Feedback: engaging colleagues to nourish our perspective

I originally published this post on our internal leadership P2 here at Automattic in early December 2019. I’ve made some changes to reflect the broader audience. I decided to post this here at the prompting of one of the leads that I lead, because I am very susceptible to flattery.

At Automattic we say that communication is oxygen, and that feedback is fundamental to effective communication. Despite this, I still occasionally see peers reluctant to give feedback as their default. There could be all sorts of reasons behind that, but I’d like to share my perspective around feedback (and how feedback helps my perspective) in an effort to alleviate some of the concerns I think I see.

Refocus, enhance

In a company larger than a few hundred people, it is likely impossible for someone to be deeply knowledgeable about all areas of the company. They probably have deep knowledge in their chosen field, and detailed knowledge in other areas that are interesting or relevant to their role, but that’s it. At Automattic, it’s possible to follow every area of the company – we put everything on P2. Everything. Financials, project decisions, you name it. So the temptation to fall down rabbit holes is very real! But realistically, you can’t drink from the firehose forever; you must scale back with intention. When that happens, you naturally and normally become less tuned into the subtle evolutions that people working closely on a team experience every day. You’d need either time to deeply dive, or someone to take a few minutes to clue you in.

In many ways, providing someone with feedback is giving them a chance to get a better, more complete picture. Regardless of whether it’s individual feedback or feedback to another area of the company (acting as a representative), the same idea applies: feedback helps an idea, concept, the work (etc) become more clear. 

I’ve seen folks talk about a reluctance to give feedback because they feel they’ll get (themselves or someone else) in trouble for it, or that it won’t be taken seriously. To these specific concerns, my guidance would be the following: give feedback in good faith, and with an eye towards a productive outcome. Ask yourself what outcome you want and believe is reasonable. When I get feedback from someone else in Happiness, the most useful feedback focuses on observable behaviors, lets me understand the person’s point of view, and helps me see their desired outcome. That gives me what I need to ask more questions and begin to paint a clearer picture. Every piece of feedback is a chip of paint, it’s not a complete and finished painting.

Let’s enjoy a metaphor together. 

In this metaphor, there’s a complete painting. It’s very, very large, and we are all positioned in such a way that we can only see a small portion of the painting (the painting is Automattic — that’s the metaphor).

This is what I see:

Another person sees this:

A third person sees this:

A fourth person sees this:

I say “Hmm, this painting is a tree.”

And they say “I could see a tree, yeah. It’s a tree.”

And says “I don’t like this kind of tree, but it’s a tree nonetheless.”

And says “Yep. That’s a tree. We are looking at a painting of a tree.”

And so far, things are ok, because we can all agree on our painting — it’s a tree. Without feedback between us on what differences we can see and what we disagree about (and what we agree about!) that’s about as complete a picture as we can hope to get. Let’s assume that the four people who agree we see a tree continue to not give each other any feedback or communicate effectively further about the painting.

What happens when a fifth person sees this?

Do they need to speak up and tell the other people that they don’t see a tree? If they don’t, it’s unlikely the the other four people will realize that they’re not seeing the same tree. That’s this person’s advantage and their responsibility: they have the key to challenge assumptions the other four people had about their partial paintings. They need to go back to basics to explain what they see, which in turn gives more language to the other viewers as well. “I see broad horizontal strokes, with short vertical strokes, mostly in brown and other dark colors” says far more than “It’s (not) a tree.” This can help the other four observers say things like “my tree has sparse branches and the background is mostly blue.” Or, “the tree I see is sort of oval shaped and seems short.” Once the feedback door is open, dialogue can actually flow. When we come right down to it, feedback is dialogue; it’s an active exchange of thoughts and ideas.

By giving feedback (and asking questions in order to gather feedback), each viewer can change their perspective until they finally understand the entire painting (even if they don’t view all of it at once at any time).

Good feedback corrects, enhances, and improves. Bad feedback (which is either not productive or not existent) falsely reinforces misunderstandings (at a minimum).

Good feedback processes let you go from “it’s a tree” to “it’s a forest.”

Emily Carr, BC Forest 1932

See the image here

It’s very easy to be resistant to feedback! But part of all our jobs is to listen to feedback and evaluate it. If it’s not given very well, can we use that conversation to get a better idea of what the feedback is intended for? (We can.) We can also provide feedback on the gap between what the intention was and what the impact was, as a way for that other person to improve their own feedback-giving. 

Giving feedback can be particularly scary when you give feedback “up.” However, I balance that against the responsibility of helping someone else gain a clearer picture when I think there’s something missing from their view. I also use feedback to reinforce things that I think are helpful or otherwise useful or done well. Sometimes you may not have a different view of something, but you can always let someone know when they’ve described a section of painting particularly well. Sending appreciation and gratitude feedback can help establish connections with others across the company, and it can also help the other person feel good about the work they’re doing! At Automattic, we usually know these as Kudos, and most of us are comfortable sending these (though we may not always think to). Kudos are a way to directly send someone a compliment about their work that is logged on a P2 as well. Comfort with both congratulatory and clarification feedback makes for a more robust feedback process, however, rather than relying on just one or the other.

So in summary:

  • Don’t be afraid to describe your view of the painting
  • Ask if you don’t understand the description someone else has provided of the painting
  • Talk with other people about specifics about the painting
  • Remember that you’re all trying to get the most accurate picture, and actively listening and absorbing that information is crucial to getting to a shared understanding.

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