Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and economist notable for his work in the psychology of decision making, noted that “true intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes”. And let’s be realistic - any human makes mistakes, in both professional and personal matters. It’s a part of everyone’s life, regardless of your socio-economic background or the range of skills and abilities you possess. And just like with any skill or ability, one can make less mistakes over time. To oversimplify, that’s what domain expertise is, in a nutshell - the knowledge that allows one to be less wrong. So how do you become less wrong?
To do so, let’s start with understanding that when it comes to mistakes, there are two types: those that we know about (consequences are observed and causes are internalized) and those that we don’t quite notice (consequences may be observed but the cause and effect are not obvious). The former is relatively easy to spot - you know that feeling of “Ouch, I screwed up” when you realize that your code change is what’s causing downtime? That’s you internalizing that you did something wrong and now you either need to deal with the consequences or try to remedy the situation in other ways (like putting blame on someone else - which is a often-taken approach). The latter is trickier. Take, for example, the case where some product manager makes a decision on a change without consulting a partner team that depends on it. The product goes on sale, but now the partner team feels the consequences as a core scenario is not accounted for. There are consequences, but I can almost guarantee you that the program manager here might not even know that they did something that could be done better - after all, the deliverable shipped!
To address that kind of “blind spot”, one needs to receive feedback - someone telling you that you did something that resulted in a less than optimal outcome. This is harder than what most people imagine the process to be. Ideally, you could rely on the person affected to come forward and outline what went wrong and suggest a different approach. But, just like in physics, the ideal environment doesn’t exist - people are by their nature very non-confrontational. Nobody wants to burn bridges by telling someone they did something wrong, because the person on the receiving end of the feedback might not take it well, which will result in a potentially bitter reaction and worsening of the interpersonal relationship between the individuals in question. So, the feedback is swallowed, or back-channeled through the manager or another type of escalation. Then days or weeks go by, before the individual that did make a mistake finds out through someone else that they did something off - but with valuable context lost. You could argue that this, in itself, is a suboptimal outcome. But, good news - there is a better way to approach this problem.
I like to gauge the health of an organization by the willingness of individuals to both receive and give feedback. It’s a two-way street - one should feel safe to call out when things are off, and at the same time be ready to be the recipient of constructive comments that help them do better. In the sections below, I outline how this theory can be translated into action.
Telling someone that they can do things differently is never pleasant, and it will take practice and a team that is willing to listen. There are some important considerations that you need to keep in mind when providing feedback:
- Do so promptly. Do not wait for time to pass. The longer you wait to deliver feedback, the more the person on the receiving end will lose context.
- Do not do it in public. As I mentioned earlier, even those with the thickest skin have a non-zero amount of ego. When you deliver feedback in public, you are instantly putting the other person on the defensive, so instead of a constructive conversation, you are now dealing with someone who has to prove their point.
- Don’t sugarcoat it. There is no need to deliver any kind of feedback in the form of a “shit sandwich”. That makes it feel not genuine - no matter how much you’re describing the person’s positive impact, there is still a negative item you’re bringing up. Go straight to the point. If someone wants to tell me that I missed something, I don’t need to know how great I am doing everything else. Just tell me where I have a shortcoming, and let’s discuss mitigation scenarios.
- It is never about people’s ineptitude or maliciousness. Assume good intent out-of-the-box. You are working with some of the smartest folks, that are passionate about delivering a good product. If they did something wrong, it is not because they intentionally wanted to do so. Keep that important point in mind and never attack the individual.
- Communicate clearly what went wrong, but do not accuse - highlight the issue. Personally, I ask people that when they feel I do something that could be done better, for them to call it out as is. “Hey Den, I noticed that in the last call you mentioned that X, Y and Z were on the backlog, but it’s the first time I learn about it. Could you clarify?” is a good approach to take because the person is not attacking me or calling me out on not communicating things properly, but they are also making clear what’s missing.
- Focus on the desired outcome rather than an instant solution. Because you are aware what went wrong, you also are likely aware of what would be the outcome if things went the right way. Suggest this to the person receiving the feedback. “It would be fantastic to be aware of changes like this in the future.” is a good way to describe the desired result without prescribing an approach the person should take to achieve it.
Now, getting comments on how to improve can also sting. Nobody likes to be wrong, and when someone else calls out a mistake, the natural reaction is to outline all the reasons why that mistake was the right choice at the time. Instead of taking that course of action, consider the following:
- Do not take it personally. It’s not about you, but the way to improve future outcomes.
- Do not get defensive. The worst thing you can do when you receive feedback is try to stand your ground. Unless you are absolutely, undeniably sure that you made the right call and the outcome was the best it could be, do not try to weasel your way out of it. And even if you are confident that the results were not as the other person perceived them, clearly, they did not think that way - respect their honesty and listen to the underlying causes.
- Listen. Do not interrupt the person with “… no, but…” or “… well, actually…”. Actively listen to what the other person has to say - they are invested in you being better and hearing them out is the right approach here.
- Express appreciation for them coming forward. It takes guts to deliver feedback, regardless of whether the person giving it is your manager, your partner or someone else entirely. You want them to feel empowered to provide you feedback in the future, and the way to do that is to make sure that they feel safe doing so.
- Ask clarifying questions. Sometimes the feedback can be very detailed, and sometimes it can have some gaps - do not be afraid to ask questions about different aspects of the problem and the possible outcomes.
- Reflect. You are under no obligation to provide an instant response to the feedback. As a matter of fact, do not try to come up with an instant response at all - it’s entirely unnecessary. Instead, think through how you can act on the feedback.
- Follow-up. Once you’re confident that the root cause has been addressed, follow-up privately with the person who provided you the feedback and clarify what steps you took to mitigate the original issues.
I personally love learning and pushing the boundaries of my expertise. That would be impossible to do without a multitude of inputs from my friends, peers and customers. To every manager I ever had, the first thing I said was “By the way, if you ever feel that I am doing something in a way that can be done better, please tell me so - I do not take it personally.” That sets the stage and allows me to later proactively solicit input on how well (or not so well) I handled certain situations.