Leveling Up Skill #16: Operationalizing Feedback

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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.

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

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

We’ve talked about what to do when we receive surprising news that we need to get better at something.

That feedback is hard to hear. We have to remember: we’d rather receive this feedback directly than indirectly through a boss or a work catastrophe. People will only give us feedback directly, though, if they feel safe doing it.

So signaling safety is our top priority in the moment when we receive feedback that we do not like. 

What about after that? How do we go from feedback to action plan?

We can start by asking ourselves a few questions.

 1. Is there a pattern here?

If we’re lucky, the feedback strings together multiple individual examples to trace a pattern in our behavior over time. Usually, though, it only contains one of those pieces.

It might reference a single individual incident—leaving us with the urge to write off the feedback as a “one time thing” that we don’t need to worry about.

Or it might say we have some pattern or tendency without referencing individual incidents—encouraging us to write off the feedback as “too vague” to be useful or credible.

But if we write off the feedback, we’re protecting our emotions in the short term at the expense of our own improvement. It’s not the feedback giver’s responsibility to marshal all the evidence to help us reach our own career goals. That’s our job. The first step is to make at least a cursory effort to fill in the missing pieces.

If we received feedback about an individual incident, then we can ask ourselves: in the past few months, have there been any other occasions when I did something like this?

Spoiler alert: the answer is yes. To reasons for this. 1. Our behavior follows patterns: we don’t usually act erratically. 2. This feedback is not safe to give. So even if someone addresses it as one incident or some vague idea, chances are they have witnessed multiple specific incidents, and they decided not to run the risk of saying anything about it until a few times in.

Why are we looking for additional incidents? Is it just to make ourselves feel worse? No. We want to pull together as much data as possible to help us answer the next question.

 2. Is there a cause?

Some folks prefer to work through a question like this with their processing buddy. I prefer to work through this one myself, usually in my journal.

That’s because I want the opportunity to acknowledge causes that I am not proud of.

For example, maybe I’ve failed to listen to my coworker’s ideas over the past six months because I am jealous of that coworker for getting a promotion I thought I deserved.

I want to be able to write that down. Once I acknowledge a cause like that, I have a much easier time addressing the behavior that stems from it. However, I still don’t want to be judged for my jealousy. So I keep it to myself, inside my journal, where I can work on it without sharing it.

The cause of my patterns is not always some emotion I’m not proud of. Sometimes it’s just an absence of knowledge that I can fix with study, or it’s new information about a coworker that I can take into account when I interact with them moving forward. But I want to be ready for the cause to be something that makes me deeply uncomfortable, because I need the ability to face that in order to do anything about it.

This gets easier over time. And once again, the point here is not to make ourselves feel worse. Instead, understanding those causes allows us to answer the next question.

 3. How can I repair, or go around, the cause?

This is where we start to build a specific plan to act on our feedback.

Suppose I failed to catch a bug because I missed an opportunity to test for a certain side effect. I can turn to books, courses, mentors, coworkers, or deliberate practice to improve my testing strategy for the future.

Or suppose I got frustrated one day and spoke shortly with a coworker who didn’t deserve it. I can address the misdirected frustration that caused my outburst by picking up some breathing techniques to calm myself down at tough times.

My solutions don’t always have to be self-flagellatory. I once determined that, when certain particularly frustrating things happen at work, the best course of action for me is to get up, leave my desk, and go for a walk or purchase a nice coffee. This is something that I enjoy doing anyway, so I managed to find a coping strategy that did not feel like a punishment.

What about when the cause we’re working with is one that makes us deeply uncomfortable. How, for example, could we deal with our jealousy that makes us not want to listen to our coworker?

In these cases, I think it helps to write a list of all the possible solutions we can think of—including the ones that we wouldn’t consider “honorable” or “good enough.”  For example, for my coworker, I might construct a list of possible solutions that looks something like this:

  • Avoid meetings with the coworker and attempt to recuse myself from projects where they are involved
  • Talk to my manager about why that person was promoted instead of me, so I better understand the situation that I see as unfair
  • Convince myself that I have nothing to lose by listening to my coworker, and I don’t have to like someone to learn from them
  • Convince myself that I can even learn from bad ideas because I can hear other people’s objections, and if the idea gets implemented anyway, I can learn techniques that might be effective in getting my own, better ideas enacted

This list of solutions doesn’t exactly make me look like the bigger person, does it? But it gives me a starting point for moving in the right direction so that folks at least no longer see me as the person who doesn’t listen to my coworker.

 4. How should I follow up with the feedback giver?

In the last post, we went over a few steps for responding to feedback, including this one:

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?”

That was before we came up with a plan of action. Now that we have a plan of action, let’s consider whether we should follow up with the person who gave us this feedback. Ultimately, the choice about whether or not to do this depends on us, our relationship with the feedback giver, and the gravity of the feedback, among other things. I don’t have a hard and fast rule about whether and when to do this: I only notice that in some cases it seems like a good idea and in other cases it “feels weird.” For now, let’s say it’s case by case.

Conclusion

We know that, when we receive surprising news that we need to get better at something, our top priority is to demonstrate that we are a safe recipient. But after that, how to we go about acting on the feedback so we can get closer to our goals?

We can take the feedback we received and ask ourselves a few questions about it:

  1. Is there a pattern here?
  2. Is there a cause?
  3. How can I repair, or go around, the cause?
  4. How should I follow up with the feedback giver?

These questions give us a path to collect information and examine our choices while being gentle with ourselves. They also allow us to figure out what we should do next so we can move forward with an action plan.

If you liked this post, you might also like:

The rest of the leveling up series

What software teams can learn from improv

On professionalism in tech

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