Everywhere I worked in the past, the only feedback that was asked of employees was during a yearly evaluation meeting. These meetings always felt to me like talking to Santa Claus and his Knecht Ruprecht. I was asked: Were you a good employee last year? If yes, we might give you a raise. If no, admit all your mistakes now, even if we already know everything, ho ho ho. And don't you talk about your feelings, or your well-being, or say anything about the organization's (invisible) hierarchies, otherwise we will put you on the "naughty list", and that's it with candy. The yearly evaluation set aside, there was no other place to give feedback (except by escalating a matter by involving the Labour Court, if you happen to work in France, or going on strike, also mostly part of French culture).
Feedback allows to reflect on work processes, to situate oneself, and to get closure.
How surprised was I when, some years ago, I received an email from a
collaborator asking me: kindly for just few paragraphs (doesn’t have to be
anything long) to hear from you about the process, your work, challenges
you had, or anything else you want to mention there.. Wow!
This simple email allowed me to reflect about:
- What did I like about the project? What part of the work was fun, challenging, and creative?
- What went well or was complicated? How did our meetings work out? Were they productive? Was it easy for me to frame the work I have to do? Were expectations clearly defined? How were remarks and proposals for improvement presented to me? Did people test my work thoroughly and gave me useful feedback on mistakes or misunderstandings? Did I have to do lots of unexpected work? Were file formats, texts or other input not well formatted or unclear, or arrived late? Did I allocate enough time to the project? Was I late with delivering anything? Could I have done better?
- What is my overall conclusion for this project? Between what went well and what did not: were the issues, the workload, the assignments manageable? Am I willing to work with this person again? If yes, what needs to change? If no, why?
- What am I grateful for? What can I thank my colleagues/collaborators for? Did they have great communication skills, ideas, were they on time, did they voice issues early enough? How did it feel to work with them?
How do we get to a feedback culture?
How do we get from German Christmas folklore, protestant work ethics, and the deeply rooted principles of disciplining and punishing to a feedback culture on eye level? It sounds a bit like going from the dark ages to a really cool science fiction utopia with universal peace, telepathy, and magic between all sentient beings on all inhabited planets in the cosmos — at least that's how I imagined it as a child, just like some of my heroes did: the cosmonaut girl who saves Earth, the boy who talks to space flowers that give him the capacity to fly, and the little onion who fights for justice (the Italian author was so popular on our side of the iron curtain that a soviet astronomer named a minor planet after him. His wife meanwhile immortalized Karl Marx.) — and some romantic part of me hangs on to these ideas.
Feedback is not always easy to hear — and to give.
Giving and receiving feedback is hard in a culture where people learnt that when they made a mistake they won't get candy. Or that they have to constantly please other people because they are not worthy by themselves. This can lead to people putting mistakes on one another. Every sentence that starts with You are … has the potential of creating a lot of hurt, and anger. Have you heard of I-Statements? They have very powerfully changed my world view, as they shift from accusation to ownership of feelings. So instead of telling someone Your writing style is impossible! You really need to change the way you write., with an I-Statement one could say I have a hard time understanding that part of the text. I-Statements make cooperation possible.
Feedback is not about being right or wrong, it's first of all about being able to see how another person has experienced a situation. Active listening is a tool that helps with understanding. It might seem easy, but needs quite some practice — and a safe space. One part of active listening is to restate what you hear the other person say (by mirroring, or paraphrasing), to make sure you understood, and make sure they know you understood what they were trying to say. You can practise this: in a circle of three people, have one person tell how they experienced a (possibly conflictual) situation, have one person do the active listening, and the third person observing in order to give feedback to the active listener about how they did. Then switch roles, for example clockwise, until everyone has had every role.
Encouraging continuous feedback
A working feedback culture does not take place only once a year. It needs to be a continuous process and therefore implemented in meetings, teams, eventually on the level of a project. Making clear: Who can I talk to if I experience an issue? is not different than telling developers and users where and how they can report a bug, or request a feature. A safe space to express feedback is key.
Encouraging multiple feedback channels
Some people might feel less empowered or more vulnerable over a channel than others. Make sure to have different channels for receiving feedback such as email, a point on each meeting agenda, a one-to-one meeting, or a poll.
Giving and receiving feedback on eye level
In a workplace that does not have a working feedback culture, feedback is easily perceived as policing. If your feedback process consists of asking people to upload a form to a cloud server every 3 months, and you notice that some people don't do it, you could ask yourself if there is an issue with how your colleagues perceive giving feedback in your organization. Do you meet your colleagues on eye level when it comes to feedback? Do you take feedback seriously and act on it? How do you deal with unpleasant feedback? How do you react when colleagues don't meet your expectations? Can people participate in the feedback process within their paid work time? Did everybody understand what the feedback process is about?
Don't jump to conclusions
Humans are problem solving animals. When someone comes to us with a problem, the first thing we want to do is to solve it, to help them. But sometimes this is uncalled for, it can be disempowering, or prevent people from acquiring competences themselves, and it can even break people's boundaries. So instead of asking What can I do for you?, try asking What do you need right now? People will often reply something that you did not expect at all.
Acting on feedback
Make sure you have a process to collect feedback (possibly anonymized) and to regularly evaluate if the organization needs to implement changes to thrive.
I stumbled upon Hans-Christian Dany's critique of feedback again recently, therefore I need to make it clear: I'm not interested in improving capitalist work culture by using cybernetic principles of self-regulation through feedback. Instead, I am interested in improving cooperation between people who work either individually or in organizations — on eye level. In this framework, I see feedback processes as profoundly anti-capitalist methods to improve cooperation while working towards common good.
Implementing these ideas should be doable: there are organizations who provide feedback training for example. This document, initially aiming at people in cooperatives, gives many insights on communication skills and feedback, the agile and UX worlds do feedback "retrospectives". …and otherwise I'll have to go and write science fiction stories for children myself.