Sunday, March 1, 2009

I'm listening


I'm listening

Published 01 March 09 07:00 AM | ericbrec

It's Midyear Career Discussion time at Microsoft. Perhaps you just finished, but more than likely you're still trying to squeeze yours in. How'd it go? How will it go? For you? For your manager? Well, that depends.

It depends a bit on your prior performance and your manager's prior performance. It depends a bit on the feedback itself and how that feedback is given. It depends a bit on how your parents raised you and the comfort of your chair. But the biggest influence on the lasting impact of your Midyear Career Discussion is the way you and your manager respond to feedback.

Let me put this delicately to you. You have no frigging idea how to give and take feedback. Seriously—not one frigging idea. Think I'm wrong? You are only proving me right. If you actually knew how to give and take feedback your response would be a sincere and polite, "Thank you."

Thanks for the advice

In fact, there are only two valid responses to feedback, "Thank you" and "Go on."

The "Thank you" is simple and self-explanatory. Too bad most people don't use it. Most people defend themselves, explain their behavior and results, and describe how they are already taking the right steps.

Please, slowly and carefully shut your mouth, empty your mind, and listen. Perhaps you can even take notes. Then, when the generous soul is finished, say, "Thank you."

You don't say it to be polite. You say "Thank you" because you mean it. Your relationships, your life, and our products and services would reek far beyond their current stench if people were not kind enough to provide an outside perspective and help us improve. Thank goodness they are willing to do it. To ensure they continue it's essential to sincerely appreciate it.

Tell me more about me

In addition to "Thank you," a valid response to feedback is "Go on." As in:

§ "Could you talk more about that?"

§ "I don't quite understand—could you describe that further?"

§ "Thank you, that's helpful, what else can I do differently?"

Anything that encourages clear and continued feedback is appropriate.

Back off, man. I'm a scientist

What's inappropriate is anything that questions or cuts off feedback. This includes:

§ "I'm working on it." So what? You're doing the wrong thing, you haven't made much progress, or you are actually improving. Regardless, the feedback is valid and your comment is irrelevant and self-serving.

§ "I was trying to …" So that makes it better? Never confuse reasons with excuses. If you can get better, you should get better. No excuses.

§ "I disagree." So this is news? You're getting feedback. It's opinion. The fact that you like your current approach is not a revelation. When the feedback seems wrong, you've either missed something or left the wrong impression—that’s precious information.

Keep in mind that you don't have to follow whatever advice you get. All you are obligated to do is listen, consider the advice carefully, and thank the person for helping you.

Eric Aside

A particularly important time to keep your mouth closed, take notes, and simply say, "Thank you," is during an executive review.

Now it’s my turn!

Now that you know how to take feedback, it's time to learn how to ask for it and provide it. When asking for feedback and when providing it, there are three basic questions:

§ What is good [about what I'm doing or the work I've done]?

§ What could be better?

§ Any further comments?

You can structure feedback more, but the simplest, complete ask are those three questions. And it is those three questions that you want to answer when you provide feedback.

We have come full circle

When providing your feedback, start with what's good, talk about improvements, add on your other comments, remind about improvements, and then reiterate what's good. That order is important.

§ You start with what you like. It sets up the conversation on an upbeat note and prevents the impression that all is lost. If you start with what's wrong, your listener may never hear what's right.

§ Next, you talk about ways to improve. Ideally, your listener should focus on just one change. One change is all that most people can handle at a time. Pick the most impactful improvement and emphasize it.

§ Of course, you'll have plenty of other thoughts that aren't as important. Feel free to mention those in the context of "a few other comments."

§ Then come back to your main message—the one or perhaps two improvements that would make the most difference.

§ Finish with what is going well. It's important to end on a positive note.

Eric Aside

Remember to always focus on the behavior or outcome, not on the person. People can't change who they are, but they can improve their actions and results.

We don't have much time

That's it. Being concise is important. If you want your feedback to matter it should be clear, consumable, considerate, concise, and centered on the receiver. Your feedback isn’t about you and your glorious knowledge; it is about helping the recipient.

If you are on the receiving end of the feedback you should be just as concise. Feedback is precious, whether it's from a customer, a peer, or your manager. Don't get in the way. Encourage it. Savor it. Appreciate it. Thank you.

I. M. Wright’s “Hard Code” : I'm listening

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