Do people really crave feedback? That’s the assumption a lot of managers make, so in this episode we’ll talk about what feedback really means and how you can give it in a meaningful, productive manner.
- What is the history of feedback?
- Your output becomes their input
- The limits of perception
- Using attention properly
- Your people are NOT rose bushes
- Keeping things positive
- Sponsor: GitPrime
Announcer: Welcome to the Programming Leadership Podcast, where we help great coders become skilled leaders and build happy, high performing software teams.
Marcus: There’s an idea these days that goes like this. People crave feedback. They love feedback, especially Millennials. And you as the manager, you need to give them feedback in order to help them grow and help them improve. And if you want to create a high performing team, the most important skill you need to learn is to give them feedback so that they get better, better, better all the time.
This is a bit of a myth in my opinion for a few reasons, and we’re going to break that down in today’s episode. So if you have heard this before, this episode’s for you.
I want to take just a moment and thank my sponsor, GitPrime. GitPrime has sponsored the show, not just because they’re fantastic people, but because they really believe that leadership in engineering is about people. It’s about conversations. And GitPrime is a platform that allows you to have better conversations with people. Yes, it has lots of other benefits. You can probably plan better. You can see metrics about individual performance, but let’s just take that one idea about individual performance. Whenever I talk with a GitPrime user, and by the way, lots of my clients are GitPrime users, they always tell me how surprised they were at what was really happening on the team. See, it’s really easy for you as a manager to observe generally how people are working. You can look at PRs, you can look at who’s assigned, what tickets you as the CLM, the software engineering manager.
You get a notion for what people are doing, but there’s always these beautiful surprises about who is really performing well and who are secretly struggling about who’s the person that saving everybody’s bacon through fixing a lot of stuff behind the scenes and who is absolutely doing all the PRs. This kind of data lets you move from looking at people as just, “Well, they’re all engineers and they’re all kind of doing engineering work,” to seeing exactly where each one of them is strong and has opportunities to grow and that’s why I love this tool so much. I believe that new and surprising conversations come out of data that when you can sit down with somebody and start to understand and intuit why things are happening, you’re going to create an even better quality of exchanges. And by the way, you know here on this show we talk about the fact that leadership is what keeps people connected to their work and prevents turnover and keeps them motivated. It’s about the relationship. I like to say that GitPrime not only lets you build better software, it lets you build a better relationship with your team members. Start a free trial today at gitprime.com.
The first problem I have with this is this is not at all what the word feedback really means. The word feedback was coined in the field of cybernetics in the early 1940s, and then originally published in a book by a guy named Norbert Wiener or Norbert Verner, maybe, who talks about cybernetics as being the ways that humans and animals and machines interact with their environment in complex systems.
And so let’s talk about what is feedback. In this definition, which is the actual definition, feedback is when a system takes its output as its input. That’s why it’s called a feedback loop. That’s why when you have a microphone where the mic picks up the speaker, you end up with a reverb loop, I think it’s called, and the loop grows. It is amplified and it gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and that squeaky noise, that amplification is feedback. So the output of one thing becomes its input.
Now, let’s take that down to the level by which we mean. We’re going to give someone feedback to improve their performance. In that case, it is not the person whose output now becomes their input. It is your output becoming their input. “Oh wait, Marcus, but you don’t understand. I’m the manager and I am observing their output. And so it is feedback if I feed it back to them.” Well, here we have another problem. I don’t enjoy being fed most anything. I want to feed myself. Maybe when I was two years old … Nope, even before then. Maybe when I was six months old, I liked to be fed. But most people these days don’t like to be fed. So getting fed by your manager is typically a pretty uncomfortable experience.
But the other problem here is the notion that managers see things clearly and people do not. It’s like if you were to say, “Okay, well, I can see you clearly, and so therefore what helps you improve is when I tell you what I see.” The fundamental problem with this is that that’s a load of crap. Okay? I’m just gonna lay it out there. You don’t see people clearly, and here’s why.
There’s a tremendous difference between sensation and perception. Sensation is when light from reflected objects hits your retina, turns into electrical impulses, travels to your brain, and is called an image. That is the sensation of vision. But the fact that I am sitting here looking at a microphone, the fact that I say this is a microphone, all of that means that I’ve moved past sensation onto perception.
And perception is entirely different for each person, and so we know that at a really basic level, some people perceive colors differently. Some people are colorblind. Some people are very sensitive to colors. Some people hear music when they see colors. Did you know that? Some people hear music when they look at numbers. Some people see different colors when they look at numbers. So perception is something that is entirely unique.
But let’s say that we’re all looking at someone running a race. Okay, well, as bystanders, if you and I are watching a person run a race, you might say we share the same sensation. Check. Although, that’s not true because our heads are probably three to 10 feet away from each other, so we have a different viewpoint. But even if we could agree we share roughly the same sensation, then we have to say, do we share the same perception? Maybe we share pretty similar perception.
Now, let’s move next because perception involves then meaning, because what we perceive is wrapped up in how we interpret something, and how we interpret it is what gives it its meaning. Seeing someone run as fast as they can, you might cheer for them if they were running a race. You might yell for them to run a different direction if they were running from a bear. You might run towards them in some cases. You might run away from them in some cases. So seeing a running person, based on the context, means completely different things.
And so this is why I say that as a manager, if you imagine that you hold the neutral objective position, and that it is your job to feed people’s actions back to them, that’s what the feedback loop is, then I’m going to suggest that there’s a lot of places this goes wrong on a regular basis. One of the first places this goes wrong is the fact that you are limited in what you can perceive based on your attention. So if you are watching the runner at a sports event, you are probably maybe taking in the sensations of a lot of things, but because you have limited attention, you are only focusing on a very few number of things, like the runner, or the other runners in the race, or maybe the clock that is counting the number of seconds the runner is taking. You are probably completely unaware of some people around you. People on the other side of the stadium, maybe the smell of hot dogs coming through the air from a vendor, all kinds of other things.
And so because we have attention that is biologically, we cannot pay attention to everything. We can only pay attention to a few things. And that’s where we get some perception, and perception brings interpretation, which then carries meaning. But oftentimes of course we forget that.
And so when you give attention to one particular thing, you are inherently not giving attention to everything that is not that thing. Let me give you an example. A lot of us as managers, and I struggle with this too, we think, well, what I should do is I need to watch where performance on my team, or let’s say Joe’s performance, dips down, and when I see Joe underperforming, when I see him doing things that are problematic, maybe even toxic, I might frame them as, or bad, I assign meaning to them like toxic or bad. When I see that, and that is where it dips below the average of good performance, then it’s my job to say, “Joe, stop it. Joe, alter that. Joe, change that.” That is, I am always looking at the landscape for things that are sticking out to me in a negative way.
And this is the mindset that most managers have. This is probably the mindset that you even have because you are not walking around telling people “Good job today for performing the same as yesterday.” My guess is that’s not the kind of feedback you usually give. My guess is you give the kind of feedback that says “You were late for the meeting today. Why is that? I really noticed and it bothered me.” I’m not saying you shouldn’t say that ever, but I am warning you that if you get in the habit, and what you pay attention to really, really matters.
So the idea of feedback for most managers means tell them when they’re screwing up. And then I think, I hate to say this so much, but I just really believe it. I think that we’re saying this maybe from a good place that we call “wanting to help you grow.” Doesn’t that sound nice? Doesn’t that sound nice to say? “Wanting to help you grow?”
I have roses, and do you know how I help my roses grow? Most of the time, I give them water and sunlight and something called bone meal occasionally. Fertilizer. I give them what they need to take the internal processes that are already there and use those inputs to their system to increase the growth that is already occurring. Now, yes, occasionally a bud flourishes, and what happens when that bud flourishes? Well, when it dies, I do something that gardeners called deadheading. I come and I clip it off. So that growth does not continue. The plant, the system does not continue to try and invest in something that’s dead. The bud blooms, and then it dies, and so it is healthier for the plant for me to come along as the gardener and snip it off.
Your people are not rose bushes. You should not be snipping off any part of them under any circumstances. But giving them the things they need to grow, the nutrients, the light, the bone meal, the fertilizer will enable them to be able to grow in the directions that they are already growing. And yes, occasionally, probably on an either five to one or 10 to one ratio, you may have to tell someone, “Do you see that you’re investing in this thing that’s dead? Do you see that you’re doing this and it’s hurting yourself and others?” You might have to do that, but I think the ratio of five to one or 10 to one is probably about right, and I’m continuing to look for research and statistics. I know they’re out there.
And the wonderful book Nine Lies About Work has continued to reinforce in me this idea that the thing your plants and people need to grow are positive feedback. Things that they then take and turn into growth. Because you can’t grow anyone. You can’t change anyone. You can’t alter them. You can’t force them to behave in any particular way in the same way as I can’t make that rose bloom. I can’t make it grow another three inches. But I can create the conditions where a system called a rose that is alive, that is living by all standards, where it takes in certain things and it then outputs other things, and one of the parts of that system is it outputs new growth.
Your people are the same way. Your people are the same way in that they really, really crave attention more than they crave criticism. And that’s not because they only want to hear the good stuff. They’re craving that attention, and by attention I mean the places where you look at them and you say, “That was awesome. Keep doing that.” Or “Did you see how you did that? That was amazing. I don’t know anyone else who can do it that easily.”
Keeping the positive things top of mind. Having a ratio of say 10 to one for positive comments versus negative comments is going to create a system by which your people know exactly how to get better. You don’t have to say, “You know how I want you to get better? Do x, y, and z.” No, when you tell one to someone to “do this” or “keep doing that” or “continue doing that thing you’re amazing at and, in fact, look at how great you are.” They know exactly what they did because they did it. It would be absolutely ridiculous for us to imagine they didn’t know how to do it. They’re the ones that did it.
Instead of instructing them or advising them about how you would do something, when you say, “keep doing that,” “do you notice how great you are there,” “that is really working,” you’re basically teaching them to build on what they’ve already got. And at the end of the day, it’s not only easier to build on what you’ve already got, but it creates a learning loop by which people experience positive learning, positive reflection. They start to say, “Oh, I wonder what else is working? I wonder what other areas I can grow in.” Because when we find success growing in one way, we tend to want to be successful growing in that way and in other ways.
Now, this can go to an extreme, and there’s, I think, a downside to everything, and one of the downsides is if you say “You’re really good at this, but you’re awful at that, so I’m not going to have you do that anymore.” As a person who’s more of a behavioralist mindset in the nature versus nurture debate, I believe that learning is how we all got here. I think that saying, “You’re really great at this, keep doing that. And this other thing you’re not so good at, what can you learn from that? What can you learn from what you’re doing well.”
Right now, if you were to examine your life, my guess is you could take lessons from where you are successful and you could, if you chose to apply them to where you were not successful, and no one needs to come along and tell you you’re not being successful in those areas. It might be at work with your code. It might be with your team. It might be with your money. It might be with your spouse. It might be with your family. It might be with your children. Guess what I’ve just named all the major areas in life. It might be with your health. But you know where you are successful and where you are not. You know that because, golly, you get feedback from what you do. You have eyes and ears and skin and all the feedback, message mechanisms necessary to take in feedback.
You see, if you’re like me, when you eat a full bag of Doritos the night before, not only do you feel awful the next morning, that’s feeling feedback, but then maybe you use the scale to give you objective feedback to make a decision about not eating a whole bag of Doritos. My key here is nobody has to say to me, “Marcus, what you should do is avoid eating a bag of Doritos.” I know that. I do it once and I realize it feels terrible, and then I can start to ask myself, “Well, why do I reach for that? Why am I do that? What would cause me to do that?” And then if I look over at my finances,” where I’m much more disciplined, I might say, Oh, you know what, the financial practice that I have of paying all my bills at the beginning of the month and making sure I feel safe for the following month, maybe that could apply to food.”
See, I think that we have these insights about ourselves. That’s when learning occurs. When I realize in an insightful way … A sight generated from within, insight. When that happens, you might think about them as “A-ha moments.” Now, I remember that. I generated it. I did something. I observed myself doing something. I realized something and I thought, “I’ll try something different.” And I created an experiment.
So for example, maybe with my food now, I’m saying I’ll plan my meals early in the day, or maybe I’ll do my shopping once a week when I’m thinking about how I want to budget for what I buy versus every day when it gives me 10 times … Well, five times as many opportunities to pick up Doritos off the shelf.
Okay, so what you want is for your team to take what they’re already great at, continue doing it, but even more to challenge them, I think, to produce insights about how one behavior might be able to be applied to other areas of their life. Occasionally, of course, when someone is violent or mean or toxic or whatever they’re doing, you do have to say, “Look, you’re being not appropriate. You are not contributing to the team. You’re making things worse here.” Yeah, we have to fire people. You’ve got to break some eggs, but I think a 10 to one ratio of positive affirmation is going to be much, much more productive in helping to create the team you want and create a place where people to work, not just because you’re a cheerleader.
Remember the cheerleader pretends everything is great. You are instead going to be on the lookout for when things are great. You’re going to celebrate the great things, and you’re also going to recognize that great is a sliding scale, and great for a junior programmer is totally different than great for a senior programmer. So you’re going to use, whether you want to think about it as a, the five levels of learning, other kinds of frameworks. You’re going to say, “What does this person need feedback on now so that they improve just 10% to go to the next level?” Because although the rose bush looks like it blooms and grows quickly, it really just grows in small bits each day. Weeds tend to grow quickly, but that’s a whole other issue.
Alright, I’m Marcus, marcusblankenship.com. This is the Programming Leadership Podcast. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org, if you’d like to ask a question. In addition, watch the newsletter. We’ve got some courses coming up and some other opportunities for you to learn with us together. Thanks and have a wonderful day.
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