Feeding Back on Feedback
If you want to send a coworker (or anyone in your life, really) into an early grave, squint your eyes, move your head forward just a bit, and purse your lips to form everyone’s least favorite phrase:
“Can I give you some constructive feedback?”
I have yet to meet one person who “enjoys” receiving feedback in any fashion – whether it be during a 360 review, a casual in-person meeting, or a random email thread. Yet, Millennial-led tech companies cannot get enough of feeding back, looping back, and circling back on their employees’ “performance.”
Maybe it’s because our parents gave us too much positive reinforcement when we were kids, or maybe our teachers gave us too many gold stars in the third grade (you know which ones I’m talking about), but I wonder if the process of “giving and receiving feedback” is corporate America’s way of humbling the so-called “entitled” generation.
As a Sociology major (and professional creative) who has, indeed, received many rounds of feedback, I have some thoughts about the system that claims to improve professional performance while often depleting our personal self-confidence.
Feedback Is, Almost Always, Personal
The phrase, “don’t take it personally” is an incredible one thrown around any office. Someone ignores you in the hall? Don’t take it personally. Your boss tells you that you have too much energy? Don’t take it personally. You’re never given proper credit for your work? Please! Do not take it personally!
The same is true when it comes to feedback.
During a freelance stint, I overheard two colleagues sitting at a table in the dining area of my work floor.
Colleague 1: “It’s just that people don’t like how you speak. You have a certain pitch that is very off-putting.”
Colleague 2: “Thank you so much for sharing this with me. I will work on it.”
I realized that, in all seven of my corporate years, I had never received feedback about the actual quality of my work. In fact, I was often told during review periods, “People love working with you. Your work is more than we could ask for. You’re doing the most! We love you… but you can be [insert negative adjective] at times and so we’re going to have to knock off a few points.”
As I got back to my desk, I watched Colleague 2 return to her computer, face flushed red, looking like she was on the verge of throwing her computer against the wall or worse, ready to shed a tear.
This prompted me to review my own experience with feedback. I realized that, in all seven of my corporate years, I had never received feedback about the actual quality of my work.
In fact, I was often told during review periods, “People love working with you. Your work is more than we could ask for. You’re doing the most! We love you… but you can be [insert negative adjective] at times and so we’re going to have to knock off a few points.”
My smile was always delayed in leaving my face, as I was paralyzed by self-doubt, guilt, and sadness that my personality was somehow too divisive or too controversial or too difficult. Worse than that was the question of, “what if I can’t change the problem?” – the problem being: me.
It took years of work experience, general growing up, and hours in therapy to understand the boundaries I needed to survive review periods, which included a lot of compartmentalizing and separating what was a professional critique vs. a concern with who I was as a person.
I’m not here to say that bringing a level of self-awareness to someone in the workplace is necessarily a bad thing, but I find that the over-analysis of one’s personal character can quickly overtake the quality of their work, which, in turn, can lead to so much personal review that the work itself starts to suffer.
This brings me to my next point:
Feedback Is The New Way To Show You’re Participating
Remember those kids in class who always had their hand raised to prove they were paying attention? Or that one person in your work meeting who derails the whole thing just to have a question that’s different from everyone else’s? If you’ve had to mute a company “Welcome” email, then this is for you.
Outside of an office, human interaction is a complex and simple process. For a successful interaction, people need some form of chemistry, curiosity, and then the ultimate “c-word,” communication.
Very rarely do we hyper-focus on the things we think are great or could use improvement during a dialogue with a new person or even a best friend. We’re too busy engaging to analyze. Most of that analysis happens in the time away from one another or as a result of potential conflict.
I believe that the same is true for interactions in the workplace… most of the time. However, bring in the element of providing collegial feedback and you’ve got a fourth c: competition.
All of a sudden, when colleagues are asked to review each other in an online format (there are so many different applications for it these days), they become contestants in a supermarket sweep, where they have an empty cart, a set period of time to fill it, and a finish line to reach.
Even if we have nothing but nice things to say about our respected colleagues, we’re taught that leaving things blank or sending through a semi-empty feedback form that says, “No complaints! 100% all around!” reflects poorly on us as professionals – seeming lazy or undiscerning. I blame this on college, where you’re encouraged to write as much as you know to prove you listened in class. This results in our own attempts to prove engagement in our work by sending through paragraphs and NEVER supplying an easy A grade. In this moment, feedback can become an unthoughtful display of self-interest over constructive professionalism.
Feedback Is An Artform
If you’ve been on the receiving end of client feedback, then you know that, at times, client feedback can seem… well… unspecific, unhelpful, or just incredibly vague.
Bullet points like, “I don’t like this. Please change,” or “The wording is just, hm, off?” can lead a creative team into a tailspin of psychosis.
However, it’s even more infuriating when unthoughtful feedback comes internally, between you and colleagues with whom you work.
During jury duty, a juror is instructed by the judge to only focus on the facts of the case to determine a verdict. Every detail of how to evaluate the law is provided, which facilitates a very focused process with little room for personal input or existential projections. The same should be held true in the court of feedback.
There is no shortage of induction training, especially at today’s digital media and tech companies. Yet, most of this training typically focuses on “who does what,” the company’s mission, and the company culture. Rarely is there training about how to give feedback that is clear, constructive, and tonally-thoughtful to illicit the best result for both the company and the employee.
During jury duty, a juror is instructed by the judge to only focus on the facts of the case to determine a verdict. Every detail of how to evaluate the law is provided, which facilitates a very focused process with little room for personal input or existential projections.
The same should be held true in the court of feedback.
Imagine if, before employees were given empty feedback forms, they were, instead, given the below example criteria / guardrails to feed back on:
When it comes to work:
• How reliable is your colleague on projects?
• How often do you have to follow up with them over email?
• How responsive are they to internal / external emails?
• Do you enjoy working with this person?
• Does their work answer client asks? If not, please provide an example.
• Why do you think this colleague is a professional asset to the company? If not, please explain.
• How is this colleague at time management? Does it affect their deliverance of output?
• If this colleague was to apply for a new job, how likely are you to be a reference for them?
This, of course, is an idyllic model (in my opinion), but I wonder how the efficacy of feedback might change if we latently lead employees towards focusing solely on the quality of the work vs. broadly being able to remark on “areas for improvement” or “things you like about this person.”
Feedback is a necessary evil in the world. But at what point are we full from all the feedback?
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