Mark Needham

Thoughts on Software Development

Giving effective feedback

with 2 comments

One of the most interesting things I have discovered since starting at ThoughtWorks earlier this month is the emphasis that is placed on giving feedback.

The first lesson we were taught about giving feedback was that it could be one of two types. Either it should Strengthen Confidence or Increase Effectiveness.

In Layman’s term that means that if you want to make a positive comment about somebody’s contribution then you should make reference to something specific that you believe they have done well so that they can continue doing it. Equally if you believe there is an area that they could improve it, a specific example of this behaviour/fault should be noted along with a suggestion for how they can improve.

As a member of Toastmasters since January I was already used to this concept of feedback and there are certainly parallels in the feedback system encouraged at Toastmasters and that used at ThoughtWorks.

Although Toastmasters do not define types of feedback, there is an expectation that evaluators will apply themselves in a certain manner when carrying out their job.

One of the things which is frowned upon is known as ‘whitewashing’. This is where an evaluator would say that a speaker was ‘brilliant’ or give a summary just using complementary adjectives. Although the speaker may well be flattered, it does not really tell them anything or leave room for improvement. The use of the word ‘brilliant’ or ‘superb’ is only the perception of the person using it, and the failure to make use of the word with regards to a specific behaviour or action means that it is rendered meaningless.

Equally when the evaluator believes there is an area that the speaker can improve in they should make a reference to the specific negative behaviour or action so that the speaker can recall their mistake and go about making the improvement. When giving feedback it is very poor practice to attribute your own feelings to the speaker – you are giving them control over something which they do not have control over! For example, if an evaluator were to say: ‘I felt bored listening to your speech, you should make the next speech more interesting’. In this case the evaluator is giving the speaker the power to make them feel bored. It is ridiculous to let someone have that amount of control over you and if we consider that another person listening to the same speech may have felt really engaged, a property of the speech cannot be that it was ‘boring’.

This is very similar to the way that ThoughtWorkers are expected to give feedback, although it is also emphasised that when giving feedback one should speak only for themselves, and not try and speak for a group of people. Doing this would assume that mind reading is possible and as far as I’m aware this feat has yet to be achieved. An example of committing this mistake would be to say something along the lines of: ‘It would be better for us if you could do x’. In this case ‘us’ is not defined and it is unlikely that one person can speak precisely of the feelings of other people.

This concept is very similar to that of Generalisation in the NLP Meta Model, which states the following:

“Generalization is the process by which elements or pieces of a person’s model become detached from their original experience and come to represent the entire category of which the experience is an example.”

This is an area that I am actually working on myself, and I am finding it very difficult to speak only for myself because I’m so used to generalising! Of course there are still times when generalisation is vital, and we would find it very difficult to live our daily lives without generalising on some things. Giving feedback, however, is one area where this ‘technique’ is counter productive.

Be Sociable, Share!

Written by Mark

September 2nd, 2006 at 3:07 am