“It takes humility to seek feedback. It takes wisdom to understand it, analyze it and appropriately act on it.” — S. Covey
What is feedback?
Feedback is information about how someone is doing in their effort to reach a particular set of goals. It comes in at least three formats:
- Appreciation: recognising and rewarding someone for great work. Appreciation connects and motivates people, and it’s vital since intrinsic motivation is one of the critical factors for high-performance.
- Coaching: helping someone expand their knowledge, skills and capabilities. Coaching is also an opportunity to address feelings, which helps balance and strengthen relationships.
- Evaluation: assessing someone against a set of standards, aligning expectations and informing decision-making.
Evaluation carries a strong but natural emotional reaction, usually fear and defensiveness. Sometimes, when we hear the word feedback, our heart starts pounding and our stomach clenches… but it’s important to note that feedback is not just evaluation. Evaluations are retrospectives, so they happen after appreciation, coaching and mentoring have been asked for and offered continuously.
Why is feedback important?
Feedback is information meant to help us orient ourselves in the world, not only in the workplace.
Feedback is not a new concept. In fact, I believe that gossip is the original form of feedback, dating back to our cave ancestors.
In The Science of Storytelling , W. Storr talks about the evolutionary benefits of gossip and the fact that it’s embedded in our genetic make-up. It served the purpose of self-regulation in response to expectations: uphold expectations and be welcomed in the cave by the fire; question the expectations and become the philosopher of the tribe; rebel and be thrown out in the rain.
When we take something as prosaic as gossip, refine it over millennia and use it in the modern workplace, we get feedback. In the workplace, good feedback guides our actions to:
- Self-regulate and respond to inner and outer expectations.
- Maintain perspective about what’s valuable to accomplish.
- Connect individual aspirations with company goals.
- Create a sense of belonging to a tribe…or a team.
- Increase intrinsic motivation and, as a result, performance.
What does good feedback look like?
I tend to assess feedback quality by examining three aspects: directionality, frequency and urgency.
1) Good directionality means telling someone whether they are heading in the right direction or they should change course.
Good directionality implies being specific and explicit. That’s the opposite of leaving people wondering, “Is this good? Is this bad? Is this passive-aggressive? How am I supposed to translate this into practice?”.
I like Reflektive’s memorable playing cards analogy for what is specific versus vague feedback.
Adapted from LifeLabs + Reflektive Best Practices
I think it’s also a good practice to ask for feedback about feedback, to understand how the message is received. That’s because often, people mistake coaching with evaluation.
Checking for common understanding eliminates anxiety. For example, saying, “There’s no judgement behind this question, just help me understand.” or “This is not an evaluation. I intend to offer you a bit of mentoring. Is my intention coming across clear? Is this what you hear as well?”
2) Good frequency means providing feedback sooner than later.
As a rule of thumb, more frequent, directionally correct but incomplete feedback outperforms more detailed and accurate but less frequent feedback. This means that consistency and iteration are what makes feedback good.
3) Feedback urgency is about how soon we should provide/ask for feedback.
Unsurprisingly, the answer is sooner than later, but there’s also an optimal value. When you’re 30% into a task, that’s a good time to ask for feedback.
There are many sources for this value. One is the 30/60/90 Feedback Framework , and another is from Decision Theory, specifically, The Stopping Rule, which is an optimisation problem to help us decide whether to continue or stop a given task based on where we are now. It’s useful for many real-life scenarios, like choosing a mortgage or hiring a candidate.
But there’s a caveat for both the frequency and urgency aspects: letting one overly negative or positive voice trigger us into giving that feedback immediately, without thinking about the broader context. The solution is to pause long enough to make a written note for ourselves as to why we’ve decided to communicate that feedback. There’s a famous saying:
“If one person tells you that you’re a horse, smile at them. If two people say that you’re a horse, give it some thought. If three people say that you’re a horse, go buy a saddle.” — Popular wisdom
What are good opportunities for feedback?
1) For individual accomplishments or improvements
- In 1:1s, to commend performance or to coach for improvement.
- A congratulatory written message to the team acknowledging a significant individual achievement.
- A few moments at the end of the day to reflect on outstanding work we’ve noticed and written simple Thank You notes to those individuals.
2) When a project is in progress.
- Regular retrospective meetings to review progress, analyse problems, anticipate upcoming issues, praise individual and team achievements.
- Some practical techniques are Progress-Plan-Problems (PPPs) for Stand-ups and Mad-Sad-Glad (or Start-Stop-Continue) Retros.
3) When a project has finished successfully.
- An All-Hands or Huddle meeting to congratulate the group effort and highlight outstanding individual efforts.
- A congratulatory written message to all involved.
4) When a project has failed.
- A Post-Mortem meeting to analyse what went wrong with the emphasis on learnings and how to apply those next time, reaffirm faith in the team and individual abilities, and spotlight personal accomplishments.
5) Company reorganisation or project change.
- A written message and a meeting to explain the reasons behind the change, the positive impact to be expected, to tackle rumours and to acknowledge the natural anxiety associated with change.
How can we provide good feedback?
I use a three-step method for both 1:1s and Evaluations, which I prefer to call Pit Stops.
One to Ones
- Establish rapport.
How are you?
And how is your family?
How are things at work?
- Make people mindful of today.
What’s on your mind today?
And what else?
How can I help you? Is there anything I can do for you?
- Appreciate, Coach or Evaluate.
Make explicitly clear which one it is.
We’re the driver inside a racing car that stops for a few brief seconds to allow the team to quickly adjust the wheels, check the oil, make sure we’re OK before sending us back on the track.
- Review how things have gone so far.
What are you most proud of?
What opportunities have you found to help others in your team?
- Talk about new learnings.
What have you improved based on your learnings so far?
- Find opportunities for improvement or talk about what’s next.
What could you improve over the next three months?
Below are some helpful questions to start feedback conversations.
- What are the actions of this person?
- What are the emerging behavioural patterns?
- Who are they modelling their behaviour on?
- What rules are they following?
- How do they rationalise and explain their actions?
- What kind of story do they tell?
- What stands between where I am now and where I want to be?
- What fears drive my behaviour?
- How can I adopt a perpetual learner mindset?
- How can I be kind to myself and others?
- How can I be authentic and do what’s right?
- How can I learn about myself through others?
- What does this moment teach me?
How can we receive feedback well?
“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way.” — Popular wisdom
The flip side of providing good feedback, and of equal importance, is to graciously receive feedback, filter the gold nuggets and use those well.
I can think of a few situations that typically get in the way and are worth acknowledging:
1) When we get negative feedback, we’re inclined to reply immediately.
That’s normal; we’re emotional human beings. The point is to make a conscious effort to listen to understand, not to defend.
Understanding the other person’s perspective can help us uncover our blind spots, which are, by definition, shortcomings that we can’t see for ourselves. For example, unless we record ourselves, we can’t know if we get too animated in meetings, talk too loud, interrupt, etc. It’s great to be self-aware, but it’s impossible to be self-aware 100% of the time.
2) It’s hard to receive feedback when the relationship with that person is not there.
This situation can happen, for example, when we haven’t established rapport with them, we don’t trust them, or we don’t believe they’re credible enough to give us that feedback in the first place.
Same as in conflict resolution , the solution is to disentangle the Who from the What, the other’s Intent and Impact from our Assumptions and Distortions that a negative relationship might cause.
It’s also OK to accept feedback but not act on it. Either ignore it or save it for later when we recover from an intense emotional state. I recently got triggered by someone’s assessment, but I forced myself to ask them for more feedback. After my heart stopped racing, in private I found a few actionable gold nuggets in what they said and discarded the rest.
3) It’s hard to receive feedback when we’re in an altered state of mind like an Identity Crisis.
Aside from Impostor Syndrome, the Covid-19 pandemic has potentially exacerbated low self-worth feelings, especially if we had to change course.
We need to keep in mind that success is not always the direct result of intelligence and hard work. It’s hard to accept, but the solution that works for me is to see challenges as opportunities to be curious, learn and improve.
What’s more, a few kind words can help us get out of the rut, and a few bad ones can sink us further. That’s why having a support network and a good manager, coach, mentor, and advocate makes a real difference for wellbeing, performance and success.
I found one idea behind the story of Johnny Lingo and The Eight Cows  (ignoring the outdated practices…) to be applicable in personal and professional circumstances. If you want a performant individual or team, start by treating them like one. In other words, encouragement and kindness beget greatness.
What feedback pitfalls should we watch out for?
These are subtle issues to consider when providing or listening to feedback.
1) Ambivalence vs ambiguity
It’s OK to be ambivalent (on-the-fence) shortly after receiving feedback or in a 360 situation while we pause to introspect and digest that feedback. It’s not OK to be ambiguous in giving feedback.
That’s why the Shit Sandwich technique (positive-negative-positive) doesn’t work in practice. It’s still taught in management schools, and I fell for it too, but it’s both ambivalent and ambiguous — a dangerous combination.
2) Lost in translation
People rarely offer their direct observations as feedback. They first interpret them based on their own experiences, values, assumptions and biases .
For example, instead of saying, “Mark told me you’re often too busy to help”, someone might translate that into “You’re not a team player”.
The Situation-Behaviour-Impact tool  is a potential answer to deliver more effective feedback because it separates situations and behaviours from the resulting impact.
3) Upstream vs downstream thinking
Imagine two patrol officers, one positioning herself ahead of a road curb so motorists going by can see her from afar and have time to slow down. The other officer is stationed after the curb and hidden from view, so when motorists speed by, he gives them a speeding ticket. By the end of the day, one has given 0 speeding tickets and the other 100.
If they are evaluated only by the number of tickets given, one is better than the other. However, this evaluation doesn’t consider the number of potential accidents prevented and the lives saved by making people slow down in the first place.
This is called upstream versus downstream thinking. It’s simpler to evaluate peoples’ performance in situations that have happened and have a visible, measurable impact.
To discover tactics to overcome this issue, read this article summarising the book Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen .
4) The role of luck
Poor results don’t always come from poor execution. Having evaluation and performance metrics is helpful because we need to know our bearing, but they’re not the final success measure.
We tend to severely underestimate the role of luck in our decision-making and outcomes .
For example, high-quality code and lots of features don’t always translate into business success. In this case, company goals become disconnected from individual efforts, and evaluations should reflect that.
That’s an excellent reason why documenting individual and team efforts long before the evaluation helps separate intent and execution from outcomes. We can use journaling techniques like the Knowledge Tracker  or a Brag Journal .
5) Walking on egg-shells
I optimistically believe that most people are keen to receive good feedback well, learn and improve. However, I met a small minority who displayed a persistent refusal to feedback. Communicating with these folks feels like walking on egg-shells: we’re tiptoeing in fear of triggering them.
In rare cases, there might be a hidden psychological reason behind it, like for example a form of ADD called Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria. Dysphoria is the opposite of euphoria, meaning extreme emotional sensitivity and pain to the perception of being criticised and rejected or an internal sense of falling short of someone’s expectations. No engineering management role that I know of prepares you with such knowledge. That’s something I found out on my own, by taking an interest in Psychology at Touco. In some cases it’s managed with CBT or medical treatment but it remains a tough situation to deal with.
When this happens, and we’re satisfied we’ve made appropriate efforts, the question becomes not how to provide more/better feedback but whether that person’s uniqueness and brilliancy are worth breaking the team’s psychological safety and everyone’s wellbeing.
If the answer is yes, then we need time to coach the team to understand and support that person. If the answer is no, because of external pressures, then perhaps it’s best to help that individual transition to another team or organisation where they can have a different opportunity to succeed.
Where does feedback fit within the organisational culture?
The Holy Grail of any organisation is to have productive and performant employees who deliver value translatable towards the company’s bottom lines, and most companies are looking to increase these two attributes directly.
But trying to increase performance is like optimising code reusability, hoping that it will result in faster releases: it’s the wrong end goal.
My view is that performance is the outcome of having two key ingredients: work satisfaction and intrinsic motivation.
Indeed, Github and Microsoft Research have recently published a new paper titled The SPACE of Developer Productivity , in which they look at the link between performance and work satisfaction.
The SPACE framework 
Aside from this information-packed paper, I’d also add that work satisfaction requires psychological safety, as explained by the now-famous Google’s Project Aristotle  and Westrum organisational culture .
Project Aristotle, Google 
What is the link between feedback, work satisfaction and intrinsic motivation?
- Coaching helps people develop competence and mastery, provided they also have autonomy in their work , which are key components of intrinsic motivation.
- Recognition increases motivation because it’s a reward in itself.
We often tend to forget that it’s OK not to be satisfied every single day at work, but we can celebrate small wins and recognise efforts as they happen.
- Good feedback increases trust and normalises hard conversations.
It makes it safe to be vulnerable and open to the fact that we don’t know all the things, all the time, and that’s fine, as long as we’re responsible for our actions and demonstrate continuous learning.
- Good feedback promotes two-way accountability. We all know the famous saying that “people don’t leave companies, they leave managers”.
Twenty years of research from Gallup concluded that the most important variable in employee productivity and loyalty turns out to be not pay or perks but the quality of the relationship between employees and their direct supervisors.
If we want good managers, we have to give them good feedback. It goes both ways: it’s their responsibility to ask for it and our responsibility to answer.
What is the link between feedback, recognition and reward?
Recognition is a positive consequence of someone’s desired behaviour or successful results.
Research by Maritz  points out many benefits, for example, being 7x more likely to stay with the company and 11x more likely to feel completely committed to the company.
Research from Society from Human Resource Management (SHRM)  shows that committed employees deliver 57% more effort than uncommitted ones.
“Fifty-five per cent of employees reported that management’s recognition of employee job performance was very important to their job satisfaction […]. While recognition alone might not be sufficient to retain top performers, it helps clarify organizational goals and gain a more precise picture of employees’ accomplishments.” — SHRM
Positive feedback (appreciation) is a reward in itself, but it’s insufficient to retain top performers . We also need sponsorship and advocacy to move towards personal career goals, be that status, visibility and recognition.
The BICEPS framework  groups these last three under Significance, one of the six core needs of humans at work, alongside Belonging, Improvement, Choice, Fairness and Predictability.
Are team-first rewards better than individual rewards?
There’s been an accelerated move towards a team-first approach in many organisations as they recognise that small, motivated and autonomous teams achieve significant scale performance. Some companies are extending this concept to compensation schemes and incentives as well.
While there are clear benefits for team-based incentives, like reinforced collaboration, improved focus and aligned goals, there are also some pitfalls to consider. The most significant potential downsides are:
We still need a good way of assessing individual contributions within the team. Equality of opportunity doesn’t mean equality of outcomes. A potential option is to use peer voting, but there are examples when this becomes a popularity contest.
- Competencies and rewards overlap.
We shouldn’t place folks in the same team if they have overlapping skills and compete for the same rewards, e.g. career ladders. Otherwise, we risk pitting people against each other, and the result is cut-throat competition rather than cooperation.
- Strong entrepreneurial drive.
People with a strong entrepreneurial spirit are essential to organisations, but a sense of personal success often drives them. That’s not necessarily bad since we want diversity of thinking and skills rather than team homogeneity.
A good balance is establishing adequate team arrangements with increased autonomy, leadership and decision-making, and opportunities to help raise the entire team’s skill level through coaching and mentoring.
How do we create and maintain an organisational culture with good feedback loops?
The short answer is that it’s hard. I can think of three issues I’ve noticed repeatedly, especially around appreciation and coaching.
1) First, what tends to happen over time is that we start putting too much focus on evaluation and less on appreciation and coaching.
When we’re under pressure to get stuff done (and that’s…always), our feelings of frustration, anxiety and sometimes anger towards people we feel have let us down trump our sense of appreciation for the things they’ve done well. Left unchecked, it leads to something called The MAD Syndrome — Mutual Appreciation Deficit.
That’s when we start hearing folks say that they don’t get enough feedback. I’m sure they get enough evaluation, but they need someone to notice and care about what they have to do better and how hard they’re working.
That is not the time for more goal-setting but more appreciation and recognition because that’s what makes us double our efforts and replenish our energy levels.
2) Secondly, appreciation might feel awkward at first, but it’s not a hard practice to start and maintain.
We all say “celebrate small wins” because it creates a positive, nurturing, encouraging work atmosphere and helps us bond as human beings.
In my analogy of cave feedback, that’s as simple as saying, “Oh, you woke up a tad bit earlier to make that fire. That’s great, and we like you. You’re part of our tribe.”
3) The last issue is about coaching being under-appreciated.
This has been my experience so far, including through some field research around high-performance, high-stress environments like tech startups and financial services.
Most companies list it in their nice-to-have organisational values, but they rarely reward it formally. Sometimes it doesn’t even count towards someone’s evaluation.
To make matters worse, most organisations don’t estimate reasonably the cost, or better said, the investment they need to make for their teams, especially leaders, to do it well. I’m hopeful that this view is changing for the better.
Coaching doesn’t come naturally to everyone, particularly to those who invest heavily in our technical acumen.
Software engineering is the science of making computers work well, but Psychology, Anthropology, Behavioural Science are also essential to make humans work well. How many technology leaders have a natural interest and time to research these fields? And how many are supported by their organisations, when they do?
Without training and support, novice coaches only take a few bad experiences to make things worse and give up because their efforts are not appreciated.
Of course, capabilities and restrictions of time, people and money are different depending on whether we talk about a tiny early-stage startup or an established organisation with hundreds or thousands of employees and a hefty bottom line. It’s unrealistic to demand a one-size-fits-all solution.
For example, a small startup in search of Product-Market-Fit is a highly pressurised environment. The hiring process is geared towards people who thrive in those environments and it’s easier to find them among generalists.
As the company grows and needs harder to find specialised knowledge and experience, we need good engineering management training programmes to coach people to welcome and support a more neurodiverse team, like in the ADD example above, and be prepared to change the organisational environment to help them succeed.
It’s something worth considering next time we put together a career ladder for an engineering leader with 70% coding and 30% managing.
- Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, D. H. Pink
- Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation. The Search for Optimal Motivation and Performance, C. Sansone, J. M. Harackiewicz
- Avoid The Seagull Effect: The 30/60/90 Framework For Feedback, Trello
- The Science of Storytelling, W. Storr
- Techniques for conflict management as an Engineering Manager, E. Vrabie
- Johnny Lingo and The Eight Cows story, Wikipedia
- Common Performance Review Biases: How to Spot and Counter Them, Pragmatic Engineer
- The Situation-Behaviour-Impact Tool, Making Business Matter
- Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen, D. Heath
- Asynchronous communication for meaningful decisions, fair evaluations and fast learning, E. Vrabie
- Get your work recognised: write a brag document, J. Evans
- Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, D. Stone, S. Heen
- The SPACE of Developer Productivity, Github & Microsoft Research
- Project Aristotle, Google
- Westrum Organisational Culture, Google
- The BICEPS Framework, P. Medina
- The Human Science of Giving Recognition, Maritz Institute
- Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement (2015), SHRM
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