On giving and receiving feedback

A few times a year, I like to read John Allspaw's post On Being a Senior Engineer. If you haven't read it yet (or recently), go do that. I'll wait. I keep coming back to this post not only because I find it helpful to share with other people, such as in the course of a mentoring relationship with someone looking to become a more senior engineer, but also because it helps remind me of what is important in being a mature engineer and so helps me up my own engineering game.

The first "obligatory pithy characteristic of mature engineers" in John's post is Mature engineers seek out constructive criticism of their designs. Since there is so much of an emphasis in that post on the squishy human parts (or core skills) of engineering, I like to think of mature engineers as people who seek out constructive criticism of all their work, not just the technical parts. (Actually, this probably applies to all career paths, not just engineering. For example, the best managers I've had were the ones who actively solicited feedback on how they were doing as managers and really listened to the answers.) In addition to just seeking out constructive feedback, however, mature engineers need to be able to both give and receive feedback constructively.

Receiving Feedback

I call out receiving feedback separately from seeking it out because I've seen people over the years go through the superficial motions of asking for feedback but either don't receive it well or never actually incorporate or use any of it. Receiving feedback isn't always easy, and it can be tough to know which feedback is actually constructive. How can we do better at this?

  • Avoid amygdala hijacking. Our brains are not always super great at receiving feedback, especially when it's less than positive. It can be easy to have a kneejerk emotional reaction to that feedback that makes us less receptive to it, which isn't always productive. Realizing this, acknowledging it, taking time to breathe, and then re-evaluating the feedback can help. If you have a tendency to want to immediately argue, or to shut down because you're feeling upset/hurt/defensive, you might want to do some reading on amygdala hijacking. If the person giving feedback is someone you know well, you might even tell them this. "Wow, I'm feeling a bit taken aback by hearing that. Could I take some time to process what you said and we can chat about this more later?"

  • Consider the source. Not all feedback is equally useful. The feedback you get from a coworker you know who is probably trying to help you grow and succeed is not the same as the feedback you get from some rando on Twitter. This is not to say that you should just ignore all feedback from people you don't know, but someone without the context of your situation or without your best interests in mind might not be giving the most useful advice. Just because someone says something on the internet doesn't make it true, but just because something is uncomfortable to hear doesn't make it false either. Consider the feedback you're getting and where it's coming from carefully.

  • Have the right mindset. One of the things I really like about our feedback system at Etsy is that we can choose when to request feedback from our peers and manager. So when I had a lot of non-work real-life things going on for me this summer that I knew might impact my focus on work and my ability to receive feedback, I was able to choose to not schedule my feedback request then - it wouldn't have been very helpful for me to receive it at that point in my life. If you have the option and know that you aren't in a great place to be receiving feedback, keep that in mind. (This could apply to non-solicited feedback as well, depending on the situation. "Hey, can I give you some feedback about that meeting?" "Sorry, I'm having a really off day today. Could we talk about it tomorrow/at our 1:1 next week instead?") Also, be aware of what kind of feedback you're actually looking for. Don't ask for constructive criticism if what you really want is just reassurance. Wanting different types of feedback is fine - when Jennifer and I were writing the book, we were very clear with reviewers if we needed thoughts on big picture stuff versus nitpicky edits, to make sure people on both sides were making use of their time. But if you routinely ask for feedback and then don't respond to it well, people will notice, and may be less likely to give you open and honest feedback in the future.

Giving Feedback

On the flip side is being able to give feedback in a way that maximizes the likelihood that it will be received well. I've found that receiving feedback has made me better at giving it - for example, after writing the book and getting feedback and edits from a bunch of different people, I was able to better articulate what kinds of feedback I found most helpful in various stages of the writing process and incorporate that knowledge into the feedback I gave to others. But aside from receiving feedback ourselves, how else can we get better at giving it?

  • Get to know them. It's easier to both give and receive feedback when you have an ongoing relationship with someone. If someone knows and trusts me, they'll probably be more responsive, they'll understand that I'm looking out for them and want them to improve, and we'll have built up a history that helps us to communicate well. When you get to know someone, you can find out how they best like to receive feedback (immediately versus later, in person versus over email or chat), and if you have a history of positive interactions, something that is more critical or constructive might not feel as harsh as it would if you didn't have that history and rapport.

  • Make it a two-way street. For a while, I felt awkward giving feedback to my peers. "I'm not their manager," I would think to myself. But if you work with someone regularly, you might have valuable insights that their manager doesn't, and hopefully you're in a learning organization where sharing those insights is encouraged. To make it feel less weird for myself, I would start by asking them for feedback on things - this can help establish trust and rapport, as well as giving you an opportunity to practice or demonstrate receiving feedback well. And always, asking "Is now a good time to give you some feedback?" can go a really long way.

  • Consider your goals. What are you trying to accomplish by giving this feedback? Are you trying to get someone to change their behavior in the short term? Are you trying to help someone grow in the long term? Or do you just want to show how smart you are or feel 'right' about something? The most unhelpful feedback I've gotten over the years has typically felt like it's coming from someone who is trying to prove a point rather than actually trying to constructively help in any way. Well-actually-ing just for the sake of being right isn't always helpful (or appreciated), and sometimes keeping that kind of feedback to yourself can be beneficial for the sake of your long-term relationship with a person. If you develop a reputation for giving less-than-helpful feedback, people might stop listening to you in the future.

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Lara Hogan's excellent post on giving presentation feedback. I've found that much of what she's written can be modified slightly to apply to more than just rehearsals for presentations. ("Hearing the sound of your own voice is never a good enough reason to give feedback" - always true! As someone who is trying to tone down their wisecracks in meetings, this is super valuable to keep in mind.)

Giving and receiving feedback can both be quite tricky - these are the squishy, interpersonal, feelings sorts of things that we're not necessarily the best at. But these interpersonal skills are part of what differentiate mature or senior engineers, so it's important that we practice them whenever we can.

blog, tech cultureRyn Daniels