Give the Gift of Feedback

I bet if you think about it there are lots of times when people ask what you think about a problem. We in IT are geared for that, we love to solve problems, and getting a new problem sparks the same kind of salivation that your dog does when he sees a new bone land in front of him.

But give us a plan to solve a problem, especially one that isn’t ours to implement, and – I know I’m generalizing here – we tend to gloss over it. Some other smart person did the research and figured out the decisions, if we don’t spot the proverbial ‘something stupid’ in about 15 seconds we’re done – looks ok to me. This is true for peers and I think is especially true in managers. If you’ve built trust and established competency most managers will do the quick look and move on.

Why? I can think of a few reasons:

  • It takes time
  • We don’t want to rehash details
  • We think any changes we might suggest would be style and not substance
  • We’ve offered feedback before and had it declined (or just think it will be ignored)
  • Nothing in it for me
  • We don’t know enough about the topic to provide good feedback
  • We don’t want to get blamed if we miss something or offer a suggestion that goes bad
  • We trust you to come  up with a good solution

Some of those are cynical, some are practical, and it’s often a combination – I’m busy, I trust you, I don’t know the problem.

I like asking for feedback. I’ve rarely had an idea that wasn’t made better by asking for suggestions/review, but I know that getting that feedback isn’t easy. That’s made me a whole lot more willing to offer feedback on just about anything if asked. Often it’s enough to quiz them on the plan/problem – why this and not that? What alternatives did you rule out and why?

What I’m giving them is my time and my interest. Maybe it’s just questions, maybe it’s suggestions,I put some effort into helping them succeed. It’s a nice feeling when you can help them identify a gap or make a fix work even better. It’s also a nice feeling when you don’t find anything – they walk away a lot more confident that they didn’t forget some big item. I’m not vested in my suggestions,it’s not about me, it’s about them.

I’ll do that when asked, and I’ll do it if I see any work email that nags at me to make sure there isn’t a gap. The latter takes some judgment, what I offer as helpful feedback can easily be perceived as criticism, ax grinding, or worse. Find the middle ground, don’t opt for the safety of never commenting for fear of it being taken the wrong way.

There is one other scenario that is much, much harder, and that is when it’s feedback to a person (usually about that person or their performance). It’s hard to offer unsolicited feedback, hard to present it well, and all too easy for it to wrong in spectacular fashion. I’ve thought about this a lot as a mentor and as I read/think about mentoring. Often a few sentences from the right person can change the world for someone, whether it’s identifying a problem or bad behavior, or telling them that you believe in them.

What makes it ok for you to say those few sentences? We’re back to judgment and more wisdom than I have most days. The first few times I tried this it went pretty good, but I agonized about it afterward, did I say too much, was it right for me to say it? I can’t say I have an exact formula, but I do have some internal rule set about who and when and why I’ll engage like this. It’s far from automatic, and it’s a lot less often than other kinds of feedback.

One other note I want to drop in – once people know you will offer feedback and not get upset if it’s not taken, they’ll want more feedback from you. It’s a bit of trust that can be a win for both parties.

There’s a lot to this, thinking I didn’t cover it all here but made a good start. And yes, if you want to offer feedback on this I’ll take it gladly!