The past few months I have been fortunate enough to have been training for a very specific and challenging role in our organisation, and the journey has been tough. The role requires you to maintain and protect consistent standards and facilitate important decision making involving groups of people from all over the organisation. I am extremely grateful to have this opportunity though, because, apart from being very rewarding, I also learned an incredible amount about coaching and feedback. I’m going to dump a summary of my musings on feedback here both from the perspective of the coach and the coachee.
On being coached
I think it is part of the human condition to need validation of your strengths as well as your mental model of how the world works and your function in it. We seek out affirmation and recognition from our peers rewarding us by giving us affirmative messages.
This mental model, though, needs to change if you are to grow as a person, and shifting or invalidating your mental model and your function in it is inherently a very uncomfortable experience. Receiving critical feedback challenges your mental model and your self-belief – it requires emotional work on your part to facilitate a shift (if necessary, of course) and defining what the resulting shift should look like.
My first year as a software developer, for example, was a massive learning curve – adjusting to a profession and learning how to navigate teams and function within an organisation.
Going through this most recent training was tough, because it involves being shadowed by people already in that role and receiving in-detail feedback on everything you did and could improve on. On top of that, the role is extremely qualitative or fungible – it isn’t as simple as learning a process or improving code quality. It requires you to learn how to facilitate a group of people, drive a complex conversation, and ensuring the right outcome for the organisation. I don’t think anyone in the world can teach you how to do that by just explaining the steps to you. The only way you can really teach someone how to do this is by exposing them to the situation, letting them practice and providing feedback with every iteration.
The more you grow in your career, the more qualitative and intuitive the skills become that dictates your impact. As a junior engineer your value lies in producing good quality code at healthy volume. The more senior you become, the larger and more ambiguous the problems become. Your impact on team and organisational culture becomes more important when you start delivering through others and driving the direction your team takes. The blast radius of getting it wrong also increases. Coaching at this level becomes proportionally harder, because it becomes more qualitative – these are attributes and behaviour you can’t just explain to someone over a coffee.
Being coached at this level is not easy, but I have devised a framework for myself in which to process feedback:
Have respect for how hard it is for others to coach you
Coaching is hard. Remember, you might be going through the learning curve of mastering a difficult skill – the person coaching you is going through the learning curve of learning how to coach others that skill. You might just be one of the eggs they need to make their omelet.
Have empathy with yourself – allow yourself to iterate on it and fail
I think this is something especially women struggle with – I know I do. I started doing ballet a few years back and initially I was extremely frustrated. It took a few months for me to realise that the practice of ballet means constant pursuit of mastery through failure. The only bloody way to learn how to do a pirrouette is by falling over hundreds of times repeatedly until you get that first turn. You also have to realise that the immediate next turn after that first successful one is going to be a faceplant again. Mastery is not linear and not binary. It takes repeated practice.
Seek out diverse opinions
The first thing I learned going through this training was that you are going to get conflicting feedback. They can both be right – ask them why and find the underlying value of their advice. Everyone needs to develop their own flavour of doing something, and you need to define your own way as well.
This is your learning curve. You are not uncomfortable for someone elses benefit, but for your own mastery. You are doing this because you want to grow. This means that you carry the responsibility for getting the feedback required and actioning that feedback to facilitate your growth. Your development is not the responsibility of anyone else. If you receive feedback you don’t understand or you don’t know how to action, carry it with you and have conversations with the people coaching you until you do.
Giving critical feedback is one of the hardest things to do as a human, often to the extent where people shy away, rather walking away from the conflict. I believe that learning how to give critical feedback is a critical skill everyone needs to learn, no matter how uncomfortable it is. I am very grateful to have been on the receiving end of coaching by a few masters of the trade recently, allowing me to observe how they did it and the way I received it. Similarly I have been the egg in the omelet of a few less successful coaching attempts, highlighting to me a few things to avoid. Here are my few cents worth.
Distinguish between punishment and feedback
Never, ever try punish someone under the guise of ‘giving feedback’. If you resent the person and do not engage with the emotional intent of improving their experience, walk away and rather go throw around weights in the gym.
Allow them to bitch about it
Receiving important feedback is an extremely uncomfortable experience. Allow the person on the receiving end to express this to you. Sit there and listen, nod and smile and acknowledge that you empathise with how they feel, regardless of whether you agree or not. Successful coaching requires a willing recipient, and you need to create a high trust environment to coach successfully.
If necessary, let them run off and lick their wounds before catching up again.
Don’t overload the person with too much in one go
I recall having read somewhere that the human brain can only retain up to seven ideas in short term memory before needing to offload it to long term memory. I am pretty sure that this number drops to two or three in stressful situations. Anticipate that a feedback session is a high stress situation for the recipient so rather give diverse feedback points over multiple shorter sessions, allowing the person to process one idea at a time. Overloading a person with a grocery list of areas of improvement will overwhelm them. They will then need to do so much emotional work having to overcome a sense of failure that they will have little capacity left to actually respond to the feedback.
Recognise growing pains
Understand that people only have a limited capacity for working at personal growth. If you see a person regress or stagnate, maybe back off on introducing other areas for growth, allowing them to complete the learning curve they are currently in.
Make it concrete
You are not kind when trying to soften the blow by saying “sometimes you can possibly do something like…”. Rather stick to “On this day, in that situation, you did…”. That gives the person context on where and when behaviour took place.
If you need someone to change their behaviour, you need to explain to them why. Explain what the risk is of not changing, or the advantages gained by changing.
Make sure they recognise it
I recently received feedback that I tend to ‘give too much of my own voice to a conversation’. I couldn’t understand it, because I was intentionally trying not to do that – until someone told me that they thought the feedback referred to my verbal summary in a conversation. I would repeat what I heard someone say in summary, trying to validate that I understood their intent, and in doing so, I could become floral and instill my own interpretation in the message. As soon as they said it, I understood what they meant, and I could change my style.
Make it actionable
Work with the person to identify ways in which they can try address the feedback. Help them identify concrete outcomes to measure their success in doing so.
Make sure they receive it
Giving feedback via someone else – a manager or a mentor – is easy, right? What if that person decides not to pass on the message? You start resenting that person because you don’t see any attempts to respond to the feedback, and they become frustrated because they don’t know why you are suddenly frustrated with them. Make sure feedback reaches someone – preferably give it yourself.
Limit the hops (broken telephones suck)
The more hops there are between you and the recipient, the easier it becomes to give critical feedback. You email a manager who has a chat with another manager who asks that person’s mentor to deliver the message. By the time that message reaches the poor recipient, if it even makes it that far, the feedback has been so diluted that it loses its impact, context and actionability. This is extremely frustrating to the recipient, because now they know 1. Someone out there thought they didn’t do a good job, 2. Their whole management chain (chain of trust) knows about it, so well, that is awkward, and 3. they have no idea what to do about it other than go home and feel bad about it.
Close the loop – reward recipients for mastering the bloody thing
Close the loop on the feedback by celebrating with a person when they get it. Tell them when you see an improvement, thank and congratulate them for working at it.