Working in a “feedback culture” as a developer - Those tough conversations

Recently I attended an awesome Georgia Murch workshop titled “Tough Conversations: Feedback that doesn’t suck”. As developers, feedback is critical to our learning and growth journey. Therefore, this post is less technically focused and primarily about soft skills, organisations with a ‘feedback culture’ and my views on how we, as developers, can use feedback to improve on the way we grow as professionals.

Background

As per georgiamurch.com the abstract of the workshop I attended is as follows:

We all need to have conversations to move things forward, whether you lead teams, projects or ideas. Yet sometimes it’s outbreaks… not outcomes that stand in the way. Or we just avoid them altogether.

This program helps people build their confidence and capability to have the tough conversations, well. Building trust and respect with their colleagues becomes the result. No matter how tough it is. And it’s easier than you think. In this workshop you will;

  • Become aware of why you avoid or handle conversations poorly and the cost
  • Learn how to prepare and structure those tough conversations
  • Understand how to create ‘safety’ in conversations
  • Develop techniques to navigate the conversations when they go south
  • Become more aware of your own communication style and how it helps or hinders

What is a feedback culture?

Company culture? Firstly, I should point out ‘culture’ in this context; we’re talking about company culture. Culture is interpreted differently by all over the world. Some people see it as ‘fluffy’ and intangible. Some people see it as something more concrete - for example: the actions (not words) of the leadership team and how they impact employees. There are varying opinions. It could be a feeling of inclusiveness in the workplace and perhaps the feeling of progression in someone’s career versus if they’re being treated as ‘just a number’. It could be something like whether employees have the right to challenge things they disagree with and what the impact might be afterwards. It could also be what’s tolerated and what’s not tolerated.

Put feedback on the agenda: There are a number of industries out there where people are generally afraid to share ideas: it’s commonly seen in healthcare, medical and not-for-profit industries (charity/community organisations and the like). Companies that have a “nice” culture where no one wants to speak up often lead to mediocre results. Companies that promote open and transparent discussions that demonstrate intent lead us on the path of looking at ‘feedback cultures’. It’s where feedback, such as that of a discussion, a conversation, something that helps another person succeed is expected.

The fear of speaking up

What I found interesting are the enormous number of fears that stop us from speaking up:

  • The fear of being disliked
  • The fear of giving off the wrong impression (perception)
  • The fear of damaging your personal brand
  • The fear of looking stupid (‘surely a more senior person would have said something if it was actually a problem’)
  • The fear of communicating the wrong intent (communicating intent is hard!)

“He had been so afraid of conflict, until he became more afraid of the silence”

It seems that behavioural research in this field shows us that good companies have a culture where the feeling of “it’s not my place to say” is not so present. The TED talk Dare to Disagree by Margaret Heffernan is enlightening on this topic. Margaret talks about the brilliant doctor in the 1950’s who ‘dared to disagree’ and uncovered the correlation between pregnant women who’d had an X-Ray and subsequent child fatalities. Following this example, I really love Margaret’s quote “He had been so afraid of conflict, until he became more afraid of the silence”.

It’s a very toxic place to work when people generally have an attitude of ‘what’s the point? Nothing will change anyway’.

Emotional Control

How do we make conflict safe? Often we go into ‘fight or flight’ when it comes to emotions we don’t understand how to control. It’s biological and it’s automatic, it’s normal. I almost relate this to Daniel Kannheman’s “System 1” thinking. But how do we master this in our own minds? Research shows us that top CEOs and leaders have the same fears as everybody else. Therefore, going into a conversation and willing to be wrong is actually a good thing! Our perceptions, experience, beliefs, personality and moods may differ. This is fine. A shared truth where we build trust between each other is what makes us more comfortable to disagree. The TED talk The Danger of Silence by Clint Smithis great at highlighting the ‘bystander effect’ and what it means to build rapport. Not speaking is not caring. Will you regret it if you don’t speak?

What is good feedback?

It’s important for feedback to be specific and actionable. Give the receiver of feedback something to work on. Good feedback has constructive intent. In the workshop, we outlined four categorisations of feedback:

Good: Constructive Positive Treat this with more weight - we often only make meetings about ‘negative’ things; be bold: make a meeting with someone about a positive thing they did and give them feedback
Good: Constructive Gaps In terms of gaps, we’re talking about the gaps in expectations or outcomes
Bad: Praise It’s nice… But it’s not that useful to the receiver
Worst: Criticism It’s not nice and it isn’t constructive for the receiver

In my view, feedback also must be relevant and timely (hence why performance reviews only twice per year are one of my pet peeves).

A story vs an opinion vs the facts

The first tool you can use: What are the facts?

Stories do not serve you well. Stories in our head are based on assumptions. Our opinions and values may lead to speculation. How do these translate to our thoughts and belief process? We need to build our basis of actions from the facts rather than from emotions. How often we act upon stories rather than facts is surprisingly high.

My personal ‘constructive gaps’ difficult conversation

This might be a bit of a contentious topic… The difficult conversation I’m struggling to have right now is to do with working towards my next promotion. What do I have to do to be promoted from Associate Developer to Developer? The skill set is the same so the experience level seems to be the defining factor. However, various people have told me that I’m asking the wrong question. Perhaps I should be focused more on the impact I’m trying to have as a technical professional.

  • I need a clearer understanding of the promotions process at my company, it’s fuzzy in my head right now
  • I need to know how achieving my goals translates to successful performance
  • I haven’t talked to others in the organisation about this yet

I fear that my manager will think that I’m just after more money; in reality that’s partially true, but it’s more about being able to grow my responsibilities to become a better developer. However, this is likely to be more of a story that I’ve told myself. There is more investigation to be done here based on the facts, and a task in itself is to find out more facts. If I were to say something like ‘it’s hard to get promoted’ then that’s just an opinion, it’s not based on facts.

Actually having the conversation

It’s ok to have an opinion, but don’t open with the opinion. Open with the fact. Building rapport and trust makes it easier to have difficult conversations: trust is deeper than rapport. You can’t have trust without rapport. Proactively building a relationship with people you don’t naturally connect will likely to lead to better work outcomes in the long run.

The following steps come from the book Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott:

State the issue What’s the purpose, the thing? Make it clear and direct, avoid opinions and keep it ‘big picture’
Share your intent Avoid problem solving, be genuine; “…because I want us to work well together”
Provide high level examples Keep to the facts; “I’ve noticed…”
Share your opinions/feelings For whom does this issue impact? Is it the team, the customer, the organisation as a whole?
Discuss the stakes/consequences (self explanatory)
Identify your contribution to the problem “I’m sorry I hadn’t let you know sooner”; “I’m sorry, I know it’s extra work when I know you’re busy”
Repeat your intent Stop them speculating; they may be freaking out by now
Ask them for their thoughts/perspectives (self explanatory)

The army prepares for many situations. Preparing for the worst creates safety. Safety is about respect.

R.E.S.P.E.C.T.?

If you want respect, you need to give it. The workshop outlined the following tips to restore safety in gaining respect:

  • Apologise (when appropriate); be genuine though
  • Use do/don’t statements; “What I don’t want to do is upset you”, “What I do want is for us to work well together”
  • Agree on mutual conversation; common ground
  • Stay calm; we usually respect people who are cool and calm
  • Get curious; ask questions
  • Make silence your friend
  • Allow their feelings; be a good listener

People I respect

The workshop facilitator asked us to describe someone we really respect and someone we really don’t have much respect for. I won’t outline what I wrote because it’s confidential. My general thoughts are that people I respect treat me as an equal regardless of my inexperience. People I don’t respect are self-centred and aim to make themselves look good wherever possible; they put their own agenda before others.

An interesting thing to consider: would the people/person you respect and don’t respect say the same about you?

Receiving Feedback

What triggers you? On the other hand, what are our own triggers? When do we automatically go to ‘fight or flight’? Everybody has a limit. I can relate to almost all of these in my years of experience:

The Truth Trigger When you plain just disagree with what’s being said
The Relationship Trigger For example, title/rank/gender, a stereotype for all types of typical people?
The Identity Trigger What’s core to your identity? “I’m a people person”; or perhaps people talk down to you because of your position
The Delivery Trigger It’s how they said it; “What’s your point?! Get to the point!”

We need to ‘find the gold’, the key point of the discussion. Push your trigger way down and focus. When someone is giving you feedback, it may not always be true: listening is key. Are multiple people giving you the same feedback? It might only be their perspective, so you should go out there and gather data from others. Be proactive and always say thankyou.

When it comes to feedback, ask for it!. Make it specific. Just saying “Hey, can I have some feedback?” and the person saying “it was really good” isn’t useful. Make it comfortable by giving people notice and making it specific: “Hey can we schedule 5 minutes for some feedback tomorrow? How did you find my facilitation skills yesterday?”. By asking, you take away the uncomfortable feeling from their side. Who will you ask for feedback from?

Summary

We finalised the workshop with our ‘top 3 actions’. I was compelled to write about this workshop because I think there was some great content here and it’s really useful for people at all levels of experience. The corporate world has evolved to what it is today but we don’t have to sit in silence while it passes us by. Be afraid to disagree, speak up, give feedback and ask for feedback.

I’d like to thank Justine Coleman and the Georgia Murch organisation for putting on a brilliant workshop. You can find a copy of Georgia Murch’s Fixing Feedback book here.