June 20, 2016
Throughout my software-development years, giving and receiving feedback has proven to be an important tool. It helped me drive the projects forward and improved my skills as a developer. In this article, you can find out why it’s important to give feedback to your colleagues, and, more importantly, what are the proper means to provide such feedback.
What is feedback?
The term comes from control systems engineering, a discipline that uses sensors to measure the output performance of the device being controlled. Such measurements can be used to give feedback to the input actuators that can make corrections toward desired performance. 
In simpler terms, the outputs of a process are being fed back as inputs to that process.
In an organizational context, feedback is the information sent to an individual or a group about their prior behavior so that they may adjust their current and future behavior to achieve the desired result. 
Why give feedback?
Receiving feedback from a mentor, a manager or a colleague represents a huge opportunity for potential learning.
Everyone needs constant feedback. Looking at young professionals, as many times they have doubts regarding their steps along the way, an annual performance review may be too little, too late.
Any software developer can tell you as much: the shorter the feedback loop, the better.
Let’s take a concrete example: when engaged in a conversation, people need to know that they have been understood. In terms of active listening, you can give feedback in order to prove that you understand what the other is communicating. Use acknowledgement cues such as “I had the exact same problem” or “I understand how you are feeling.”
Whenever you see a positive outcome of a behaviour that you’d like to encourage, you should show appreciation by saying things such as “I like your idea” or “You did a good job.” Words like these act as a self-confidence boost mechanism for the one receiving the feedback. They set the stage for repeating the actions that lead to your appraisals.
To the receiver it may not always be clear why the good deed is being lauded. That is why, if appropriate, you need to include an emphasis on the positive effects this behaviour had on you or other team members: “Your action enabled me to …”
Key characteristics of feedback
There are specific formats to give feedback in a structured way. No matter the format, for it to be effective, you should keep in mind the following characteristics:
- Immediate / on the spot
The best time to provide the feedback is right after the actions that triggered you into thinking that feedback is needed. The situation and the context are fresh in everyone’s minds. There is no information lost in the muddy waters of time.
- No emotions
For both positive or negative outcomes, the focus should be just on the actions leading to it. However, giving corrective feedback on the spot means that you are more likely prone to burst some negative emotions. You should not allow for that to happen! Instead, you should allow your head to cool down, even if it means to sacrifice the immediacy of the discussion.
- On behaviour
This one is pretty self-explanatory and easy to digest. The feedback you provide needs to be focused on the behavior you want to correct, not on the individual. No blame should be thrown around, no one should be feeling like a lesser person.
- Future oriented
What’s passed is past. There is no need for an explanation or for excuses. Do not expect and do not ask for them. You are giving the feedback for the sole purpose of a better future for all the parties involved.
The purpose of the feedback you offer is not to unload your burdens or to make you feel better. The goal should be either to encourage a specific behaviour or to find means for improvement. For the corrective feedback, it is up to the receiver to decide upon what actions need to be taken.
A pattern for giving feedback
Feedback is not easy to internalize if the person receiving it is not ready for it. That is why you need to prepare the discussion by setting up the stage with the following question:
“May I offer you some feedback?”
If the answer is “No,” accept it and let it go. You can revisit the matter at a later date, when the addressee is ready to receive the feedback. If the answer is “Yes,” proceed by pointing out the behaviour and by explaining the effect it has on you or on other people involved:
“When you do this, that happens.”
Finally, for the corrective feedback, let the receiver think about the best ways to have this behaviour corrected:
“What can you do about it?”
A true story
I will close the article by sharing a real story about a particular instance when I received feedback that has stayed with me ever since.
I was supposed to send by email some scanned documents such as an ID card, a college diploma and a signed declaration form. Without missing a beat, I scanned each document, attached the generated files to the aforementioned email and sent it away, merrily.
It didn’t take long before the receiver came back to me and explained what I’d done. The file names that the scanner generated were nowhere near to describing the content of each file. And I didn’t bother in the least to change them. Taken out of the context of the email they were attached to, the files were meaningless. Unless someone came to me and explained that my in-action, my failing to properly re-name the files, has caused confusion to people and delays in processing the files, I would be none the wiser.
You can surely bet that from then onward I have double-checked the names of all my email attachments. Also, the above format helped me to better communicate with my colleagues. By sharing feedback, we keep our team happy and engaged.
On the same topic, I’d be happy to hear your experience with giving/receiving feedback.
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