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Talk: Feedback

This is a talk I gave at work. It’s the second time I give a similar talk so I’ve decided to post it up. Unfortunately I have no slides nor video so I’m posting my notes :–)


Feedback: collecting information about present and past of a process to drive changes to the process itself

Crucial to improve, if you don’t know at what speed you’re running you can’t adjust to the speed limit.
If you’re not aware of problems, you can’t fix them.
If you don’t see logs and exception stacktraces you won’t know that your application crashes every time someone from Russia visits your website.

Phrased like this sounds like a good thing but when you think about the actual process of giving/receiving feedback it changes a bit.
Who likes performance appraisals? Code reviews? Submitting the system you worked on for 6 months to 3rd party review and scrutiny?

Why are we afraid of giving feedback?

When we ask for opinion/review, generally get “it’s ok/cool/nice”.
People point out obvious problems but it usually doesn’t go further.

There are usually something that could be different.
A better way, an alternative way, an experimental way.
Not necessarily better but if you look at something and think “I would have done it differently”, maybe you should say that.
The other person might like your idea or it might trigger another idea in her head.

Another example.
You know that person who always do something when presenting that distracts people from the presentation?
They repeat the same phrase again and again or they mispronounce a word or whatever and at the end of the talk everybody is whispering about how many times he did this or that?
That person could be a much better presenter if he could fix that behavior but it won’t happen if he is not aware of it!

So, why are we so bad at giving feedback?

To answer that we need to look at another question.

Why are we so bad at receiving feedback?

People don’t like being criticized.
Humans are wired like that :(
Hearing criticism doesn’t change who you are but we don’t like it anyway.
We go into defensive mode, we need to show we did the best thing. We need to prove the person wrong!

To avoid confrontation, nobody wants to give nor receive feedback.

Why is it bad?

If you both don’t give feedback not to hurt or make others angry and you don’t actively seek feedback, it only happens when a problem occurs (or someone explodes). That’s the time when emotions are high and openness is low.

That makes people less willing to seek improvement generating a vicious cycle.

How to fix it, then?


  • Improve on how we provide feedback
  • Improve on how we receive feedback

How to receive feedback

You can’t force people to be nicer or to do things in a way that pleases you.
But you can improve on how you handle it, so focus on that.

First, don’t take it personally.
Face everything as an opportunity to revisit a topic and think if anything could be improved.
Be open. You don’t have to agree but be willing to consider ideas.
If it is a complain or an aggressive criticism, try to filter out the offending part and think about the root cause of that complain; Could you have done anything different so that there would be no complain?

How to give feedback

Avoid doing it if you’re angry or in bad mood.
Consider what is the goal of your feedback and focus on having a constructive conversation.
Don’t expect the person to agree. You will be lucky if they at least listen :–)
Consider that your idea/suggestion might not be better or might be missing parts of the picture.
Even better, assume you’re wrong; that there is something you don’t know.
Guide the conversation to try to understand where you’re wrong.

Wrap up

Feedback is good, is crucial to improve (as person, as professional, as team).
Most people are bad at both giving and receiving and avoid it as much as possible.
There is no silver bullet, no easy solution.
Be aware of the problem. Consider how you could do it better.
Search about the topic, find more information :)
And most important, practice. Stop avoiding it.


Focus on the right stuff!

Criticism is driven by the frustration and fears of the giver, not from the needs of the recipient. The underlying assumption is that the recipient somehow “should know better” and needs to be set straight. The implied message is that the recipient’s intentions are questionable, that there is something wrong with the recipient that the giver of criticism knows how to fix. In criticism, the problem is all in the recipient.
In contrast, feedback has an air of caring concern, respect, and support. Far from being a sugar cookie, feedback is an honest, clear, adult to adult exchange about specific behaviors and the effects of those behaviors. The assumption is that both parties have positive intentions, that both parties want to be effective and to do what is right for the company and other people. Another assumption is that well-meaning people can have legitimate differences in perception. The person offering the feedback owns the feedback as being his reaction to the behavior of the other person. That is, the giver recognizes the fact that what is being offered is a perception, not absolute fact.
— Gary R. Casselman & Timothy C. Daughtry

Punishing honest mistakes stifles creativity. I want people moving and shaking the earth and they’re going to make mistakes.
— Ross Perot


Those are generally written for managers but the reasoning is the same.