When most people think of feedback, they think of an uncomfortable situation instead of a powerful skill and tool. Feedback should be intended to help you learn and improve but sometimes feels less than enjoyable. This sentiment is often expressed by people on either end of the feedback, regardless of role or tenure. Despite this negative description, feedback is an essential part of both an individual and company’s growth. It also doesn’t have to be a negative experience! By improving your ability to give and receive feedback, you become a more capable and valuable member of any team.
Here at Distilled, we strive to be excellent at giving and receiving feedback. While this is a lofty goal, its existence places value on our team continually sharpening their feedback skills. As a team lead, a large part of my role is providing feedback to the consultants, as well as leadership. Through my career, I’ve seen how crucial excelling at feedback is for any team, but within my first six months at Distilled I saw how central it is to our work.
With all this in mind, I want to share the main principles of feedback we’ve adopted here at Distilled. Then we’ll discuss common roadblocks, which too often derail teams and progress, along with some tips on how best to avoid them.
When in doubt, give feedback.
Deciding what exactly warrants feedback can be a challenge in and of itself. Little things like document formatting or the tone of an email can be easy to ignore. It's when these little things turn into larger themes that people tend to speak up and give feedback. To combat this, we’ve adopted the motto ‘when in doubt, give feedback’ as a way of being proactive and communicative.
By speaking up early on, we can address an issue immediately and stop it from becoming a larger problem. Most of us have received feedback at some point in our career that we wish we’d been given sooner. Whether it's to save someone from a ‘spinach in your teeth’ moment or to help improve their communication with a client; providing feedback early on is often the best approach.
This also applies to positive behaviors and identifying traits to foster and encourage. Each week I try to call out something awesome I observed each consultant do and things I'd like to see more of. This generally takes place during our 1:1s or within 15Five (a great management tool we use). This rapid positive feedback allows them to take note of the behavior when it’s fresh in their mind and start incorporating it more often. As a manager and teammate, I feel it is just as important to praise the great things people do as well as the areas for improvement.
Praise in public, criticize in private
Once you identify a point of feedback the next step is delivering it which can often be the most difficult. ‘Praise in public, criticize in private’ is the motto we’ve adopted to help employees decide how to give feedback. Our goal is to encourage a supportive and safe environment where people can focus on the content of the feedback, rather than being self-conscious in group settings. As a team across three offices and time zones, in-person conversations are not always an option. To address this, we have intentionally built opportunities for communication through our work process and tools.
Depending on the type of feedback, ‘private’ might actually be a small group instead of a 1:1 meeting. For example, minor feedback on a creative piece could be given on a project specific Slack channel so the project team remains integrated. This version of private is appropriate for most task relevant feedback that will affect the project at hand. For communication breakdowns and difficult conversations, we encourage team members to meet "face-to-face". This can be in-person or utilizing Google Hangouts, our video chat service of choice, for teams across offices. Miscommunications or misunderstandings are detrimental to any team and we've found video calls reduce this risk.
For us, ‘public’ often looks like a company or office-wide email or a shout out on Slack or 15Five. This public aspect of feedback often has positive effects on the person it’s directed at but also becomes a learning opportunity for others. If all feedback happens behind closed doors, it’s harder for other team members to see what excellent communication or client service looks like.
In order for our teams to produce quality work, the process of feedback needs to be efficient. A large part of this is reducing wasted time and redoing work, as these can dishearten a team and slow progress. To make sure we are all moving in the intended direction we use a practice called 30% feedback.
30% feedback is a concept of seeking feedback when you are only 30% done with the project, as the name implies. This frees you from having to make sure every last detail is completed and instead seek feedback on the foundations of the project. When you are only 30% done, you have a good sense of the project direction but not so far along that pivoting would require redoing large amounts of work. The key to 30% feedback is vocalizing it and telling the reviewer that is the type of feedback you are seeking, putting everyone on exactly the same page.
As the reviewer, it’s crucial that you understand what stage the project is at and provide an appropriate level of feedback. The beauty of having someone request feedback at 30% and 90% is that it narrows what you need to focus on. At 30%, don’t worry about catching all typos or grammatical errors and instead focus on bigger questions like does this convey the intended message? At 90%, dig through the largely finalized project with fine tooth comb, not worrying about the big picture and instead focusing on small details.
Always assume best intentions
Feedback can be hard, but it makes every team stronger. It builds the communication skills of the team and strengthens each individual by helping them learn in a supportive environment. At Distilled, we feel the process of feedback should never be a traumatizing one. While mistakes and miscommunication happen to everyone, we focus on the core idea of assume best intentions to help aid the conversations.
Even small amounts of negative feedback can be difficult to receive regardless of role. While opinions or personality clashes often exacerbate these situations, we encourage people to assume the feedback giver has the best intentions. ”Feedback given from love, acceptance and connection is a nourishing experience that allows people to gauge where they are and work out collaboratively what they need to do next”, explains Frederic Laloux in his book Reinventing Organizations. And from that perspective, feedback becomes an act of kindness.
People often report that they’re more likely to give feedback again to someone whom they’ve had a positive experience with previously. This illustrates the concept of a reinforcing feedback loop, which increases the effects of a particular system. “These systems can be great for building good habits and achieving peak performance because they naturally amplify and strengthen their own behavior.” says author James Clear. This reinforcing feedback loop continues to strengthen individuals and teams, making them smarter and more effective - two things we value greatly here at Distilled.
In my role, I often help people unpack the feedback they’ve received. From this perspective, it becomes much easier to see where things get lost in translation. Despite best intentions, people often find themselves in uncomfortable situations, unsure how to approach the process. Below are some of the most common roadblocks that either distort the message or discourage giving feedback altogether.
Depending on the medium used to communicate and type of feedback, I often see the interpretation is wildly different than the intended sentiment. This often leads to misunderstandings, frustration and most detrimental, discredit of the feedback itself. Distillers have options on how they can deliver feedback but it isn’t always easy to decide what is going to be most effective for each person.
As I said at the beginning of this post, feedback is a skill and just like any other skill it takes practice. Each experience helps inform the next, but in the end, each person is different and thus will respond to feedback uniquely. For this among many other reasons, getting to know the people you work with is essential. Knowing how an individual responds to varying levels of directness and in what time frame makes choosing a medium much easier.
With that said, there are a few default options for those moments when you’re still getting to know a team member and have to provide feedback.
First determine if the feedback is communication, skill, or task based and if it’s necessary to give at this moment. If it's task based and will affect the outcome of the project, sooner the better. If it’s communication or skill based, the feedback could potentially distract from the project and should be delivered at a later date.
Weigh your options for interaction. If it’s communication or skill based, always go with the most personable option. For my team in Seattle, this is a face-to-face meeting in the office or over coffee. For colleagues across offices, this is a video chat. I caution against email or phone calls for anything that might be sensitive as facial expressions along with tone of voice greatly help in gauging how receptive or defensive someone might be. For task-based feedback, this might be a comment in a document or on Slack, an email, or hopping on a phone call.
The biggest challenge to the efficiency of feedback is misaligned expectations of what type of feedback someone is looking for. In the 30/90% model, this breakdown of communication can lead to less actionable feedback, redoing work and frustration. When someone is looking for 30% feedback and gets 90%, they are often bogged down with small details instead of getting valuable input on the project direction. And on the other side, when someone looks for 90% feedback and gets 30%, they are often forced to redo work and crunch to make deadlines.
The goal is that by seeking 30% and 90% feedback at the appropriate times, the possibility of these misaligned expectations is reduced. This makes the feedback more valuable to each party and produces stronger work. Thus, we encourage people to explicitly state what level of feedback is they are seeking.
Poor response to feedback
Negative reactions to feedback can be triggered by many elements. The person delivering the feedback, the medium used or the nature of the feedback itself all play a role. Regardless of the trigger itself, the worst reaction is to become defensive and argumentative. By responding to feedback poorly or overly emotionally, you run the risk of damaging the peer relationship and missing out on future opportunities for feedback.
It can be difficult to hear negative feedback and it is a common response to defend your actions but that is rarely the most productive reaction. If the experience becomes traumatic for both parties, it’s unlikely the feedback giver will embrace opportunities to provide feedback in the future. So by a poor response, you rob yourself of more opportunities to learn and grow through feedback.
Whatever the trigger, always thank the person giving the feedback. As we have assumed best intentions, this person is just trying to help despite potentially doing a poor job delivering the message. Knowing this allows you to put all of the extraneous elements surrounding the feedback aside, and focus solely on the content.
Having an effective feedback process makes for a stronger team that is able to produce great work efficiently. Yet inevitably it’s something that is very difficult to be good at organizationally and on an individual level. Feedback is part of our culture here at Distilled which doesn’t mean we are outstanding at it, it means we actively focus on it and continually strive to be better. Feedback is an opportunity for improvement and the more opportunities you have, the more you can improve. Those that seek out and welcome feedback tend to grow rapidly and have the greatest impact at Distilled.
Having highlighted some of the core elements of feedback at Distilled, I’d love to hear about what feedback looks like in your organization. Without letting this get too meta, I also welcome any feedback on our process or insights on what has proved successful for you!