This post is part of a blog series called Leveling Up: A Guide for Programmers. The series covers skills to learn more easily and more strategically as a programmer.
In the last post, we talked about reflecting on mistakes to improve on ourselves. Now let’s talk about helping others improve.
Specifically, we’ll talk about giving feedback.
Later, we’re also going to talk about how to solicit and receive feedback.
But we’re doing how to give feedback first for two reasons:
- People are more likely to spend time giving you feedback if you have done it for them first.
- We are often asked for feedback in the workplace, but if we do it “wrong,” then we can hurt our own advancement potential.
We’re also dividing our discussion of giving feedback into three parts:
- Evaluating Whether to Give Feedback (this post)
- Identifying Safe Opportunities to Give Feedback
- Framing Feedback
Most attention in the bloggerature is given to #3. But in my experience, if I get #1 or #2 wrong, then nothing I do for #3 prevents the negative consequences of giving the feedback. So let’s start with #1.
Why Give Feedback?
We’re gearing up for a long talk about consequences to you of giving feedback. So why not just show up to work, do your job, and keep your mouth shut?
You know what, sometimes maybe you should. There are times when there is no positive outcome for giving feedback—when the recipient isn’t going to use it anyway, and you’re going to get blowback for giving it. In those cases unfortunately it makes sense to keep your feedback to yourself.
Moreover, even in cases when giving feedback would produce a positive outcome, you have to weigh the time and effort of giving that feedback against the other ways you could spend that time and effort: by working on your tickets, making individual contributions, or learning on your own to advance your own skill set. These activities usually have a large effect on your advancement in the workplace. Is giving this feedback worth the opportunity cost of doing those activities instead?
So now that I’ve made the prospect of giving feedback sound bleak…
…why would we ever give feedback?
Even if our organizations don’t incentivize it, here are some potential reasons:
- When you give feedback that people perceive as helping them get better, their work and their team improves, which might make your work life better.
- When you give feedback that people perceive as helping them get better, they might give you kudos, and that might help you advance.
- When you give feedback that people perceive as helping them get better, you build a positive working relationship with them. That relationship can grow into future projects or lead you to new opportunities later.
- When you give feedback that people perceive as helping them get better, then they feel some responsibility for reciprocity. So later when you want feedback to help you get better, they’re more likely to spend time and thought on getting you that feedback.
Even with these reasons, it may not always make sense to give feedback. The decision is ultimately yours, but you can make it more confidently when you have full information about the benefits and risks.
The Tricky Thing About Feedback
The point of feedback is to help this person/organization improve.
So why does it end up producing so much anxiety in the workplace?
When we imagine receiving feedback, what we’re picturing is really closer to criticism. That happens, in part, because we focus more on negative feedback we’ve received than positive feedback we’ve received. It also happens, in part, because when we get angry or frustrated with someone, we don’t have many options for expressing that in the workplace. So we bubble up our criticism later as feedback because feedback is, in many workplaces, the only acceptable place to air grievances.
I’ve heard a number of strategies to make feedback more palatable.
Here’s a common example: calling negative feedback “constructive” to trick people into being excited about it.
I haven’t seen this work. Since I haven’t seen it work, I’m not going to do it. For the next few paragraphs I’m going to call it negative feedback. In the next post, we’ll circle back replace this terminology with something more accurate.
Here’s another example: I have seen advice to put negative feedback in between two positive pieces (the shit sandwich) so the recipient focuses less on the negative part.
I haven’t exactly seen this work, either. Usually one of two things happens instead. 1) The recipient knows about the shit sandwich and assumes that the positive pieces are only there to package the negative piece, so they still focus on the negative piece. 2) the recipient doesn’t know about the shit sandwich when the positive pieces are only there to package the negative piece, and their presence downplays the urgency with which the recipient needs to address the negative feedback. Then, later, they get burned for not addressing the feedback because they underestimated the urgency. We have talked about the general case of misestimating feedback urgency in this post on “negative” emotions in the workplace.
Here’s a more advanced guideline for feedback that I have seen in play at a a few workplaces: make the feedback actionable, specific, and kind.
This is getting closer to our goal of helping people and organizations improve: it tells the feedback recipient how to improve, on what, without explicitly insulting them.
But it still isn’t the full picture.
Can you remember a time when you tried really hard to give someone actionable, specific, and kind feedback, and they still got upset, or didn’t seem to get better? In this way, the question of how to give feedback can start to feel like an eight-armed monster: no matter which arm you’re focused on, you end up slapped by some other arm.
The actionable, specific, kind framework still fails to address two specific issues. First, it doesn’t address urgency. Second, the word kind suggests that the feedback giver has control over whether the feedback is perceived as kind. And they don’t.
Why would the feedback giver not have control over whether their feedback is perceived as kind?
Here are a few examples:
- The recipient did not consent to this feedback, so its receipt was unwelcome.
- The recipient doesn’t prioritize the skill that this feedback is about, so the receipt of this feedback feels like a request that they change their priorities.
- The recipient was not expecting negative feedback and the receipt of this feedback was a surprise. This sometimes even happens when people ask for feedback—for example, when someone asks for “feedback” when the thing they really want is validation.
When our feedback is perceived as unkind, bad things can happen. Maybe the recipient gets upset. Maybe they complain about how mean we were. Maybe we even look like a jerk. And maybe we get branded as “abrasive,” “aggressive,” or “bitchy” for having endeavored to give this feedback in the first place. People who get branded with these terms don’t get promoted.*
*If you’re not white and male, this particularly negative outcome is even more likely to happen to you.
Now our efforts to make this company or person better have had the result of hurting our career.
In this post, we have given some serious thought to the benefits and consequences of giving feedback. When we give feedback that people perceive as helping them get better, we can improve the team, get recognition, build our professional relationships, and raise the chances that our colleagues will reciprocate by giving us valuable feedback to improve ourselves.
That said, we do not have full control over whether people perceive our feedback as helping them get better. No matter how we put our feedback, it can evoke umbrage if it is unexpected, non-consensual, or not on a topic that the recipient cares about. In these cases, the recipient might ignore the feedback, seek repercussions against us for giving the feedback, or both.
So how do we put ourselves in the best position to only give feedback when it will be well-received—or at least received in a way that won’t hurt us? That’s the topic of the next post.
If you enjoyed this introductory post on giving feedback, you might also like:
The rest of the leveling up series, which now has its own category!
This post on Leading a Software Rewrite at your Company