Conversations at Obvious – Part 4: Feedback Conversations

  • Monica Pillai
6 minute read
Screenshot 2021 01 07 at 11 04 00

Feedback conversations are a chance to give your colleagues healthy, honest feedback about their work or interactions. When done properly, they offer an opportunity for regular, consistent growth as well as a chance to establish deep, credible relationships. These short conversations, let you show your team members you care by offering constructive criticism or praise.

The Why

The only way to help your team improve is by telling everyone what they're doing correctly and how they can do more of it. Or, by telling them what they're doing that is ineffective and how they can avoid or do less of it.

People often save this kind of feedback for one-on-ones. But a lot of the times, when the context is lost or it too late to do anything, saving it doesn't quite help. We believe it's important to provide praise or criticism as close to the event as possible. Holding back comments causes resentment to build up that often comes to a boiling point and explodes. Also, it’s nice to compliment team members. At Obvious, constructive feedback is a way of life!

We'd recommend that you use the following four steps to ensure that feedback is both objective and constructive.

Step 1: Ask & Listen

Before providing feedback, verify that what you've understood of the situation is correct by asking a question or two about what they were trying to accomplish. This ensures that the feedback is offered in the right context and that the person on the receiving end does not feel misunderstood. To do this effectively, we'd recommend using the Situation -> Behaviour -> Impact (SBI) model. Here's an example:

"When we met with the client this morning and she asked how our team would decide how we find candidates for the user studies (situation), you told her that we will not discuss that today and that it was not relevant to the conversation (behaviour). She stopped participating and cut short our proposal meeting (impact). She wanted a better understanding of our process, and she felt that her questions were not considered important. I would love to hear your take on the situation."

Now that you confirmed your evaluation, it’s time to let the other person talk! Genuinely listen to what they have to say.

Try the following tips to be successful in this step:

  • Focus on the situation

When seeking clarification, ask unemotional and non-judgemental questions. They should be about the work or idea, not about the person, and stick to the facts. Find out what they were trying to accomplish.

  • Prioritise listening

Talk less, listen more. Instead of thinking of a rebuttal when someone else presents their idea, actively listen to the speaker. Give your colleague time to think and answer. Try being comfortable with pockets of silence; they often help create a safe space for the speaker.

SBI framework

Step 2: Guide

Once the context has been established and the other person has presented their take on the situation, it's time to provide feedback. Think of guidance as a tool that helps, not a whip or a carrot. Offer genuine advice on how to continue the behaviour or make it better.

Here are a few tips we follow at Obvious when at this stage:

  • Default to good faith

When providing constructive criticism, trust that the person receiving it tried their best. If you receive feedback, believe that the person giving it is trying to help you.

  • Criticize in private, praise in public

Deliver critical feedback privately. Criticism can lose its constructive power when done publicly because some people become defensive, escalating the situation. On the other hand, appreciation gains exponential leverage when offered in public.

  • Start with genuine praise

Go with the idea that you're working with smart people and there's lots to learn from each other. Nearly every situation has positive aspects, so start there. Beginning a conversation with praise opens people up for receiving criticism, but ensure that your comments are genuine because otherwise people will see right through it!

  • Use radical candor

Radical candor is a fantastic framework for providing honest and constructive feedback to colleagues. We recommend that you read the book, or this link or listen to the podcast. The framework relies on this simple idea: In order to provide clear and candid feedback to your colleagues that challenges them directly, you must first establish a deep sense of trust and show them that you care about them personally.

One-on-one meetings offer a solid opportunity to go up on the “Care Personally” axis with your colleagues. Once that is achieved, it’s easy to provide candid feedback because it helps people open up to being “Challenged Directly”.

Screenshot 2021 01 07 at 11 04 39

Step 3: Discuss

After providing feedback, there is likely to be a discussion. For praise, the conversation will probably go smoothly or may end at a simple “thank you”. When it comes to constructive criticism, however, it always helps to give the other person time to absorb the information and ask for clarification. If they do have any questions, it's best to answer them with facts and not emotions.

Here are some guidelines we follow to be successful in this step:

  • Be mindful of your words

No matter how hard you try to de-personalise the feedback, it is personal for the person receiving it. Telling someone to “not take it personally” is similar to telling someone “not to be sad”. Using the words “works/doesn’t work” instead of “like/dislike” keeps the conversation focused on facts.

  • Distance yourself from your work

If you’re the one receiving criticism, genuinely listen to the advice. Distance yourself from your work and critique yourself objectively. If you find fault in what you’ve done, then you can improve it. Receiving criticism without letting it hurt you is a true skill that takes practice.

  • Provide direction, not navigation

Telling people what to do doesn’t work. Nobody likes to be told what to do. When giving feedback, only provide direction, not step-by-step navigation.

  • Play “Yes and…”

The premise of this common improv technique is to accept an idea as true and build on it. The goal is to refine ideas and gain clarity. Reserve judgement of others’ suggestions until you fully explore them. For example:

Person 1: I know this might sound a tad risky because we have an upcoming deadline, but revisiting our research notes before our final discussion might help iron out some details.

Person 2: Yes, and then we can be sure we have our facts straight. Let's ask our manager if pushing back our deadline is possible.

Step 4: Resolve

After a short but healthy discussion, you can wrap up the feedback session, or you may decide to continue the conversation later. If you defer, we'd recommend that you set a clear time and commit to it. No matter how the conversation ends, leave on good terms. A simple “Thanks for listening!” goes a long way.

Consider these tips to bring your feedback discussion to a successful end:

  • Time Box

These informal feedback conversations should be relatively short. If the discussion becomes heated or lengthy, it’s best to postpone the talks and discuss it later.

  • Follow Up

If you deferred the discussion, don’t spend time trying to bolster your case. Go into the meeting to listen and clarify.

Feedback is beneficial to everyone involved, because it provides clarity and helps build a better rapport between two colleagues. Exchanging feedback in dedicated conversations help to keep the focus on one agenda, and reduces the chances of dirty laundry being aired in public. And that's a win-win situation for everyone!

Obvious puts people first, always. If you'd love to work in such an environment, you should know we probably have a role for you — have a look at open roles here!