#152 - Feedback is Worked Examples
Plus: 1:1 questions for underperforming team members; team expectations should be tradeoffs; the problem might not be with our team, it might be us; better LinkedIn profiles
Feedback is a learning opportunity, because feedback is a worked example of the expectations, standards, needs and goals that people have.
When was the last time you read or watched something, nodded along and thought you understood it, then tried to apply what you learned and were stymied? I’m guessing it wasn’t that long ago.
When I’m learning to use a new tool - a programming language, or heck our first air fryer we just bought - I don’t sit down and read the theory or the manual for hours; I jump straight to the code examples, or sample recipes, because seeing how something is actually used and applied is a much faster way to jumpstart learning. Then, grounded in some real-world application, I go back and read the theory for broader understanding.
Getting feedback from our peers, managers, and teammates is the same. You can infer, or even be told about the requirements for a project, or the expectations and standards of your broader organization, or the needs of some peer team. When they are explicitly communicated, and communicated well, they might very well make sense in the abstract. But until you see how one standards, expectations, needs, and goals are applied, your understanding of them is going to be incomplete, and your learning of how to meet them is going to be unnecessarily slow.
Last week (#151) I talked about growing our ability to initiate challenging discussions by leaning into our strengths. But I often see a related problem that managers from the research world have — receiving feedback.
Sometimes the trouble is about management behaviours; but that’s not usually so bad, largely because when we’re starting out we don’t necessarily expect to be good at those. The bigger issue is about our work. Project plans, collaborations, etc. (This, in my experience, is why some new managers wrestle with ideas like prewiring meetings, #147).
We were pretty smart in school, and undergrad, and grew up getting really good grades - first more or less accidentally, then at some point we started expecting them of ourselves, and working for them. Then we went off for another 2-7 years of school, where the stakes around grades (or paper evaluations, or grant evaluations) were even higher for a while, and we strove in earnest.
And… look, that kind of messed a lot of us up.
Somewhere around the way, an innocent, wholesome, joy-filled love of learning and improvement gets twisted, corrupted, into a need to be consistently ranked above average, for evaluations of our work to always be unusually high.
So a lot of us have kind of trained ourselves to have Big Feelings about our work being evaluated as anything less than an A+.
It’s one thing for us to be stuck in that mindset as an individual contributor. It’ll mess our work up a bit, probably make team members think less of us, but it remains mostly an “us” problem.
As a manager, it’s no longer about us. We’re responsible for a team of people, their career development, their work. We have our own work and collaboration to do, which affects the day-to-day work life of our team.
We need to be better about not just receiving less-than-stellar feedback, but actively soliciting it. To get comfortable with the fact that it’s the learning and growth and improvement that matters, not how our work was evaluated at one snapshot in time. There’ll always be room to improve, and the only question is how long to put off that opportunity to learn how to improve.
It can be hard to hear negative feedback, especially about something we’ve put a lot of work into. The advice I usually give goes like this:
Make it easier to hear the feedback by putting less work in! It can be easier to get feedback as early as possible on your understanding of the problem and the constraints, the broad approach you’re planning to take, etc.
Listen to the feedback, absorb it, and do not react to it. Record it as valuable learning material to study later.
Certainly don’t “defend” against the feedback. It’s a worked example, not a threat. If you have to, thank them for their feedback, ask if you can talk more about it later, and step away from the conversation.
If you can, and as you get better about handling your response to the feedback, start asking genuine questions digging deeper into the feedback. What’s the underlying expectation or need here? Where else might it apply? What would best address that need? You can even ask for advice.
It’s possible the worked example being provided is less relevant to you than the person giving it intended. As you process the feedback example data, the feedback might well be a bit off-track. If people sense that there’s a problem, there usually is, but people are often not great at diagnosing the cause of a problem right in the moment. Consider the feedback more broadly.
Focus on the learning opportunity. Fantastic, you now have more information about how these expectations, standards, needs, and goals are applied. How can you use this to make your next steps even better? Are there other places you could apply this feedback?
Feedback is just worked examples, and worked examples are one of the fastest ways to learn how to apply knowledge. The more feedback we solicit and learn from, the faster we’ll get better and better.
(PS - I’m still experimenting with the time these get written and go out - as always, let me know what you think and what works for you, or send me any comments and questions you have! Just email firstname.lastname@example.org.)
And now, on to this week’s roundup!
This is an older article which recently crossed my browser, and Lew’s articles are always valuable, so let me share it.
Lew has 14 questions for one-on-one meetings to dig into underperformance issues:
To see how much it’s been our or the work environment’s influence (e.g., “Is it clear what needs to get done?”)
To see what’s going on with the employee (e.g. “How do you feel about your performance? On what part of the work do you feel stuck?”)
It’s always easier to initiate these conversations when you have the first couple of lines of a script to start; if you’re in this situation, maybe Lew’s list will help.
Setting engineering org values - Will Larson
I don’t think our teams should necessary cast these as values, but Larson’s article is a good way of thinking about how to express the expectations our team has for its work.
Key is that good expectations are tie-breakers, are ways of choosing when trading off between one or more potentially reasonable choices - they’re decision-making guides. Take the project management “iron triangle” of scope, quality, and cost - if something has to give, which should your team members choose, and under what circumstances? That’s a good, meaningful expectation.
Larson suggests three litmus tests for a team expectation (or “value”):
Reversible - a team could conceivably have the opposite expectation, or aim for a different point along a spectrum. e.g. whether a team prioritizes cost over quality is going to depend on whether they work for a medical device manufacturer or an upstart social network.
Applicable - it is enough of a beacon to steer by when making difficult decisions. E.g. you can imagine how you’d give feedback (“worked examples”) against it. Even perfectly reasonable things like prioritizing “high quality” will need more specifics before people know how to interpret it.
Honest - A team behavioural norm that doesn’t yet exist and is instead a manager’s or executive’s aspiration isn’t really an expectation (yet), and pretending that it is will sap trust.
Larson then talks about how to introduce expectations in an organization.
It’s Not Your Team, It’s You - Avi Ben-Yosef
6 Questions to Ask Yourself When You’re Frustrated with Your Team - Amii Barnard-Bahn and Noémie Le Pertel, HBR
If we’re seeing a problem in our team that keeps recurring with different people, or that is currently happening with multiple team members, the first place we should generally start investigating is within our own behaviours.
It’s not always us, of course! But there’s two good reasons to start with ourselves.
First, we are normally the biggest factor all our team members have in common; it’s our job to create the environment where people can do their best work and grow, and if that’s not happening, we should start with what we’re doing.
Second, if the problem is something we’re doing, well, that’s something we can tackle comparatively easily. Start with the easy case.
Ben-Yosef cautions us if we find ourselves muttering to ourselves about what “they” are or aren’t doing, like “No matter what I say, they keep doing the same things”, we should examine our own role:
I can almost hear you mutter to yourself, “wait a minute! Those are all true!” I agree. […] That’s the only reason that deflection works as a coping and defense mechanism. If you’d simply say something that was clearly false, someone would call you out on it. You have a correct observation, at least subjectively. The issue is that you are abducting your responsibility for it.
Barnard-Bahn and Le Pertel have a set of questions we might want to ask ourselves if we’re frustrated with how our team is doing:
Have I been clear about expected work outcomes?
Are my expectations reasonable?
What do I know to be true about this employee?
Am I managing to the results and outcomes?
Am I holding everyone to the same standard?
Am I providing actionable feedback that is clear, firm, and kind?
Managing Your Own Career
I pull a lot of articles from the world of software/tech, because I think there’s an overlap in some areas with the kinds of problems we face - in both cases we’re from communities of experts who have focused more on our craft and less on “the people stuff”.
And some of that people stuff is how to sell ourselves. Maybe we’ve learned how to write a résumé and not a CV, but still, actively highlighting our own achievements may be a little challenging for some of us. Wang’s article covers the basics and serves as a checklist of things we should do to update our LinkedIn profile. Note that when you’re very much not looking for a job is the best time to do this. (And #99 has a great article by Chesser how to handle recruiter contacts if they are attracted to your shiny new profile.)
And that’s it for the week! Let me know what you thought, or if you have anything you’d like to share with me about how a newsletter for management for people like you with advanced degrees might be even more valuable. Just email me, leave a comment, or reply to this newsletter if you get it in your inbox.
Have a great weekend, and best of luck in the coming week week with your team,