Friday, September 6, 2019

More Practice for the Feedback Muscle

Where I work, we moved this year to quarterly personnel reviews.

With two rounds behind me as engineering manager of a team of ten (max 15 on some rounds), I sometimes feel like I barely finish one before another one is already starting.

The way one round works is very similar to what we used to do "process supported" once a year. Automation generates a set of questions about your achievements, your learning and your goals for future. They are sent to the employee who fills them in. Manager can generate more forms all around the organization inviting anonymous feedback to collect info. And then the employee and the manager discuss that stuff together, planning forward for the next interval.

With 10+ people and 4 times a year, that is a lot of forms. And with all the colleagues I work with, that is even more forms on feedback their managers are inviting us to provide.

At first, I was thinking of the forms as a way of documenting achievements for posterity. After all, I facilitate a very productive team that not only does stuff, but actually provides value for end users. Everyone contributes in their own way, on ways I look at as unique and supportive to others. I'm a manager trying to escape management (clock is ticking, max 9 months to go...), so it only feels fair that the record I leave for future would help the future manager understand my reports successes.

I only needed one annual and one quarterly review to realize that the process needs to be played with. And when I say play, I mean more than "talk every day and make notes quarterly". It needs some serious play.

With my team, I announced we are doing it this time in pairs. This would work so that everyone again fills their own form and it gets sent to me. Then I assign everyone a pair, who is peer in the team. The pair will have the responsibility to fill in the bits of the manager, providing their colleague feedback. I will act as secretary and quality control person helping fill in gaps in relevant feedback.

Our quarterly review was feedback and feedback on feedback.

I learned that:

  • Everyone being the others manager, even if just as role-play was great
  • Everyone has relevant feedback and ideas to grow for their peers
  • In a pair + manager, both positive and negative feedback was discussed constructively
  • People generated ideas of what to try to do differently
  • I could add my pieces and views to the discussion that was much richer this way
Whenever some manager asks me feedback on their reports anonymously through the automation system, I always send an email to the person giving my feedback without anonymity. I believe anonymity only brings out the worst in people. It weakens the gift of feedback. It removes the possibility of a dialog and co-generation of ideas to improve things. It allows for resentment to build, and creates an atmosphere where you need to be guessing which one of your colleagues is unhappy with you in case on negative feedback. 

When I do this, I hear that it is culturally not possible elsewhere to do what I do - in the same organization. 

I hear people don't have the soft skills of giving feedback.

I hear people only talk about positive and don't speak of the negative. 

I hear people have no baseline of what really good looks like. 

The way I look at it, these are true for lack of practice. You need to build the feedback muscle. And just like with real muscles, those grow with repetition, practice and corrective feedback.

Giving feedback - radical candor - is relevant. If you hide your problems because they are hard to talk about, how do you expect to get good? If you don't share what delights you, how do you expect to get more of it?