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Authentic Feedback

Episode 14

We’ve all experienced feedback that was unhelpful — but why was it that way? Supervisors want to motivate us and bring out our best, but perhaps they don’t always think about the feedback they’re giving. Is it really helpful? Is it addressing the real problem? What’s the context? In this episode, we’ll look at how our perceptions can change how we respond, and why authentic feedback is genuinely helpful.



Show Notes

  • Sometimes we ascribe motivations that aren’t there, causing us to provide feedback based on incorrect assumptions.
  • A fundamental human trait is seeing the world with our own biases. You must be aware of your perceptual biases.
  • Feedback is best when it’s based on tangible things, not just perceptions. Authentic feedback recognizes the difference between sensation and perception.
  • Objective analysis will yield feedback that takes into account circumstances.
  • Good feedback welcomes positive changes.



Announcer: Welcome to the Programming Leadership Podcast, where we help great coders become skilled leaders and build happy, high-performing software teams.

Marcus: “Marcus, I wish you’d been taller.” That kind of feedback is very, very hard to action on. I mean, you could imagine when I heard this in high school from a girl that I thought was pretty interesting, it was pretty hard to take. After all, being taller, not something I felt like I could control. I mean, maybe I could get lifts in my shoes, and if you read books, maybe there’s ways to be taller, but I don’t think so. I’ll just be honest. Now, here’s the thing, had she said, “Marcus, I wish you’d been thinner,” okay, thinner I can do something about. I was quite a portly, little guy in high school. I still struggle with that. “Marcus, I wish you’d been smarter maybe, gotten better grades, driven a better car, blah, blah, blah.” But hearing feedback like, “I wish you’d been taller,” that’s hard to action on.

I use that really silly example, because I hear a lot of feedback that is given to people, offered to people by managers that’s impossible for them to action on, because either it’s something so vague or it’s something outside their control. So, today I want to talk about what I call giving authentic feedback.

Authentic feedback is telling someone what you see from the outside. It is telling them something that they may or may not know. It is recognizing that you have biases and owning the fact that you are simply perceiving something. Okay, so let me give you an example. Bob Comes in late for stand up. Now, you have a choice. You could say nothing. This is the most common. Or You could decide, I’ll give Bob some feedback to help him improve. This is oftentimes what goes through my mind. The real thing I’m thinking is I’m sick of Bob showing up late, so I want to correct his behavior.

The fact that I think Bob needs outside input, first of all, makes me assume Bob does not recognize his behavior. Well now I have an assumption. The fact that you would see anything at all, that you would imagine that telling someone else some new information means that you don’t think they have it. So, that is an assumption that you are jumping to that conclusion. Second, if you do think that Bob realizes he comes in late, because he sort of acknowledges, “Sorry, I’m late,” but he does it over and over, then maybe the impact that you feel he doesn’t realize is his effect on the team. Whatever it is, you have to just own the fact that you’re going to tell Bob something that is entirely your perception. Your eyes and your ears from your viewpoint… If you’re me, my viewpoint is roughly five foot, two inches off the ground, that perspective is what I’m going to offer Bob.

When I do that, I may do it with the best of intentions, but what I should do is tell Bob what I see and hear and what I perceive is happening inside of me, what my reaction to it, and if I see other reactions within the group. Okay? What I should do is say, whether right then or later on (I’m going to leave the timing out of it for a minute)… I should say, “Bob, you were late today. It negatively impacted the group dynamic. I saw people become derailed. I felt frustrated by it. What was happening for you, Bob?” Okay. Now, that kind of feedback may seem really passive, but the reality is I am owning the fact that it is authentic feedback, because I saw it, I heard it, and I felt it.

Unauthentic feedback, in my opinion, is where we guess at Bob’s internal mental state, at his traits, at his habits, and a lot of stuff that we don’t have direct access to. And I say it’s unauthentic because if I were to say to Bob, “Bob, you’re always late,” well, that’s not true. I don’t see Bob in every situation in life. If I said to Bob, “You’re a procrastinator, you’re always behind the gun,” okay, that is examining or making a commentary on Bob’s internal state, his internal traits. Maybe I would say, “Bob, you’re not very motivated.” Oh, okay, but again, I’m looking at an external act, walking into a meeting late, and I’m then tying back to it motivation.

All right? I’m making a big jump, because you can never see motivation. You can never see drive, you can never… You see the effects of those, but the reality is there’s a lot of other things you see the effects of too, and just because we have a name for motivation or drive, or demotivation or disinterest and being disengaged, just because we have labels for those things doesn’t mean we’re able to accurately forecast what’s happening inside another person.

So, it is completely authentic to talk about the actions you saw and the feelings you felt. “I was frustrated when you showed up late today.” Why? “Why? Because we… It feels disrespectful to me.” That’s authentic. “It feels to me as though it’s disrespectful,” completely honest. But if you said, “Everyone hates it when you’re late, Bob,” now you’re speaking for everyone, and that’s not true, because you’re not everyone. Now, if you want to talk about the impact on the team, you might say, “We were in a really good discussion, and when you showed up, that discussion stopped and we never kind of got it back. So, it’s really important for you to be here on time to participate in the discussion, and because I observe that interruptions kill the enthusiasm people have in the discussion.” That is an observed thing. You observed behavior in the group.

Now, what happens here is that it’s easy to withhold feedback too long. Now, I’m just going to be honest, I think feedback is best given immediately, or as soon as possible after immediately. Some things should be said behind closed doors, but it’s a big anti-pattern to hold feedback very long. I would say don’t go home unless all the feedback’s been given. But again, you have to recognize the fact that all the feedback that you collect is based on feelings and perceptions, not based on reality. I’m sorry, this is just… I think it is absolute truth about how the world works.

If you see something, it immediately goes through all kinds of mental models and perceptions and processing, and it’s the difference… Psychologists say that there’s a big difference between sensation, the… When you hear a noise, when a noise or music or some sound hits your eardrum, that is sensation. When your brain interprets it as someone yelling “fire,” that is perception. You’ve now turned those vibrations into a word, and when you put that association, the word “fire” with the fact that you’re trapped in a… that you’re sitting in a crowded movie theater, now your perceptions gain meaning and you have to escape, so you have a big response. Someone else might yell “fire” and you’re out in the woods trying to start a fire, and it’s the same exact tone and everything, but you interpret it, you perceive it entirely different. Maybe you’re like, “Oh my gosh, thank goodness we have fire. I’m going to come closer and warm myself because I’ve been lost in the woods for three days.” Yelling “fire” is not good or bad. Perceiving it is all about what you hear, the meaning you make of it, and the context you’re in.

Now, all of this goes to say that far too much feedback gets given as though it’s truly facts, and authentic feedback recognizes the difference between sensation and perception. It says, “I perceived this, I felt this, I saw something that looked like this,” but it leaves open the idea that we might be imperfect, that we might be confused, that we might have the wrong context. This happened to me one time when I, well, I hate to say this, but I jumped all over Bob when he came in late, and then he looked at me right in the middle of the meeting and he said, “I broke down on the way to work. My car’s still sitting alongside the freeway. My friend came along and gave me a ride here. I know that I’m constantly late for things, and I’m working on it, and I left my car to be here, and I have to go get it after this.” Oh. Now I feel like my perception and my interpretation, while my perception may have been correct that Bob was late, “late” takes on a different kind of meaning. And in fact, frankly, the whole situation changes.

Or maybe, this happened another time, a different Bob, a different Bob said to me, “I just came from my wife’s cancer appointment and it’s back. So, yeah, I’m sorry I’m late.” Like, whoa, things got real really fast. So not only can I properly… am I prone to error in assuming why Bob did things, that fundamental attribution error. If you’re curious, the fundamental attribution error is where we say Bob isn’t late because of circumstances, Bob doesn’t act a certain way because of circumstances, he acts that way because of who he is, internal traits. And when I do that, I judge Bob really hard.

But we say, then, there’s this other bias called the actor-observer bias, and you can Google that too if you want, and the actor-observer bias said that I feel like when I screw up or make a choice, it’s the circumstances I’m responding to, but when you do it, it’s something within you, it’s traits. So again, it’s the idea that when you see someone else doing something, it’s probably just who they are. They’re just that kind of person. But when I do something, especially something negative, I can say, “I had no time. I was under all this pressure. I’d just come from a terrible doctor’s appointment.” I look at my circumstances.

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If all you learn from this episode is that when you offer someone feedback, you do so with the idea that you might be wrong, that you may have misinterpreted it, that your sensations were different from the perceptions you have, and that your perceptions were entirely inside your own skull, and that maybe, just maybe, that other person has an entire different set of perceptions from the same sensation. Yes, they walked in late, they knew they were walking in late, but there’s a whole background of things that if you jump on top of them, either then or later, and you start making judgments about the kind of person they are, “You’re just not motivated to be here, Bob,” then you’re really not going to offer feedback that’s helpful.

It is, in effect, saying, “I wish you were taller, Bob,” and Bob can’t do anything about his height, just like I couldn’t. I on e time had a boss say to me, and forgive me if this is a little off-color, he said, “Marcus, I don’t think you have the balls for this job.” I sometimes use the phrase “backbone,” but today I just said it, because that’s what he said. And that kind of fundamental judgment has sat on my shoulder now for like 10 years. I do not like that person. I’ll be honest, if this person’s listening, I do not like you. You are not the best manager I ever had, and I’m still angry inside that you would say something like that. And I don’t believe it’s true. I think that you’re wrong. But of course, I can only say that to an anonymous podcast audience, not to the person who said that to me.

My point here is that feedback, to say to me, “I don’t think you have the balls to do this job,” did not at all positively impact my behavior. It did not challenge me, it was not specific, it was… Frankly, it felt judging and damning to me as a person. And that kind of feedback, when we give it… And it happens just in the briefest, slightest moments. We’re all guilty of it, I think. But when it happens, it starts to create deep resentment. So, if you find that you have been giving feedback that way, or you hear other people giving feedback where their view is looked at as like, “I know I’m right, you were late, you’re not motivated, you show no drive, those seem like facts.” I want you to just step in, and I want you to say, “I’m not sure those are facts as much as they’re perceptions, and any time there’s perceptions, there’s alternate perceptions.”

As Esther Derby said when I went to Problem Solving Leadership, there is always more information available. And recognizing that the assumptions you make, and then starting to question them and ask, “What if I’m wrong? What if I don’t know everything? What if it’s not an attribute of this person, because I don’t think anyone… I don’t think tardiness is a heritable trait. What if there’s a whole bunch of other things at play? I now see that I can go gather that information, and it changes my conversations with people.”

That’s what I want you to do. I want you to become curious, I want you to become compassionate, and I want you to give people your authentic perceptions of what’s happening, and then be curious enough to ask, “What is going on behind the scenes? What is really happening for you? What are the circumstances?” Because let’s stop making the actor-observer bias mistake, let’s stop making the fundamental attribution error, and let’s quit saying, “Bob’s just that kind of guy.” Because when we say, “Bob’s just that kind of guy,” whether to ourselves, or maybe to our boss, or maybe even to Bob, we’re essentially saying Bob cannot change, Bob is uncapable of improving. And I just don’t believe that, and I honestly don’t think you believe it either. But we get that language in our heads, and so therefore, it’s really hard to shake.

So there is no “just that kind of guy,” for good or for bad. It’s all learned. If anything, the amount of heritability in our traits is not only highly contested by psychologists and sociologists, but it is very limited. The Big Five Personality Tests list only five major traits that they feel are long-term personality traits that people have. So I just want to just tell you, people can grow and change, and the primary way that happens is when they make a realization, they see a need for change, and they decide to do the hard work. If your feedback leads to that, then it’s helpful. If it doesn’t, it’s probably harmful. All right, I’m Send me in your questions, write them in, and I’ll answer them on the show. And thank you very much for joining us today.

Announcer: Thank you for listening to Programming Leadership. You can keep up with the latest on the podcast at, and on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, or wherever fine podcasts are distributed. Thanks again for listening, and we’ll see you next time.

Announcer: This has been a HumblePod production. Stay humble.

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