Mohamed Najiullah
A Developer's Non-Dev Learnings

A Developer's Non-Dev Learnings

Feedback in the Workplace: How does it work?

Feedback in the Workplace: How does it work?

How to use feedback effectively in the workplace

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Mohamed Najiullah
·Feb 18, 2022·

6 min read

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When I joined ThoughtWorks, I was introduced to a number of new ideas and practices. Some of them were easy to understand. Others were easy to follow. But no other practice intrigued me more than that of Continuous Feedback, more commonly referred to as just Feedback.

In my previous organisation, I was used to having a hierarchical chain of command with enough independence given to us to approach the higher ups whenever necessary. ThoughtWorks, however, operates with a flat hierarchy model. There are no superiors or chain of command and everyone is to be treated equally. During my initial days, I realised that

For all the problems a flat hierarchy solves, there are also new challenges that arise.

Some of the most important challenges that can arise are evaluating a person's performance, measuring one's progress and keeping track of one's goals in the absence of a superior/manager/management.

ThoughtWorks' solution to these challenges is to adhere to a practice called Continuous Feedback.

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All new ideas, practices and processes are subject to a continuous feedback loop at ThoughtWorks. The feedback is given as and when necessary by the people who are involved with the subject. When it comes to people, feedback is deemed to be neither positive or negative but a reflection of one's attitude, behaviour and aptitude. An important point to note here is that feedback is to be collected from everyone regardless of their role/designation. Only then can continuous feedback be effective.

There are also regular meetings and checkpoints for every project where feedback is actively sought for and given. Everyday standups, iteration planning meetings (IPMs), Project showcases (to clients) and retrospective meetings all act as effective points in time where feedback is collected. The feedback, mostly about what is currently happening or can happen, is then pondered upon. It is then connected to definite outcomes that are thereafter tracked throughout the course of the project.

While the concept of continuous feedback seems easy to understand, the application of it is, according to me at least, an art.

An art that requires truthfulness, diplomacy and an understanding of human psychology.

You are probably wondering how could feedback be that complicated. You are also probably thinking of the umpteen number of feedback forms that you've filled with one word praises or long complaints.

But that is NOT the feedback that I'm talking about. The feedback that I'm talking about was best conveyed to us as part of an activity during the immersion (orientation) that every new hire must go through. Three people were randomly chosen and blindfolded. They were given a task where they had to throw a number of small objects into a bucket.

The first person who walked into the room was showered with nothing but praise and words of encouragement. However there were no information in the praise that actually helped him get better at hitting the target. Surely, he felt happy. But being blindfolded and given no helpful information, he was not able to hit the bucket more than once (probably a fluke as he was throwing them in random directions).

The second person was then walked into the room. This person was drowned with negativity on how he was so bad at hitting the bucket. The comments and insults (playful ones) put him in a bad mood soon after. It got to the point that after sometime he started throwing the objects at the ones insulting him rather than at the bucket. Again, as in the previous case, there was no information in the comments as to where the bucket was and as expected he was also not able to hit the bucket even once.

The third person then entered the room. This time she was given the right amount of encouragement and feedback that helped her navigate to the right position to throw the objects. She was helped with comments giving her information on how far the throw went so that she could control the force she was using. Every successful throw was cheered loudly and every unsuccessful one was followed with encouragement and used to give her feedback about how she could get better. She was able to hit the bucket as much as 6 times out of 10.

While this small example is very easy to understand, there are a few things that I wanted to draw your attention to.

  • As in the case of the first person, even with the best intentions, if little or no information is given on what went right or wrong, it is very difficult to improve. A lot of people think that being encouraging is to look for only positives while glossing over flaws. As shown in the example, while the person who receives only praise is happy, it does little to help him attain his goals. In the long run this could do more harm than good.

Being encouraging is not just looking for positives while glossing over flaws.

  • As in the case of the second person, being discouraged and insulted for not achieving a goal, with no feedback on how to improve, doesn't help either. A specific point to note was how the person even tried to hit the the naysayers with the objects after being subject to constant ridicule. He even temporarily abandoned the goal instead thinking of getting a bit of revenge. While this was just a playful scenario, the chances of a person reacting badly when subjected to constant negativity is very high and can end up with a bad taste for everyone involved.
  • The third person, however, was able to succeed because she received two very important things. The first was information on how to improve her aim and get better at achieving the goal. This made her aim better by processing the constant information being given to her as feedback. The second was the encouragement that she received even when she missed her target. This helped her not lose hope even when she missed. The quality of feedback depends directly on the amount of information that is conveyed. More the data, better the understanding of what went well and what can be improved upon. It is important to consider that feedback is given by people who typically have different roles resulting in different perspectives. This makes it vital to connect the data with the inferences drawn from it. It also helps in fighting any bias that may arise.

The importance of encouragement regardless of success or failure cannot be overstated. Here's an excellent cartoon, on how much of a change encouragement can make, from ZenPencil

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While the above cartoon talks about encouraging artists in particular, I believe it can be applied to every profession. Like I said before

Encouragement, if done right, can be life changing.

There are many benefits that can be associated with practicing continuous feedback. Feedback can be an opportunity to correct biases and incorrect perceptions (especially the ones that are created without objective facts). It can be a source of information that one can reflect upon whenever trying to improve oneself. It can uncover weaknesses that you never knew existed. It can also tell you about strengths that you never saw in yourself.

But for all of this to happen, a fundamental law has to be established in one's mind. And that is to

Be truthful to yourself

Accepting flaws whenever rightly pointed out and then working on them actively is what makes the entire practice of feedback work.

There are several more aspects when it comes to Continuous Feedback. Giving effective feedback, deciphering received feedback, looking for signs of ineffective feedback are some of them. Training new employees, especially experienced ones, to adopt this practice is also another topic by itself. And then there is the question of whether the practice can applied to a traditional hierarchical company which adds a new dimension to the problem. I hope to explore more on these subjects in my upcoming posts.

I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences on this.

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