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Rules to Better Giving and Taking Feedback - 20 Rules

Before giving feedback to someone, always ask yourself:

"Is the feedback I am about to give actually going to help them in the future? ...or am I venting?”

  1. Communication - Do you know how to take feedback/criticism (even if it’s not your fault)?

    In any job, you will most likely at some point face some criticism. Someone may be telling you that you’ve done something wrong or just expressing displeasure because you didn’t do something they wanted.

    The best way to take this is to reply to the person and tell them the following 3 A's.

    The 3 A’s: Acknowledge, Apologize, Act

    Acknowledge - The first part of good customer service is acknowledging that something happened. If you don't acknowledge the pain, then another person won't know if you agree or not.

    Apologize - Apologize if you messed up… or even if you didn’t. Just be clear you are sorry for their situation. E.g. "I am sorry for the downtime you have been experiencing today"

    Action - Lastly, explain how you will take action now, and in the future.

    Even if you've been wrongly accused of something, you should still show you understand the other person's frustration and demonstrate initiative. Always have a view of the future and the big picture.

    Warning: When wrongly accused of something, most people get stuck on defending themselves, where customers would prefer to hear you care, will take any ownership of the problem, and tell them your plan asap.

    Next is to see if you can avoid it happening in the first place – you could explain the new steps in the process you’ll add or simply say: "I'll be more diligent testing in the future".

    Figure: Make sure you know how to take criticism well

    Defensive behaviour
    Figure: Active listening can help with communication issues

    Video

  2. Do you do a retrospective after an activity ends (aka take feedback)?

    Scrum processes are useful for more than just software development - it’s a great tool for organizing and optimizing all kinds of work, from presentations to meetings to events, sales, and more. A very important part of the Scrum process is the Sprint Retrospective Meeting. It is basically feedback, an important commodity to any professional who wants to improve their game.

    You should get into the practice of having a retro for most tasks. It’s a great way to get feedback while it’s still fresh in people’s minds, and it lets you know what you need to change to be even more successful next time. The guys at SSW jokingly say "you can't eat dinner with Adam Cogan without a retro about the meal".

    Get it in their mind at the kick-off

    Let everyone know from the start that we do a “retro”, and what it entails. This way, they will know to be mindful during the event/task/presentation.

    It is very important that atendees take notes, which will serve as reminders of what happened during an activity. There will be things they like and things they don't.

    Then at the end, remind people: “In the spirit of Scrum, let’s do a retro”. This is the time to discuss what was good and what needs to be improved with people in the room or with the presenter.

    The 3 questions

    Start with “What went well?” - everyone must say one thing.

    Then move onto, “What didn’t go so well?” This part can be painful but it’s important - we need to know these things so that we can make improvements.

    Finally, we ask, “What could we do differently next time?”

    Adam: How was the presentation? Eddie: Yeah, it was alright.

    Bad example: This line of questioning doesn’t provide useful feedback

    Adam: What went well with your presentation? Eddie: People seemed to really relate to the case studies I presented. Adam: What didn’t go so well? Eddie: My demo didn’t work. That was really embarrassing. Adam: What would you do differently next time? Eddie: I’d definitely get there a bit earlier so I’d have time to troubleshoot that pesky demo on their wifi! That would also give me extra time to talk to the audience so I could find out what problems they’re hoping to solve with my session - it’s a good way to get more case studies!

    Make it actionable

    After you've done the retro, it's important to agree on a path forward so that change is put into effect.

    Create a list of action points and send off an email or a PBI for each one. Then mention in the retro email all the emails and tasks which have been sent off.

    This process ensures that each person has a single task to action, and makes accountability clear.

    ::: greyboxAction Points (email subjects)

    1. Melbourne Brainstorming 2023 Retro - Brady Action Points
    2. Melbourne Brainstorming 2023 Retro - William L Action Points
    3. Melbourne Brainstorming 2023 Retro - Piers Action Points
    4. Melbourne Brainstorming 2023 Retro - Adam Action Points ::: ::: good Figure: Good Example - Mentioning the email subjects for each action point decided on in a retro :::
  3. Do you know not to assume the worst of peoples intentions?

    Don’t start thinking that some conspiracy is behind someone's actions.

    American writer William James (born 1842) said:

    "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity"

    Brian Harry (in 2018) said something similar in Giving feedback:

    "I’ve observed that humans have an inherent tendency to want to ascribe motive – to determine why someone did something."

    “Joe left me out of that important conversation because he was trying to undermine me.”

    Bad example 

    Any time you find yourself filling in the because clause, stop. You don't know why someone does anything. That is locked up securely in their head. When filling in that blank people insert some negative reason that's worse than reality. So, when giving feedback, stick to what you can see.

    “Joe, you left me out of that important conversion.  I felt undermined by that.  Why did you do it?”

    Good example

    In this example, I articulate exactly what I saw happen, how it made me feel and ask Joe to explain to me why. Joe may dispute that he left me out – that's fairly factual and we can discuss evidence and Joe can't dispute how I felt, at least not credibly. Try as hard as you can to stick to things you personally observed and stay away from asserting motive. Have a genuine conversation designed to help you better understand each other’s perspective and what each of you can do better in the future.

  4. Communication - Do you know the nice way to correct someone?

    When you notice that someone has done something that could have been done better, make sure you are tactful in your correction/suggestions. When you are giving someone a correction or tip, try to include an URL to back up your point.

    For example, if someone sends you an email that should be an appointment:

    Subject: Meeting

    Hi Guys,

    Let's meet on Thursday at 3 PM

    Figure: Someone requests a meeting using a normal email message

    You could reply in different ways:

    Subject: RE: Meeting

    Hi Mary,

    FYI - an appointment would have been better. See rule in Rules to better Email

    Figure: Bad Example - Just pointing the mistake

    Subject RE: Meeting

    Hi Mary,

    I noticed you did not send an appointment for this meeting. I hope you don't mind, but I have gone ahead and created one so we don't all have to set a reminder individually.

    Have a look at our Rules to better Email. We have a number of helpful standards like this if you're interested.

    Figure: Good Example - Being proactive to solve the problem + pointing the mistake in a friendly and polite manner

  5. Do you know to not give anchors for getting feedback?

    Anchors are prompts or questions that guide the person providing feedback towards specific areas.

    When it comes to requesting feedback, it's natural to want to guide the conversation by providing anchors that direct the conversation towards specific topics/elements. While this approach may seem helpful, it can actually hinder the quality of feedback received.

    For example, if you were testing a new website, you might give an anchor such as "What do you think of the color scheme?" to direct the feedback towards the visual design. This approach can limit the feedback you receive by steering the conversation away from potentially valuable insights.

    One of the most effective ways to get high-quality feedback is to observe how people use/do something.

    For example, if you're testing a new product, you might watch someone use it and take notes on what they struggle with or what they seem to enjoy. This approach allows you to get feedback that is unbiased and focused on the user experience.

    Video: How to Test a Frying Pan at the Store? 🤣 (15 sec)

    Another effective approach is to ask open-ended questions that allow the person providing feedback to offer their thoughts freely.

    By taking this approach, you can receive more valuable and constructive feedback that will ultimately lead to better outcomes.

    Written work

    When requesting feedback on emails, it's best to get the person providing feedback to read the email themselves, rather than reading it to them.

    This allows them to read at their own pace and absorb the information fully, without feeling rushed or distracted by your tone of voice or inflection.

  6. Do you ask open-ended questions?

    The goal of any outbound call is to get the person on the other end of the line involved. The way to do this is to employ a knockout combo. If you were a boxer, you'd follow up a jab with a cross hook and an uppercut! (the good ole one-two-three knockout!). If you're a telemarketer you follow the "Yes Ladder" up with open-ended questions.

    Here's an example of the kind of question you DON'T want to ask:

    Question: Do you know a lot about .NET?

    Figure: Bad example

    This question is a show stopper! It's too easy for prospects to give a one-word response. If they say no, then you've effectively dug a really deep hole for yourself and it's tough to recover from this position to close the prospect. If they say 'yes', then that's not too bad but they're probably sick of hearing you speak and are waiting for something to wake them up. If you give your callers a sniff of how to finish the call quickly then like a lion to its prey, they'll pounce: "No, not interested!".

    For your jab and cross hook combo use questions one, two and three...
    Then your knockout is going to be something like:

    Question:  So where do you see yourself fitting in with the move towards .NET for the next few years?

    Figure: Good example

    This question is great because of the following reasons:

    • Stays on the topic
    • It's likely the prospect has thought about this
    • The answer is likely to give you some good points to feed off or identify what doesn't interest them
    • The question can't be answered with a quick yes or no and the prospect must think about how they really feel/think. This increases their involvement and investment into the conversation bringing you a step closer to a sale
  7. Communication - Do you avoid shutting down every feedback example?

    Brian Harry said in his blog:

    "Examples – When giving feedback, it’s often useful to use examples. Examples help make the feedback concrete. But, don’t allow the conversation to turn into a refutation of every example. I've been in conversations where the person I'm talking with wants to go through every example I have and explain why my interpretation is wrong. Be open to being wrong but don’t let it turn into point/counterpoint. Examples are only examples to support your feedback."

    When receiving a generic criticism, it's natural to sometimes ask for examples to help you understand what type of behaviour is being alluded to, but be careful to not then become defensive or fixated on justifying that instance.

    If you feel you have some vital context to explain about that one example, make sure, as a minimum you end by saying "...but I do take your point in general."

    Jane: I feel like you never reply to my emails, but I see on emails I am cc'ed on your reply to emails from others.

    Bob: Really? Can you give an example?

    (pause)

    Jane: The one about XXX

    Bob: I didn't reply because I saw Tiago reply.

    (pause)

    Jane: And that other one about YYY.

    Bob: I didn't reply because I thought you're upset and I felt it was a sensitive topic.

    (pause)

    Jane: I can't think of any other but it does happen

    Figure: Bad example - Jane runs out of arguments and walks away deflated

    Jane: I feel like you never reply to my emails, but I see on emails I am cc'ed on your reply to emails from others.

    Bob: Really? Can you give an example?

    (pause)

    Jane: The one about XXX

    Bob: I didn't reply because I saw Tiago reply... however, I do take your point in general. I will try to do better for the next week. Let me know if I've improved.

    Figure: Good example - Jane feels heard

    This will make the person who's giving you the feedback feel heard and that you have taken the criticism constructively. If you are also able to proactively suggest alternative behaviour for the future that would work for everyone, then you will build trust.

    SSW Team 2
    Figure: It's important that the other person knows that they've been heard

    Alternatively, to demonstrate the feedback was understood correctly and to reaffirm your own understanding, it can be useful to offer a brief summary of the feedback provided and any necessary changes in an email or IM to the person. This will in-turn ensure you don’t overlook any feedback when attending to it and the person providing the feedback knows if there may have been any confusion, before the task is completed again.

  8. Do you know to create a safe space instead of jumping into feedback?

    One of the biggest mistakes people make when giving feedback is giving it when one or the other is stressed, angry, frustrated, or in a hurry – and this is one of the worst times to give feedback because people aren’t in a place to hear it and really think about it. Make sure the recipient of the feedback is in a safe space and prepared to take the feedback (aka their "listening ears" are on), rather than just rattling off everything that’s on your chest the moment you next speak to them.

    Giving feedback should be done in a safe space, so as not to seem like you are directly attacking the feedback recipient. The way you word and give feedback is important and should be considered.

    Consider starting with the following:

    "Hey, can I share something with you?"

    "Hey, have you got time now for a retro?"

    Then start with the good…  before the bad .

    Brian Harry said in his blog:

    "Don’t try to give feedback when you are angry or frustrated. Take the time to digest what you need to say – to separate your frustration from an objective assessment of what happened. Have a calm conversation about what you observed and what could be done differently."

  9. Communication - Do you offer specific feedback?

    Every day you will probably come across something that could be improved. If you're not making improvements, you're going backwards. But don't make suggestions or criticisms without being specific.

    "Do you know our sales process is pretty bad, what are you going to do about it?"

    Figure: Bad Example - Nonspecific criticism

    When you find a problem, pinpoint it directly (and recommend a solution):

    "The current sales process is pretty bad. It does not ensure that a prospect is followed up by a phone call within 7 days of an initial meeting. Please create a workflow in CRM, have it tested by the sales manager, and then we will email the sales team to inform them about the improvement."

    Figure: Good Example - Offering criticism in this way ensures that something will happen to fix the problem

    "Not done, please try again"

    Figure: Bad Example - If they don't immediately know what to fix, this might end up in their "too hard" bucket and never get done

    "Not done, you missed the second requirement"

    The specific missed requirement lets them quickly fix the mistake

    Of course, there are times that you can 'feel' that a problem exists, but you may not even be sure how are unable to pinpoint it or can't think of a good solution. In this instance you should speak to someone who you think may be able to identify a solution, come to an agreement, and then request that action be taken.

    When criticism is generic, it is impossible to know what to fix.

  10. Communication - Do you start and end with positive feedback? (aka The 'Sandwich' rule)

    Avoid curt emails when correcting people. The sandwich rule approach is an effective way to provide feedback to other team members and clients.

    1. Start with positive feedback
    2. Give your recommendations for improvement
    3. End with some additional positive feedback (you may repeat #1)

    This optimistic approach makes the receiver digest the feedback in a better way, allowing you to maintain a healthy relationship with your team members and clients.

    Figure: Bad example - Doing the opposite of the Sandwich rule

  11. Do you utilize a positive tone when interacting with clients?

    A sentence can be expressed in various ways, and it holds significance to utilize positive language when communicating with clients. Rather than stating "I will NOT do X until you do Y", a more constructive approach would be to say "When you do Y, I will be happy to proceed with X".

    We will not be able to develop the report until you are happy with the mockup.

    Figure: Bad example - Negative tone

    We will develop the report once you are happy with and have signed off the mockup.

    Figure: Good example - Positive tone

  12. Communication - Do you avoid swearing at work?

    Swearing is not acceptable at work. People should not get comfortable with bad language as the work environment would suffer. You should be especially careful when giving and receiving feedback.

    Some good deterrents are:

    • A swear jar
    • To enforce 10 push-ups for every infraction (recommended - this is the same concept as a swear jar but also promotes fitness).

    gordon ramsay
    Figure: Gordon Ramsay - The only man who can get away with professional swearing

  13. Do you know that people misunderstand sarcasm in text?

    According to Sydney Morning Herald's "Flame emails missing the mark":

    "The senders of email messages expected their partners to correctly interpret their tone nearly 80% of the time, but in fact, they only scored just over 50%... Those attempting to interpret the message believed they had scored 90% accuracy".

    Because there is no "tone of voice" in an email, sarcasm can easily be misinterpreted by the receiver. You can use a smiley face or emoji to soften it up a bit.

    Bad example: This is bad because it may seem like John is being reprimanded, even though the sender may just be giving him a "heads up" for next time

    Good example: Be friendly by adding a greeting. When in doubt, use a smiley face at the end of the comment

  14. Do you use ‘off the record’ conversations when appropriate?

    Typically, when encountering undesirable behavior, the usual approach involves providing direct feedback. However, there are occasions when a more effective method can benefit both the individual and their immediate supervisor.

    An option is to request an "off the record" conversation with the manager, during which you can share your observations about the employee they oversee. You can suggest that if they agree, they could address the matter with the person in question.

    This approach helps the manager develop their observation skills while also safeguarding the employee from appearing unfavorable or facing repercussions from their superior. If the employee accepts the feedback and demonstrates improved actions in subsequent meetings, you can then publicly commend them during the retrospective.

  15. Do you speak up about unfairness?

    Throughout your career, you might come across a scenario that feels unfair. In these situations, communication is vital for resolving conflict and making all parties feel content with the result. Let's take a look at some scenarios that may be perceived as unfair:

    • Someone might get a promotion when you felt you deserved it more
    • A group of employees might be left out of a public yearly bonus
    • A colleague might be put on a project that someone else is more suited to

    There are 3 perspectives to consider and each has different strategies for maintaining a good working environment.

    Manager

    Managers are human, and sometimes don't make the right decisions.

    • Avoid unfair situations - Steer clear of arbitrary decisions that could be perceived as unfair. For example, if you are going to choose who the best employee is, you better have numbers to back it up.
    • Communicate decisions - By communicating the reasons for every decision you set the right expectations for employees and prevent them from feeling frustrated.
    • Give a heads up - If you know someone might feel a situation is unfair, give them a heads up ahead of time.

    Receiver

    Getting an accolade or present is great but consider your colleagues.

    • Remain humble - You might feel proud of your new accomplishment and that's awesome. However, make sure you don't advertise or boast about it because that may cause resentment among your colleagues and foster a bad working environment.

    Neglected individual

    Missing out on an award can suck. What should you do?

    • Ask questions - Finding out the reasons for decisions will help you understand why it happened. That knowledge will be valuable to you in the future.
    • Speak up - If you feel things are unfair make it known tactfully. If it is bothering you, the longer you wait, the worse it becomes. Speaking up will give the person making the decision a chance to explain or rectify the issue.
    • Be reasonable - Everybody has their day of sunshine. Even if it doesn't totally make sense to you. It would be awesome if you can be genuine and privately send a congrats or even better do it publicly.

      "Always clap for your friends, even if their dreams come true before yours."

    Video: Two Monkeys Were Paid Unequally: Excerpt from Frans de Waal's TED Talk (2 min)

    Video: Speaking Up about Unfairness - with Adam Cogan and Jean Thirion (9 min)

  16. Do you find the positive in the decisions?

    Video: Fairness and Helping Each Other - 10 tips with Adam Cogan (8 min)

    Everyone wants a place where people help each other. Unfairness can really impact people in the workplace.

    It all starts with how you approach things, some people are better than others at dealing with unfair situations.

    Lets assume one of these common scenarios:

    • New great project – someone is assigned to it... someone is unhappy
    • New promotion – someone gets it, someone else is unhappy

    These might seem like unfair situations. People don’t want to be unfair... friends don't... bosses don't.

    Here are 10 tips for how you can manage unfairness.

    1. Gotta speak up - See Do you know to speak up?
    2. Happiness is relative - Unhappiness can come from comparisons with others. Instead compare yourself with your day yesterday.
    3. Get one thing in life, lose another - Can't have everything. When you are saying 'Yes' to one thing, you are saying 'No' to another.
    4. The 'Happiness Equation' Happiness = Reality - Expectations.
      If you want to be happier, then:

      • Reduce your expectations
      • Increase your reality
    5. Consider luck - Everyone wants to succeed in life. But what causes some of us to be more successful than others? Is it really down to skill and strategy - or something altogether more unpredictable? Sometimes peoples success is simply luck. Read the book "Fooled by Randomness"
    6. Compete with yourself by embracing Scrum – Competing with yourself is the best approach. The same with teams. In software, Scrum is the best way of working as you only compare yourself... or your team with what you did before. Using empirical data is the way to go.
    7. Understand intentions - Try to see yourself in others shoes.
      Understand that people don't want to be unfair. It is common to be assuming the wrong stuff.
    8. Be the 'squeaky wheel'

      "A squeaky wheel gets the most oil."

      Ask questions, and you will understand even better the logic your friend or boss is using. Bonus they now know this is a topic you have interest in... so they'll give you extra information.

    9. Have attainable ambition - You need expectations to be realistic enough to push you, not so much that it makes you unhappy.
      Overly ambitious people are often unhappy... they never get there! Sometimes people find they are never rich or successful enough...
    10. Celebrate other people's wins - Be at peace and in a place where you are pushing each other up, rather than climbing over each other. Everybody gets their days of sunshine. When others achieve a goal, be happy for them, send a nice message, 'like' their posts, etc.

      "Always clap for your friends, even if their dreams come true before yours."

    Do the above and you can have a culture of helping yourself and helping others.

  17. Forms - Do you ask the value they received?

    Microsoft Forms and Google Forms provide an invaluable way of collecting data from your employees, users and other stakeholders. It's important to understand if their experience of providing this feedback is a good or a bad one.

    Therefore, create a last question where they rate the form's questions from their perspective. That way you've got metrics to make better forms in the future.

    Let's take a look...

    There are 2 steps to getting objective data about forms.

    1 - Measure the value

    The best way to measure value is simply to ask your users. Put a question at the bottom of your form and ask them to give it a rating out of 5.

    askthevalueofyourform
    Figure: Add a question asking your users for the value of the form (make sure the question is always the same)

    For reporting, word this question the same way each time so that you can easily consolidate the results in a reporting platform like Power BI.

    measurethevalueofyourformblurred
    Figure: Using Power BI you can check what value you are getting out of your forms

    2 - Educate the users

    However, simply asking the question is not enough. Most people will answer a form with 4 or 5 by default, so it is important to educate your users and let them know to try and objectively rate it relative to past forms.

    In particular, new people are enthusiastic and want to give everything 5 out of 5. They are often surprised when they find out this isn't helpful

    The general guidance should be to compare the value against previous entries. For example, the scale should be something like:

    • Terrible - 1
    • Poor - 2
    • OK - 3
    • Good - 4
    • Outstanding - 5

    If you educate the users about this, your data is going to be much more reflective of the actual value each form gives.

  18. Communication - Do you know how (and when) to offer unsolicited feedback?

    When you see an opportunity for someone to improve, either professionally or personally, it's tempting to immediately offer them some advice or feedback. But if they haven't asked, you need to approach it carefully and considerately; and, most importantly, ask yourself, am I doing this for them, or for me?

    Video: How and when to offer unsolicited feedback | Matt Goldman & Ulysses Maclaren | SSW Rules (7 min)

    Feedback is critical in order to grow and improve, both personally and professionally, so we all like to receive constructive feedback. In some cases, like during a retro, we openly invite feedback; but other times it can be unexpected, which can often lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Do you know when, how, and even if, to offer unsolicited feedback?

    Why offer unsolicited feedback?

    The most important question to start with is why? Sometimes we can be excited to share something with someone, but it's critical to pause and reflect on your motivation. Are you doing this for their benefit, or for yours?

    While it can be exciting to offer feedback, especially when you've got a great idea that can help someone improve, or when it's to resolve something that is negatively impacting you, the hard truth is that, more often than not, it's best to keep it to yourself. As written by Shannon Martin in Psych Central, we should stop giving unsolicited advice.

    However, sometimes it is the right thing to do. The best way to determine this, as with most things, is to start by defining your goals and outcome. Once you've determined what these are, and you know what you want to achieve, it's easier to approach it with confidence and be certain that offering the feedback is the right thing to do. And equally sometimes this can help you to realize that the best approach is to let it go.

    The honesty myth

    "I'm just being honest" is a popular self-delusion. There is a myth that being honest is morally superior to any other course of action, or that the honesty cancels out any other negative aspects of an interaction. None of this is true, and it's often used as an excuse by people to criticize others.

    Note: Criticizing someone is not the same as offering constructive feedback.

    Kristy Sachse gives a talk on shame (within the context of shaming others), and one of her key points is illustrated by the 'shame burrito'. It shows various ingredients being used to shame someone, but the key is the 'tortilla of truth', which is used to wrap it all up in the excuse of "I'm just being honest".

    shame burrito
    Figure: Kristy Sachse presenting her talk about shame at NDC Sydney in 2019. Here she shows a slide with her 'shame burrito', where a 'tortilla of truth' is used to wrap belittling others in an excuse of "just being honest".

    Similarly, the following post crops up on Reddit around once every year:

    brutal honesty
    Figure: A recurring Reddit theme, stating that people who like brutal honesty are usually more interested in the brutality than the honesty. From: https://www.reddit.com/r/Showerthoughts/comments/379uk5/people_who_are_brutally_honest_generally_enjoy/

    If you're about to provide someone some feedback, reflect on your motivation. If you detect even a hint of "brutal honesty" anywhere near it, it's a good sign you shouldn't do it.

    Tip: 'Brutal honesty' is meant for yourself, not for others.

    When to offer feedback - The 3 questions

    Even if your motivation is pure, and the feedback that you want to offer someone is genuine, it still doesn't necessarily mean that providing that feedback is the right way to go. Before you offer the feedback, you should ask yourself 3 questions; or more accurately, 1 question 3 different ways.

    Do I need to say this?

    Sometimes, no matter how good your intentions, and no matter how good the advice, you're just not the right person to provide it. If you don't already have an established relationship with someone, your first introduction to them should not be criticism, no matter how constructive. Equally, if you don't know someone that well, unless they've invited feedback, it can be best not to give it.

    Even if you do know someone well, the dynamic of that relationship can impact whether providing feedback is a good idea. For example, I once saw someone chewing a CFO's ear off at a Christmas Party explaining how he should be running the organization. The ideas may well have been sound, but the feedback was not appropriate.

    Finally, there may already be people in place to provide this feedback. It's likely you weren't the only person to spot the improvements you want to suggest, and it's possible that other people closer to the issue or the person are better placed to provide this feedback.

    Do I need to say this?

    This is perhaps the most important question. Will it negatively impact you to not provide the feedback? While there may be circumstances where providing unsolicited feedback to someone is the right thing to do, the default situation is that it isn't. So if you don't need to say it, then you almost certainly shouldn't.

    Do I need to say this?

    If you have suggestions or feedback for someone, you should think carefully about whether it's the right message, and whether it's being delivered in the right way.

    For example, comments on someone's appearance are never ok. As an example, let's say you've just finished an important client meeting, and you didn't feel that your colleague presented themselves as well as they should have. It's never ok to tell someone that they are dressed poorly, or that you don't like their haircut, or anything along those lines.

    If they have not adhered to a company dress code, it's ok to point that out, but beyond that is none of your business. It's also important to acknowledge that you don't know what may be happening in that person's life outside of work, and any number of factors could be involved.

    Note: It's important to ensure that any company dress code is lawful and non-discriminatory.

    How to offer feedback

    As noted above, feedback is critical and necessary for growth. While the above guidelines help to sieve out feedback which is not appropriate, sometimes offering feedback, even unsolicited, is the right thing to do. Knowing how to do this is essential.

    When feedback has been invited, it's easy to offer it up, but when it hasn't, the best thing to do is ask.

    :::greybox

    Hey Bob, have you got a few minutes to discuss some ideas I have about x? I have some suggestions, you may already be across them so if you have the time I'd love to chat to you about them. :::

    Phrasing things correctly is important too. For example, let's say you watched an interview, and you noticed that the interviewer was telling anecdotes more than they were eliciting them from the interviewee.

    :::bad

    Bob, I saw your interview and it was terrible! All you did was talk about yourself, you didn't give your guest a chance to get a word in edgewise! :::

    :::good

    Hey Bob, I really enjoyed watching your interview with [guest] last week. You told some cool stories, and it really whet my appetite for more about the topic. Is there any chance of [guest] coming back? I'd love to hear more from them next time about their stories. :::

    If feedback is personal

    Sometimes the feedback you might want to give addresses an aspect of someone’s self rather than their work. For example, someone might be eating with their mouth open in a meeting and it looks unprofessional. If the feedback is personal like this, it's best to use a private chat or wait for a private setting to address it. This way, the recipient can accept the feedback without external pressure or judgment.

    private criticism
    Figure: Example of criticism in a private Teams chat

    For more information, see our rule Do you know the nice way to correct someone?

  19. Communication - Do you know how to accept unsolicited feedback?

    If you've ever felt stung by poorly delivered feedback, it can be tempting to ignore it or, worse, get defensive. But harsh criticism can also be a catalyst for growth. Do you let good feedback go to waste because of how it's delivered?

    Feedback is a powerful tool for growth and improvement in both professional and personal spheres. As much as delivering feedback effectively is an art, so is receiving it. The real challenge is handling feedback that arrives unexpectedly or is not delivered tactfully. How do you look for signals in the noise?

    Distinguish the Message from the Messenger

    When feedback comes your way, it's crucial to separate the message from the messenger and the delivery method. It's all too easy to dismiss valuable feedback from someone we may not like or respect, and conversely, to uncritically accept feedback from those we admire. However, from your point of view as the receiver, it's the message that's important, not the messenger or the delivery method.

    The envelope a letter comes in doesn't define its content. Badly delivered feedback should not be disregarded

    Feedback as a Tool, Not a Weapon

    When received with an open mind, feedback can serve as a reflective tool that illuminates aspects of ourselves we might not be aware of or choose to ignore. View feedback as a tool for growth rather than a weapon of criticism.

    Constructive Reception of Feedback – A Guide

    1. Active Listening: Stay present and focused on understanding the message, rather than formulating a response.
    2. Seek Clarification: If the feedback is vague or confusing, ask for more specific examples.
    3. Take a Pause: Allow yourself time to process the feedback before crafting a response.
    4. Look for the Grain of Truth: Even poorly delivered feedback can hold valuable insights. Try to extract the core message from the delivery (see the quote above from Brady).

    Embracing Resilience

    Feedback, especially when negative or not smoothly delivered, can challenge our resilience. Initial emotional reactions are normal, but the key is in how we manage these feelings and what we decide to do with the feedback.

    You have probably heard the proverb "don't take criticism from someone you wouldn't go to for advice." It's important to ignore unconstructive criticism, but this doesn't mean disregarding all negative feedback. Equally, this isn't advice to simply discard feedback from someone you don't like.

    Tip: Beware of falling victim to the ad hominem fallacy. Just because you don't like someone, or something they've said, doesn't mean that their point is not valid.

    At the same time, just because someone holds a position of authority or is someone you respect, it does not automatically make their feedback valid or beneficial. It's essential to assess feedback on its own merits, regardless of the source.

    Tip: Don't fall into the trap of the appeal to authority. Just because someone is in a position of authority, doesn't mean everything they say is right, especially if they are not an authority on the specific topic in question.

    When it comes to feedback, you can't control how feedback is provided or by whom, but you can control how you respond, and how you filter out what's valuable from what isn't. A strong emotional response to poorly delivered or negative feedback is normal, but it's your responsiblity to recognise that, and act on the feedback, not the emotion.

    Conclusion

    Navigating the world of feedback, especially when it's unsolicited or delivered poorly, can be a complex task. By focusing on the content over the presenter, setting boundaries, and using feedback as a tool for growth, we can turn potentially negative experiences into opportunities for learning and development. Our power lies not in controlling the feedback we receive but in how we choose to accept, process, and respond to it. Embrace the discomfort, for it often leads to growth.

    Remember: Comfort and growth are incompatible.

    Remember to take a step back, evaluate the merit of the feedback independently of the source, and let it guide you on your path of continuous improvement.

  20. Stakeholder Management - Do you know how to disagree with powerful stakeholders?

    Disagreeing with powerful stakeholders can have a huge impact. It's always good to speak up, but a poorly worded disagreement can result in misalignment or frustration. That's why it's crucial to frame your messages in a way that ensures ideas are expressed effectively.

    Video: How to Disagree with Someone More Powerful (watch 3 min from 3:06-5:38)

    Imagine a scenario where you are a Developer on a team and you disagree with the Product Owner about the priority of your PBI - migrating from .NET 6 to .NET 8. The Product Owner is saying they don't want to do it, but you think it's important for this Sprint.

    Let's see what tips and tricks can be applied to ensure a smooth discussion.

    Align your interests and understanding

    When you have a disagreement with a senior colleague, it's likely that you have different perspectives and understanding. Before you talk about the issue, it's pivotal to check you are on the same page about the issue and looking for a path forward. Here are some tips for doing so:

    1. Repeat your understanding of the issue
    2. Ask if they're open to feedback
    3. Find a common target

    1. Repeat your understanding of the issue

    By repeating back your understanding of the issue, you can check that their viewpoint aligns with yours, and if there are any discrepancies, they can be caught before the issue is discussed. (aka Steelmanning)

    Developer: I think you don't want to migrate from .NET 6 to .NET 8 because you want to finish adding single-sign on first. And you consider any security issues to be priority 1. Is that correct?

    Product Owner: Actually, the reason is because .NET 9 comes out in a few months and I want to wait for that version.

    Good example - The Developer identified that the Product Owner had a different reason than they thought

    2. Ask if they're open to feedback

    Getting permission to comment is a great tactic. It makes the stakeholder feel empowered to have the conversation and also gives you confidence that they are interested in what you have to say.

    Developer: Would it be OK if I explain why I think we should upgrade now?

    Product Owner: Sure!

    Good example - The Developer gives a warning to the Product Owner to check if they are in a moment where they are ready to listen to a dissenting opinion

    3. Find a common target

    Determine an outcome you both want to see from the solution. That way the conversation centers on delivering business value rather than being contrary for the sake of it.

    Developer: Lately, our users have been having significant performance issues, and that has been a pain point. Would you agree?

    Product Owner: Yes, absolutely!

    Developer: Well, when I read the .NET 8 release notes I saw they have improved performance by 20%. That's why I want to upgrade now.

    Good example - The Developer identified a pain point the Product Owner cares about, strengthens their argument

    Keep the dialog focused on the issue

    When talking with a powerful stakeholder it's vital to keep the conversation on track and focused on the issue itself. Here are several strategies you can use:

    1. Ground yourself in logic
    2. Avoid judgemental language
    3. Express that it's your opinion
    4. Leave it up to them

    1. Ground yourself in logic

    When communicating about a problem, emotions can quickly get in the way. You want to project confidence and neutrality - that's why it's critical to try and stick to the logic and facts.

    2. Express that it's your opinion

    If you caveat that you are just expressing your opinion, others will feel like you are open to discussing the issue rationally and that you understand others may disagree.

    Product Owner: I don't want to upgrade to .NET 8 this Sprint because I want to wait for .NET 9

    Developer: No, we should upgrade to .NET 8 this Sprint because it will help fix users' performance issues.

    Bad example - The Developer didn't express that it was their opinion.

    Product Owner: [See above]

    Developer: In my opinion, it's better if we upgrade to .NET 8 this Sprint because it will help fix users' performance issues.

    Good example - The Developer mentions that it is their opinion leaving the topic open for discussion.

    3. Avoid judgemental language

    Language that sounds accusatory or judgmental can evoke bad reactions and derail a conversation. Words like "stupid", "hasty", "naive" etc. focus the discussion on people's judgment rather than the issue itself. When that happens, you are no longer discussing the logical cause of the disagreement.

    Developer: It would be stupid if we didn't upgrade to .NET 8 this Sprint

    Bad example - The Developer made their point and it sounds like a personal attack

    Developer: If we don't upgrade to .NET 8 this Sprint, our users are going to keep having the performance issues they have been complaining about.

    Good example - The Developer identifies a pain point for the users, rather than making it emotion based

    4. Leave it up to them

    Let them know it's their decision, but be clear that you disagree. Communicating this way allows them to feel in control but also makes it obvious what your opinion is.

    We should upgrade to .NET 8 this Sprint so that we can solve the performance problems users are experiencing.

    Bad example - Doesn't leave the power in the stakeholders hands.

    This call is yours, but my opinion is that we should upgrade to .NET 8 this Sprint so that we can solve the performance problems users are experiencing.

    Good example - Clearly expresses that the final decision is up to them

    Even if you follow all these tips, there is a chance the powerful stakeholder still won't agree with you. In this scenario, it's important to document your disagreement in a for the record email.

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