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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Feedback Culture

Feedback Culture post image

This is a rant. I’m sorry.

We have our mouths full of feedback. We are eager to get feedback on our work. We consider sharing feedback as a crucial part of the work of any leader. Feedback this. Feedback that.

Yeah, that’s all true. Except we’re missing one part.

When it comes to leaving our comfort zones, we instantly start sucking at sharing feedback. We suck big time. You don’t like how our folks from PR team dealt with a recent initiative, right? After all you are just telling me that. So why won’t you just go and tell them? Brilliant, isn’t it?

It’s pretty easy, you know. You use your mouth to construct these things called words and you build sentences out of words. And then the magic happens – you can transmit the message using sentences. Voila!

That’s easy. Really. Just remember to be honest. Share the message in a straightforward way. Don’t judge. You will manage. I believe in you.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not freaking out over a single situation. I see this as a pattern. Actually, whenever I see any questions regarding feedback my default answer is “honest and straightforward.” The problem is this answer doesn’t seem to very popular. Actually beating around the bush or simply “don’t tell anything” types of answers seems to be the standard behavior for many.

So why, oh why, are you surprised that you don’t get much quality feedback? After all you too are contributing to building this sick organization that is just afraid to share any. It’s simple – if no one shares feedback no one receives it either. It doesn’t populate like freaking lemmings or something.

And while we are on this topic, well, it’s not only how you (don’t) share feedback; it’s also how you receive it. Next time someone wants to share something critical about you or your work, try this: STFU and listen. The other person has just moved their butt out of their comfort zone to tell you something they think is important. The least you shall do is to let them do their part. But you should do better – listen and try to learn something from it. A simple “thank you” seems proper too.

You may even disagree with the merits of the feedback but it isn’t some kind of odd negotiation or something. No one is trying to win this discussion with you. No one is attacking you. So spare me the drama and don’t get all defensive. It neither helps you nor the other guy.

Most of all, it definitely does nothing good to the feedback culture you may try to introduce into your organization. Not to mention building trust.

If you really want to build an open feedback culture in your company, start sharing and stop being a jerk, I mean defensive, when you receive feedback. If your organization doesn’t appreciate this, think again whether it is the right organization to be with.

Now that you asked, yes, such an attitude means that you become vulnerable in front of your superiors, peers and colleagues. And yes, it is a crucial part of building trust. I don’t know how it is in your case but I wouldn’t like to work for an organization that is incapable of building trust. Would you?

in: communication

7 comments… add one

  • Adam Yuret August 8, 2012, 7:34 am

    I completely agree. It’s very difficult to get honest feedback and the current western social system is predisposed to conflict avoidance. Unfortunately, we’re people with the biases and defense mechanisms of people so honest feedback is not always productive. I love getting feedback that’s hard to hear. Unfortunately with the exception of a few people who are arrogant and lack people skills, I have huge difficulty getting that feedback. I find it hard to believe that I’m as great as the lack of negative feedback would indicate but have no better solution.

    Surrounding oneself with smart critical thinkers who have high trust in one another seems like a great solution.

    From a coaching perspective I can say without a doubt that giving my honest (even requested) feedback at a previous organization sufficiently agitated their antibodies that I was removed from that organization. Of course the manner in which I was removed involved prevarication and praise. I was not fired, to fire me somebody would have had to offer feedback and tell me what I ought to have been doing differently. Another common pattern I see at sick organizations, nobody is ever fired. I have long thought this tactic was a legal defense mechanism but I now think it’s expressly a mechanism to avoid giving feedback.

    Anyway, great post, great point, I am sorry not to have any criticism to offer, constructive or otherwise ;-)

  • George Dinwiddie August 9, 2012, 4:06 am

    There must be an interesting story behind this rant, but I think it jumps to some unsupported conclusions. In my experience, problems with giving and receiving feedback have more to do with lack of skill and practice than to a culture devoid of trust.

    I’ve got a page of links to some of my favorite Esther Derby posts on feedback. See http://idiacomputing.com/moin/GivingFeedback

  • Pawel Brodzinski August 9, 2012, 4:23 am

    @George – Skill and practice have much to do with feedback quality when feedback exists. Culture, on the other hand, drives whether feedback exists. Of course the distinction is not that simple as both parts are strongly connected, e.g. lack of skill in receiving feedback discourages people to share it with you.

    Anyway, usually the culture comes first as you need to have feedback in place to discuss its quality. And it is pretty common that not sharing is just a part of organizational culture.

    Considering the fact that your experience is different I can only say that I’m glad the problem may be not that bad as I thought. Yet I still believe it is a big one.

    By the way, I’m aware that there might be big differences in this area dependent on parts of the worlds we discuss.

  • George Dinwiddie August 9, 2012, 6:14 am

    Pawel, I disagree. Anybody can give feedback, and then it exists. In fact, that’s how a culture of giving and accepting feedback starts. Granted, in some cultures giving feedback can require a lot of courage, and might amount to a “crucial conversation.” We get to choose whether we let discouragement stop us. Life is not always about following the easy path.

    But, culture does not come first. Behavior does. Culture follows behavior, and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

  • Pawel Brodzinski August 9, 2012, 6:42 am

    @George – Anybody can give feedback. Not everybody does. Why?

    I believe you’ve already answered this question. Cultural landscape can make it easier or more difficult to do so. Sometimes it makes so difficult that, as you point, a lot of courage is needed to share feedback. Few overcome such circumstances.

    I agree with you on the fact that even when culture isn’t supporting behavior can overcome it. However, it rarely does. If I’m punished for sharing feedback I either stop doing this or leave the org. You are, again, right that it is our choice. It is however strongly driven by the culture, thus my comment above.

  • Magda August 14, 2012, 4:53 am

    I like to give feedback and I need to. When I see something that doesn’t work well it stays inside me and I need to pass it though :)
    But I realize that much better channel to give feedback is e-mail or message via skype that eye to eye conversation. When someone read criticism they can focus on words not emotions that are much bigger when you talking with someone face-to-face. Such recipient can read several times message and have time to think about it. You are giving people a comfort to deal with criticism. That’s why I prefer to write a feedback rather than say.

  • Pawel Brodzinski August 14, 2012, 10:30 am

    @Magda – Although it might be different for different people, in general, I disagree. There’s much of context lost in indirect communication. Email or IM is dry, without a chance to react to someone’s feelings, answers, explanations. Face to face chat is just… humane.

    At the same time some people find it really hard to accept feedback when delivered in such. The question is: do they really react better and understand better when you deliver feedback indirectly?

    Or maybe it is just your fear of confrontation or breaking one’s feelings? Don’t get me wrong, I still prefer indirect feedback than no feedback at all, but if I can choose a form it would be “in my face” every single time.

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