is provided can be steered by the recipient as well. I mentioned in the "giving feedback" post that one should focus on the behavior and not the person and should provide specific examples of where the behavior needed improvement. If the feedback giver is speaking in generalities, you can steer him by asking for specific examples. If he can't provide specific examples, ask him to keep an eye out for instances in the future. Something like: "I appreciate your feedback that I'm often late for standups without providing advance notice. I can't recall an instance when I failed to notify you in advance - though I do remember the one time that I overslept, which I understand is not a great excuse. I will make every effort to be on time and to notify you if extenuating circumstances arise. If you find examples when I fail to do so, could you please notify me right away, so I can determine the root cause at that time". OK, I'm going on and on for a silly example; you get the idea.

Take notes. Sometimes - particularly if feedback is negative - our emotions cloud our ability to retain the information being provided. It is helpful to take notes to revisit once the dust settles.

Always receive feedback in a positive manner. Always thank the person for taking the time to give you the feedback - even if you disagree. We need to reward people with thanks for taking the time, effort, and risk of conflict to provide feedback. "Thank you, Adrian, for the feedback on the temperature of the coffee. Though I think I've been rigorous about controlling the temperature, perhaps if I find a thermometer for you to measure, you can let me know the temperature you find when the heat is unbearable. In this way, I can improve my coffee provisioning". (I'm getting tired of this example... from now on, no more coffee... this analogy has run its course).

Don't be defensive! Again, treat the feedback as a gift, not as an attack. You're not perfect. We all strive towards perfection, and the more input and feedback we receive from others, the more adjustments we can make on the path.

Don't fight back with criticism. "Yeah? Well, I think your burnup charts should be done in crayon, Adrian, because they're like the work of a 3-year-old."

Consider returning to the person who gave you the feedback after you've had time to digest and perhaps implement some change. "Thank you again for the feedback you gave me last week. I've been thinking about it, and have adjusted a couple of things. Can I share with you the changes I've made?" This shows a healthy dose of maturity, willingness to improve, and respect for the person who took the time to give you feedback.

I'm open to receiving [meta?] feedback on this post.


Rajeev Singh said...

Very informative. Few people talk about receiving feedback. Good post.

Have you considered writing about different kinds of feedback people receive/provide at work? Feedback usually is on actions, but often covers personality, demeanor, thought process, etc.

What's appropriate and what's not?

Adrian said...

Thanks for the feedback Rajeev.

Feedback on personality is tough. I have given feedback to leaders whose demeanor can be, well, grumpy at times. But the key here is not to focus on personality, but on behavior. It's an important distinction I think. Explaining the extent to which the grumpy behavior impacts the team is relevant.

Thought process is a different question. You can't critique one's thought process - only the results and impact that those thought processes have on the team, stakeholders, and customers.

I think the focus needs to be on behavior and impact to the team; not on personality per se.