My Product Management Toolkit (53): Giving and Receiving Feedback
I know I’ve written about feedback before (see My Product Management Toolkit no. 30 for example). I know I’ve admitted that receiving feedback isn’t something that comes easy to me. And I know that I can definitely improve the ways in which I give feedback.
Learning about feedback was one of the reasons I recently decided to attend a 2-day communications training workshop. The workshop served as a powerful reminder of what good looks like when it comes to giving and receiving feedback. These are the key things I took away:
Delivering feedback about things that happened once or twice — You know that thing or someone’s behaviour that you spot for the first or maybe second time, and that you’re keen to address early? You can do this by being factual in stating what you’ve observed:
“I’ve noticed that ________”
Avoid words like “always” or “often” as these are non-factual. Your observation needs to be inarguable, after which you and the feedback recipient can look at ways to address the feedback:
“Would it be a good idea if ___________?”
You can thus pose a suggestion to address the feedback, and opening up the conversation to explore solutions or next steps together. Most importantly, the focus is on achieving a specific result or improvement:
“So that ______________”
Pulling the three components of early feedback together, this is an example of what such feedback could look like:
“I’m catching up on email and I noticed that in yesterday’s email to Lynette you mentioned that Steve is no longer on Project X. I worry that this might create the wrong impression about Steve’s involvement with Project X.
Would it be a good idea if you and I catch up about Project X, perhaps together with Steve, just talk about the state of the project and Steve’s involvement?
So that we can just make sure that we’re aligned about Steve’s responsibilities and the project outcomes that he’s accountable for. How does that sound? Let me know and I’ll find some time for the three of us to catch up.“
Delivering feedback about more consistent behaviours or issues — Providing feedback about behaviours or issues that have been going for a while can be just as hard, if not harder. In the communications workshop we learned about Eric Berne’s ‘Transactional Analysis’ and its three different ‘Ego States’:
- Parent Ego State — Behaviours, thoughts and feelings copied from parents and parental figures.
- Adult Ego State — Behaviours, thoughts and feelings are direct responses to the here and now.
- Child Ego State — Behaviours, thoughts and feelings are replayed from childhood.
When we give and receive feedback about recurring behaviours we want to do so as part of a transaction between adults. When giving feedback there is a risk of a ‘parent-child’ transaction taking place; the person providing the feedback can turn into a patronising or nurturing parent, with the person receiving the feedback turning into a rebellious or passive child.
In contrast, feedback provided by an ‘adult’ is factual, rational and unemotional. The person giving the feedback still does so with empathy, sensing the other person’s emotions and able to imagine what the other person might be thinking or feeling. For example:
“When you [state the factual evidence succinctly]“
“The effect is [on the team / reputation / company / client / the person / promotion / bonus, etc.]“
The power of the pause here can’t be underestimated. It can help to defuse the situation, especially when the other person is getting emotional or angry:
“Let’s take 5 minutes to grab a glass of water, but we do need to have this conversation.”
“I see you’re feeling upset right now so we should take a few minutes to let the feedback sink in and then we’ll continue the conversation.”
The person receiving the feedback has a ‘moment of choice’. They can get very emotional or very defensive in response to the feedback. However, we can decide to receive the feedback in an ‘adult’ fashion, even if our first response is one of sadness or defensiveness. When receiving feedback, we should:
- Listen — Listen carefully to what is being said and where the other person is coming from.
- Take time to react — This is where the feedback recipient applies a moment of ‘pause’. You can thank the moment and process the feedback before responding.
- Ask for more information — You can ask for clarification of any aspects of the feedback that you’re unclear about. Or you can ask for (more) specific examples. You can ask for the feedback to be emailed to you, which gives you the points in writing to use as reference when processing and actioning the feedback.
- Request time to react — Especially if you feel you need more time to process the feedback or think about improvements that you could make, asking for time to respond is key.
I’ve since then learned about the feedback culture at Netflix, where they use a so-called “4A” approach to giving and receiving feedback:
Aim to assist — Feedback must be given with positive intent. Clearly explain how a specific behaviour change will help the individual or the company, not how it will help you.
Actionable — Your feedback must focus on what the recipient can do differently. Provide concrete suggestions for the other person to consider.
Appreciate — Our natural human inclination is to get defensive when receiving feedback. When you receive feedback, you need to fight this natural reaction and instead ask yourself, “How can I show appreciation for this feedback by listening carefully, considering the message with an open mind, and becoming neither defensive nor angry?”
Accept or discard — At Netflix, you will receive lots of feedback from lots of people. You are required to listen and consider all feedback provided. You are not required to follow it. Say “thank you” with sincerity. But both you and the provider must understand that the decision to react to the feedback is entirely up to the recipient.
Main learning point: It can be hard, but giving feedback is about being factual and constructive. Receiving feedback is about listening and taking time to react. Let’s be adults about feedback!
Related links for further learning: