Giving Good Feedback: Consider the Ratio

Consider the ratio.

You work with someone great. If someone asked, you’d say they are brilliant, inspired and dedicated. They care deeply about their work, they are timely and reliable (for the most part), and their emojis and dry sense of humor brighten your day. Your work depends on theirs, and you are working together on a neat project which is generating lots of excitement at demo days. You would miss them terribly if they left.

But today you are annoyed. They either didn’t hear or forgot your feedback from the last design review, which means you have to redo some components you thought were finished. It’s a considerable amount of work, and this isn’t the first (or second) time, either. You want to tell them so and try to debug this so it doesn’t keep happening.

So far, so good. Giving feedback like this can be hard, especially if they are senior to you. But do they understand the totality of how you see them? Or was the last time they heard from you the last time they fucked up? Out of the last ten times you gave them feedback, how many were complaining or asking for changes? Does that feedback ratio accurately represent your perception of their value?

This doesn’t mean you have to run around saying “you’re amazing!” all the time, but do be mindful of how other people think you perceive them. I can pretty much guarantee that none of the people you love working with realize just how much you value them, but they are acutely aware of all the ways they fall short or fail you. Here are some ways to correct that imbalance a bit

  • Don’t be vague. Do be specific. If you just run around saying “You’re awesome!” to people, they will tune you out. Do try to notice and reflect some of the things that making working with them a joy. Like, “I learned so much about mysql indexes pairing with you today, thank you”, or “Last week in our practice session you suggested approaching it this way, and it was so helpful in my situation”, or “I really admire the way you can talk extemporaneously about $topic, and I LOVE knowing I can rely on you with zero prep”. This is harder, and it absolutely takes more work on your part, but it lands. And sticks.
  • Use the Situation, Behavior, Impact framework…but for praise. The SBI framework is designed for delivering hard feedback, but it works just as well for delivering kudos. Use it to give great praise that isn’t generic and does let people know what they’re doing right/what they mean to you. “In the last team meeting, your overview of the messaging framework was super eye-opening for me. I learned more than ever before about not just our pyramid, but how messaging frameworks in general are used. I understand its impact on my role better now than I have in seven years of product marketing!”
  • Ground critique in your overall reaction. Let’s say someone just presented an idea that you think is super interesting and potentially very high value, but you have questions about its impact on marginalized groups. Do they know you think it is interesting and high value, when you launch into your critique? No they do not. If all they hear is several rounds of criticism, they may very well give up and cancel altogether, thinking everyone hated it. Something as simple as starting with “I LOVE this idea. Have you thought about —”, or “This is really interesting, but I’m curious…” can be enough to convey a less discouraging, more accurate sense of your perspective.
  • Don’t hold out for the “wow” moments. Sometimes even sharing what you see as a neutral description of someone’s work can be mind-blowing and affirming. Most people don’t realize how much they are just noticed, full stop. It is flattering to be noticed or have the things you said remembered. Being seen can be enough. (h/t @eanakashima)
  • Don’t contribute to a pile-on. Feedback is asymmetric — you can only give feedback as one person at a time (you!), but the recipient might be grappling with negative feedback from many, many people. In that context, anything critical you say is likely to feel like one more rock in a public stoning. Or (somewhat less dramatically), if someone asks for feedback and receives a wave of criticism, they may feel deflated and defeated and drop the entire idea. If that isn’t the outcome you want, try to bring some positive balance to the discussion instead of piling on.
  • Give feedback to grow on. Pure positivity can sound cloying and be easy to discount. If you’re just praising me, I’m learning nothing from it. We’re not talking about a shit sandwich here, but the best compliments are the ones you learn something from. “That was GREAT. It might be even better if…” Relatedly, some people find it hard to believe purely positive feedback, but if you give feedback that shows you understand their work and what they did less well, you gain credibility and they will believe the praise. (h/t @inert_wall).

Hard conversations and corrective feedback are absolutely necessary at times. But even poorly-delivered critiques can be dealt with in the context of a good relationship, when the person knows how much you value them, and even the most delicately delivered criticism can be hard to hear from someone when all you ever seem to hear from them is how much you suck.

Engineers can be the worst at this, because we tend to show our interest by eagerly engaging with an idea or piece of work … by picking it apart, and chattering about all the ways it could be better. 🙃 I generally think this is an awesome way to show love, but we could stand to be clearer about the affection part, and not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. So please consider the ratio of critique vs affirmation when giving feedback.

And there’s no reason to save all the nice words and praise and gratitude for someone’s funeral (or when they leave the company ☺️).

Giving Good Feedback: Consider the Ratio

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