Feedback at Work

Giving feedback – to employees, peers, or even bosses – is a tricky but essential process in almost every organization. It’s important to let people know how they’re doing in their work, but it’s often difficult to figure out the best way to tell them, especially if there are problems with their performance.  And we all know organizations that loudly proclaim how much feedback and improvement are valued in their workplaces, but that don’t actually do much to make those processes happen.

My friend Allison Manley has recently starting hosting a podcast for Palantir.net, the web design, development and strategy firm where she works. The most recent episode of the podcast has a fascinating discussion on the topic of feedback. Allison talks with Colleen Carroll, Palantir’s director of operations, about Palantir’s commitment to having a “culture of feedback” and how the company actually makes that happen. What I found particularly interesting about this discussion is that it doesn’t repeat any of the usual clichés about feedback, like “focus on the problem, not the person”, and that it emphasizes the role of the sender of the feedback – a part of the process that often gets overlooked. Here are some of Colleen’s thoughtful insights into what makes feedback work.

  • Relating feedback to the company’s values. Colleen says, “If you’re lacking a clear vision, if you’re not communicating consistently and repeatedly reinforcing the [organization’s] values, you almost don’t have a common thread to communicate about, and therefore also to provide feedback about”.
  • Being clear on what the feedback is intended to achieve. The reason for giving feedback is, in Colleen’s words, “a desire to improve something”. So feedback needs to have a desired outcome and needs to be focused on achieving that outcome.
  • Having empathy and compassion for the receiver of the feedback. In Colleen’s words, “It’s important that you ask permission. Don’t just walk up to somebody and say, hey, I didn’t like that thing over here, don’t do that again. That’s not good because you don’t even know where that person was at or what they were doing, or if they’re able to receive that feedback…Showing compassion to the person you’re giving the feedback to, saying, I have some feedback I’d like to give to you, when would be a good time? Allow them to control the environment they’re in, so they can be the most receptive.”
  • Making the feedback actionable. Colleen recommends being as specific as possible about the change that is desired, so that the recipient knows what to work on. She also emphasizes the importance of supporting the recipient when they make those changes. When she worked as a developer at Palantir, it was not only helpful to her to have specific problems identified with her coding, but also to be given documentation that helped her work through those problems.
  • Letting mistakes happen as part of the process of improvement. Colleen says, “You’re going to get a lot of mistakes before you get it right, [but you know] that everyone around you values that experience, and that they will support you through it if you make a mistake.”
  • Giving “constructive” instead of “negative” feedback. Colleen deliberately avoids using the term “negative feedback”; instead, she calls it “constructive feedback”.  Negative feedback, she says, “[tells] them all the things that they’re doing wrong, and that doesn’t give them a path or a journey to understand what good looks like, what helpful looks like. So ‘constructive’, for me, gets back to the objectivity. What is the behavior that was causing some type of impact, whether that was an amazing impact or a negative impact? And if it was a negative impact, can you also still provide that in a constructive way? Such as, when you say something this way, it has this impact on the team. That’s a way for them to understand that an action that they did caused this impact.”
  •  Remembering that positive feedback is important too. Colleen says, “Don’t just give the constructive feedback all the time. People need both. They need to know how they can improve, but they also need to know the things they are doing that are working really well. That’s part of the full process of life.”

The full podcast is well worth a listen for anyone who’s trying to improve feedback processes within their own organization. Kudos to Palantir for being serious about the importance of feedback, and for consciously encouraging feedback that results in benefits for everyone.

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