Leveling Up Skill #15: Receiving Feedback

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Serene Room

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.

This post is long. It is the culmination of a lot of previous thought and writing about this topic (linked where appropriate). Please set aside some time.

First: Where are we?

We recently finished a three-part series about giving feedback. This is the second post in another three-part series on obtaining feedback:

  1. Attracting Feedback
  2. Receiving Feedback (this post)
  3. Operationalizing Feedback

This post should be useful by itself, but if you like it, you’re also likely to enjoy the previous ones.

Why we need to talk about receiving feedback:

In the last post about attracting feedback, we agreed that the frustrations of attracting feedback and providing feedback share a root cause. 

  • Frustration in giving feedback: We are often asked for feedback in the workplace, but if we do it “wrong,” then we can hurt our own advancement potential.
  • Frustration in soliciting feedback: We don’t get enough information about how others view us, nor how we can improve.

The connection between these things: a large opportunity for downside for giving someone feedback.

Where does all that downside come from? It comes from how people react to feedback. As the feedback giver, no matter how hard we try, we cannot fully manage how the recipient reacts to our feedback. They might react in a way that comes back and hurts us. That’s why we hesitate to give feedback to others and/or why others hesitate to give feedback to us.

You can only fully manage how the recipient reacts to feedback under one condition: you are the recipient.

Level Check

Before we move on, there is a pre-requisite to learning this material on receiving feedback: you must already have decent emotional management skills. Let’s do a quick check:

  • Have you recently complained to a colleague that they gave you feedback in the wrong way—particularly if they tried several different ways, and you deemed all those ways “not the right way?”
  • Have you recently gone to your boss to complain that you felt personally or morally attacked by a colleague’s feedback, and demanded repercussions upon that colleague?
  • Have you recently stormed out of a meeting because you didn’t like how it was going?
  • Have you recently used a 1-1 with a direct report to express to the report how sad or angry you are feeling about something, or how hard your job is, such that your report would offer you support?
  • Did you recently do any of these things and then, instead of apologizing, expect your colleagues to change their behavior so that you would no longer become so upset?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you’re not managing your emotions: you’re forcing your coworkers to manage your emotions for you. This blog post is not the right resource for you right now: a counselor is the right resource for you. This is not an insult. I am serious. A counselor can help you understand your emotions and learn to cope with them yourself. Regardless of your mood or your feelings, you are responsible for your behavior in a workplace: not your coworkers, not your friends, definitely not your reports.

I recommend speaking to your primary care provider or a mental health provider in your area or in your insurance network. One day I plan to do a whole post on finding, evaluating, choosing, and working with a counselor. This is not that post. So for now, I’ll leave it at this: work with a counselor for a few months and then, if you’re feeling better, come back and do the level check again before trying to use the techniques in this post.

Two Kinds of Feedback

We tend to conceive of feedback as going into two categories: positive feedback and negative feedback. The connotation: positive=stuff we are good at, negative=stuff we are bad at. We use all kinds of words to try to rebrand negative feedback: “constructive feedback” or “opportunity feedback,” for example.

The rebranding does not work. Everyone still thinks of the “opportunity” section of a feedback form as the “negative” section. Even the managers who are administering the feedback form talk about and interpret the “opportunity” section as the “negative” section.

So instead of pretending that this renaming technique works, we’ve embarked in this post series on dividing feedback into categories along different seams to better understand its use.

Here’s how we divide the different types of feedback: feedback that agrees with our assessment of ourselves (validation) and feedback that does not agree with our assessment of ourselves.

Let’s choose a word to represent this second type of feedback: illumination.

I’m picking this term for two reasons:

1. “Illumination” denotes shedding light on something. It also connotes shedding light specifically in a place that would otherwise be dark.

When we receive feedback that does not agree with our self-assessment, that feedback has shed light on something that our own assessment missed. That kind of feedback shows us things that we otherwise could not see.

2. When we “illuminate” something, we are shedding light on that thing. Illuminative feedback sheds light on something—evidence of a behavior or perception, for example. By centering the thing, we keep the focus less personal.

Why does this matter? Because, as the recipient, if we think about feedback as being about us, we react defensively instead of thinking about solutions. Therefore, even if it’s true that the feedback is about us, it’s not useful to frame it that way.

The split between validating and illuminative feedback fundamentally differs from the positive/negative one. Validating feedback can fit in the positive bucket: “I agree with your assessment that this component you wrote is awesome.” It can also fit in the negative bucket: “I agree with your assessment that this API you wrote is hard to use.” Illuminative feedback can fit in the positive bucket: “I disagree with your assessment that this API you wrote is hard to use. I find it quite intuitive, and I’d love to use this thing you made.” Illuminative feedback can fit in the negative bucket, to: “I disagree with your assumption that you are doing just fine with your safety practices. Your failure to write automated tests leaves us open to risks of this software malfunctioning in production.”

It’s important to note that this distinction is a departure from the way I wrote the last few posts. In the last few posts, I labeled positive illuminative feedback as validation. Specifically, here:

When someone says “I’m concerned about the performance of this thing,” we are validating their assessment if we agree with it.

Here’s another, more familiar way to word what’s happening: by expressing their concerns about this thing, this person has made it safe for us to give our feedback about the thing. And get this: it’s safer for us to give our feedback regardless of what that feedback is! If we agree that the code needs a performance tune-up, then we express reservations with the person’s work but we validate their assessment. If we disagree and say the performance is good enough, then we disagree with their assessment but validate their work. In either of these cases our feedback makes the recipient feel validated. Safety achieved!

This distinction is not consistent with the distinction we’re discussing now. Why did I lie to you? I lied because that inaccurate distinction was good enough, at that time, to illustrate the point we were trying to make, and we weren’t ready to go into this whole spiel about categorizing feedback yet. Now we’re ready, so we’re characterizing feedback more precisely.

So allow me to restate what we were saying in that post, except more precisely: it is generally safest for the feedback giver to provide either validating feedback or positive illuminative feedback.

Here’s the problem with that: as recipients, the feedback that is most useful to us is feedback that illuminates opportunities to improve ourselves and our work—opportunities that we would not have seen ourselves. Opportunities that we cannot take without receiving that feedback.

Opportunities that we miss if people don’t give us the one kind of feedback that is not safe for them to give.

We have spoken about how to try to make it feel safe for folks to give us that kind of feedback.

But whether it’s really safe depends on our skill at receiving the surprising news that we need to get better at something.

When I was a coxswain, I shifted my mindset on feedback from avoiding it to embracing it by remembering this: people think what they think about you, so you might as well know what it is. By avoiding finding out what they think, we’re not somehow making them think more highly of us. We’re just cutting ourselves off from learning about those perceptions and finding ways to improve them.

As a manager or person of status in the workplace, know this: either your colleagues are sharing their concerns about this job, or they’re looking for another one. This is particularly true in tech, since the technocrat’s primary personal power lies in their scarcity relative to the need for them in their job at other companies.

If you’re having 1:1s and your reports aren’t complaining, that’s not a peaceful silence. It’s canaries in the coal mine.

So how do we receive negative illuminative feedback?

We talked about this a fair bit in the last post, so I won’t repeat. But the steps we discussed, which we covered in more detail in that post, were these:

1. Thank themA “thank you” signals “you are safe providing me feedback: I am unlikely to seek retaliation against you for sharing it with me.” This will make them more likely to share frank feedback with us in the future.

2. Explain how we will act: This allows us to get some credit for acting on the feedback even before others notice that we’ve changed.

An addendum here: we do not need a whole plan right away. We may need space, time, and additional information to decide how we will act. We can say that! “I am going to take some time to think about this, do some additional research, then come up with a plan of action. Would you like me to get back to you when I have made that plan?”

3. Follow through: act as we said we would. This sends the signal that we take this person and their judgment seriously.

4. Publicly praise the feedback giver: mention to others how the feedback giver has helped us improve at our mission-critical goals. We want this person rewarded for doing the thing we wanted them to do: help us make the changes we need to make to reach our goals.

Pitfalls to watch out for:

1. Bag of Sand: You’re sandbagging your response to feedback when you don’t respond to the feedback: that is, you’re missing steps 1 or 2 from your approach. Even if you are grateful for it and you still plan to implement it—in fact, even if you do implement it—the feedback giver may never give you this kind of feedback again. That’s because, in the critical moment after they gave you the feedback and were looking at you to determine if they will ever do it again, you told them “Either I don’t want this feedback, or at the very least, I don’t particularly care about it.” Whether that’s the reality or not, that’s the perception you created.

 2. Jerk: This is when, instead of doing step 4, you do the opposite: you seek retaliation against the feedback giver for giving you the feedback. This is an even stronger signal than sandbagging that they should never give you this kind of feedback again. When they have it again, it’s not coming to you. It’s going to your manager. Is that what you want?

3. The “teach me”: This is when, in step 2 or before doing step 3, you ask the feedback giver for their help in implementing the feedback. You want to think very carefully before you do this. Can you start by working on your own to find answers to how to deal with this? Can you do research, in books, on the internet, and with mentors, to find other folks who have improved on this? Are you opting, instead of doing this work, to make someone else responsible for spoon-feeding and educating you at personal cost to them for your benefit? Or can you go and do some work yourself first, and then, once you have illustrated that you are doing the work, get the feedback giver’s thoughts on your approach?

The answer is yes. Yes, you can do that.

That having been said, it is OK to ask for help.

Sometimes we need help with things, especially things that are hard. Receiving surprising news that we need to get better at something is hard.

We can ask for help. Just not from the feedback giver.

The feedback giver has already helped us. They have taken time out of their day that they could have spent working on the project that will get them promoted, and instead they have spent it showing us something we did not see about how we can advance. They have also undertaken personal risk to do this, because this kind of feedback is the most likely kind to result in blowback that hurts their careers.

The feedback giver has done more than enough, and much more than they had to.

Instead, I recommend choosing a processing buddy.

This can be your boss or a colleague of similar or greater structural power to you. It can be at your company, but I tend to prefer mentors and colleagues outside my company. This is because colleagues sometimes implicitly understand company history, political factors, or other environmental forces that contribute to this feedback or to my reaction. When my buddy is unaware of these environmental forces, then their response to the story I tell forces me to uncover and articulate them.

Your processing buddy should not be someone with less institutional or structural power than you. Managers, no conscripting your reports into this job. Straight white women, no enlisting your queer black colleague. Dudes: do not go find your lady friend to do this for you. The power dynamic and social precedent in these situations makes it too easy for “processing buddy” to turn into “person who I make responsible for my feelings.” That person is you. You are responsible for your feelings. Welcome to adulthood. I know, it sucks.

Depending on the feedback, you might have a few processing buddies. If the feedback is technical, for example, you might want a buddy who is more technically senior than you. If the feedback is about implicit racism, I recommend finding someone who shares your race. You want someone who is not likely to bear the burden created by whatever behavior you got feedback for.

Once you have identified a processing buddy, go to that person and ask them for their help. “Hi. I’m working on improving in my life and career, and I know that feedback can be a really important part of that process. But on occasion I get feedback that surprises and upsets me. I want to make sure I respond to this feedback in a productive fashion, because I know that it can help me. Would you be willing to talk through feedback like that with me so I can do that?”

What do I do with my processing buddy?

When you receive illuminative feedback that you need to improve at something, you do the following:

  1. Thank the feedback giver for their feedback.
  2. Explain how you will act on it: if you don’t know how you will act or you are upset and need some space, it is OK to say “I am going to do some additional research on this and process it with a colleague, then come up with a plan of action.”
  3. Sleep on the feedback. A good night’s sleep has prevented me from acting on many bad ideas in my life. Create this space for yourself to approach the feedback from a rational place.
  4. Google the feedback. Who else has received feedback like this? Is it common, or is it rare? What did they try? What resources did folks recommend to them? Is most of the bloggerature saying the same thing about this situation, or is there a lot of disagreement?
  5. Approach your processing buddy. Now you can approach your processing buddy and say “I received some feedback that surprised and upset me. I slept on it and I did some research. Do you have space to talk through it with me so I can get to a plan of action?” Notice that, even when we’re talking about the person who has previously agreed to help us, we do some things to help ourselves before we ask for their time and effort. Notice also that we ask if they have time and space for this right now. If we have power over this person, they cannot exactly say no, even if we think they can because we trust them or some baloney like that. That’s why your buddy has to have equal or greater power than you: so they can revoke consent to this emotional work without facing consequences from you.

When you talk to your processing buddy, it is your processing buddy’s job to listen to you without validating your animosity or agreeing that you have a right to retaliate. You get to be upset…at first. Being upset has its place. However, you do not get to act out because you are upset. If you do, you risk never getting feedback like this again. If you do, your colleagues will decide it’s unsafe to give you feedback, and the next time they get sick of you they’ll quit or call a meeting with your boss. Not good for you.

It helps if your processing buddy has also googled your feedback beforehand. That can prevent you both from ending up in some embarrassing, uneducated places. For example, suppose a black woman tells you that your comments in the kitchen about mammies are racist. You google it and you see that there is history behind this kind of thing, but you go to your processing buddy and your processing buddy has no idea. You could accidentally find yourself in a situation where your buddy is all “Oh, I’ve never heard of that, sounds like hypersensitivity to me,” and that is both a) untrue and b) not helping you in the long run, even if it makes you feel better in the short run.

Ideally, your processing buddy can help you think through the feedback. The two of you together can answer some important questions:

  • Where did you learn/develop the behavior that gave rise to the perception of you represented in this feedback?
  • If this feedback seems out of left field and totally surprising to you, why is that?
  • What can you do to address the underlying causes of the behavior?
  • What is your specific plan, moving forward, to act on this feedback?
  • What is the appropriate way for you to share this plan with the feedback giver?

It could be a tough conversation, but when you allow yourself to be honest and vulnerable on this topic with someone you trust, you might find the feedback hurting a lot less by the end of the session.

Conclusion

The big knot in the center of the tangle of frustrations with feedback is how people receive it. We can only control how people receive feedback under one condition: we are the receiver.

In order to frame feedback in a way that is useful for us, we can divide it into two types. Instead of positive and negative feedback, we have these:

  • validation: agrees with our assessment of ourselves
  • illumination: feedback that disagrees with our assessment of ourselves.

Illumination is the most valuable feedback for us in most cases since it contains the information that we otherwise would not know about. However, it is also the most dangerous type of feedback to give, because recipients tend to react the worst to surprising news that they need to do better at something.

So how do we, as recipients, make sure that we respond well? We remember, first, that people think this, whether we know it or not. So when they tell us, they go out of their way to give us a chance to fix it. This demonstrates some level of trust (or at least benefit of the doubt), and it is in our best interests to reward that rather than retaliate against it.

We can follow some steps in response to feedback:

  1. Thank the giver.
  2. Explain how we will act.
  3. Follow through.
  4. Praise the giver in public.

We can mess this up in a few ways:

  1. Sandbagging: skipping steps 1 or 2.
  2. Being a Jerk: retaliating instead of doing step 4.
  3. “Teach-me”: asking the feedback giver to teach us how to do 2 and/or 3 instead of seeking support elsewhere.

The feedback giver has done enough, but we can ask for support elsewhere. We can do that by finding a processing buddy of equal or greater institutional and structural power to us. When we receive feedback, sleep on it, research it, and then still want to talk about it, we can go to our processing buddy to work through our feelings about the feedback and how to translate it into action.

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Anger and Sadness in the Workplace

Can we rethink imposter syndrome?

Advance your Tech Career: Why make yourself replaceable, and how?

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