Ready for some feedback?


UPDATE: for more tips on feedback check out the JFX Feedback category.

Last week we held the first session of the Rypple Learning Collaborative over at Mozilla in Mountain View.  We had participation from Method Home, Pixar, The Federal Reserve Bank, Kiva, Littler Mendelson, Electronic Arts, the Stanford d.School, Facebook, IDEO, and Mozilla.

We hope this effort generates some new insights and ideas that help people do a better job asking for and giving feedback.  So, we spent much of our first time together  sharing our direct experiences with people giving and receiving feedback and generating a list of observations about what seems to work and what doesn’t.


Feedback involves 3 roles, not just 2

Feedback involves 3 roles, not just 2

We framed our discussions with the idea that feedback involves not only the person asking/receiving and the person giving/providing, but a “crowd” of people around that pair.  Traditionally, much of the attention given to this topic is on the mechanics of the interaction between the two obvious players.  We included the third role to push our assumptions with a social systems view.

We all shared stories describing real feedback situations to help us recognize some patterns in real behavior.  Once we get a good picture of how people actually behave (not how they should behave), we will try to uncover what works well and what causes people problems.

An early insight from our shared stories is that it makes a positive impact on a feedback exchange when a person is ready for it.  That is, when a person is asking for feedback, they seem to be more able to handle it well than when a person gives it.  So this prompts the question, “What makes someone ready for feedback?”

Our next step is for LC members to begin conducting feedback experiments within their organizations.  From these experiments, we will expand our observations and gather more ideas to push our thinking.   We’ll start posting them on the Rypple Effect blog in a few weeks.

Ambiguity kills feedback

I hear from lots of people that it’s hard to get feedback. The top five reasons I’ve gathered:

  1. They don’t have time
  2. They don’t want to hurt my feelings
  3. They weren’t paying close enough attention to give me details
  4. They’re afraid to be seen as a critic (or bitchy) (or mean)
  5. They don’t respond to my request (usually by email)

Sound familiar?  Seems right to me… why would anyone want to give you feedback with all of those great excuses?  The risks involved for people to help are pretty big because most requests for feedback involve a great deal of ambiguity.   Ambiguity means that the potential downsides to getting involved with you outweigh the benefits of helping you, and their social radar starts going off, “avoid, avoid, avoid!”

People are more likely to give you feedback if you remove ambiguity from the situation by doing two things:

1. Share your intentions. This is about being transparent, but also about being super clear.  For more on this distinction, check out John Maeda’s post at What were you hoping to accomplish in the action you are asking about?  Say something like, “I was hoping to get everybody on board for this project today.  Do you think I was successful?  What worked?  What didn’t?”  This gives your feedback partner an invitation and a point of focus for a useful response. Sharing your intentions allows them to be short and sweet, and dispels fears of being out of tune with your needs, or thinking too hard, or getting bogged down in a long emotional debrief.

photo by Andreas Sundgren on Flickr

photo by Andreas Sundgren on Flickr

2. Ask for help, but be specific.  Being seen as a helpful person is good for someone’s reputation.  But according to social proof theory, people are more likely to respond if you ask them individually, in a specific way.  Otherwise, they will wait and see if someone else will give help, leaving you with no help.  Studies show that people will walk by a seriously injured person on the street simply because others are walking past him.  The ambiguity of the situation stuns them into no response.

“Is he a homeless man sleeping?”  “Is this man dead?”  “Is this man injured?” (I really can’t get involved with this!)

When the injured person breaks the pattern by pointing to a specific passer-by and saying something like, “Hey you, my leg is broken, can you call 911?”  The response rate is above 90%.  Again the source of confusion for potential helpers and their lack of response is ambiguity.  When there is not a clear call for help, people will general take cues from others around them before risking a response.  When nobody is helping, nobody will help.

Use these two tips together and you make it much easier for someone else to give you valuable feedback by removing ambiguity from the situation.

What’s really wrong with performance reviews

I’m sure many of you have seen the recent column by Jeff Pfeffer in BusinessWeek.  It’s a very nice analysis of the flaws in corporate performance reviews.  I respect and agree with everything he says in that article. And, I think there’s a more fundamental issue underlying the failure of performance reviews.  The whole concept is backwards.

Photo by Charlie//Alexandra White on Flickr

Photo by Charlie//Alexandra White on Flickr

It’s designed to manage performance as if it could actually be managed.  In order to actually manage performance, a manager would have to be present while the employee works a great deal of the time.  When a person starts to veer off “best practices,” the manager could then intervene with helpful comments and suggestions, or in extreme cases simply whack the person with a ruler to keep him in line.

Sounds crazy doesn’t it?  Managers can’t do that, they’ve got better managerial things to do.  Performance reviews are designed as if people were machines that need annual maintenance to fix broken parts or an upgrade to new software.

In a human-centered model, we’d assume that an adult worker of normal abilities would be able to understand the task at hand, and apply skill and judgment to meet work goals.  In this system, we’d assume that the person would be motivated to do a good job and be curious about how to do it better.  This might be a stretch too, but given the choices, I think this approach has more potential.

Yes, it’s a major shift in paradigm, but it’s one that aligns with the people who are already doing well, not with the people who are not.  That is, people who are successful at work and in life tend to ask questions, learn, and grow. Why don’t we design processes, tools, and practices that support the more successful people, not prop up the weakest links?  Call me Darwin if you will, but I believe this approach will help those who aren’t behaving in the most successful strategies shift towards them (not get left behind).

For a great example of this approach (helping successful people do what they already do better) is Rypple.  It’s a platform for asking questions and giving feedback that’s driven by the only person who really cares about your performance… you.

The economics of discomfort

There’s a great post on CNET about the Future of Capitalism.  I won’t retell the whole thing here, but it provides a great answer to my previous post, If feedback is so great, why is it so hard? It’s not a direct answer, but see if this makes sense:  feedback is hard because it acknowledges that control of your future involves lots of other people. And this feels scary, arbitrary, and unpredictable.

source: wikipedia

source: wikipedia

If you are working in a job with a boss, you can work with that one person to agree on your future.  If you have a bad boss, this isn’t so great, but you can go find another more agreeable one and move on up.  This is the source of much of the negative political behavior in today’s stereotypical corporate environment.

If the future of capitalism involves recapitalizing assets that have been undervalued, then behavior strategies popularized by characters like Michael Scott of The Office are doomed.

Your talent represents a great asset… something you can trade, hedge, remix, or share to generate value that others will buy.  So you can use your talent to work in Chris Anderson’s “Free Economy” to earn a living.  But you have to invest with your asset and add value to the abundant, free resources through aggregation, synthesis, distribution, and other means of improvement.  You must use your knowledge, skill, attributes, and experience as a unique lever to create new things like a service experience, an insightful article, an assembled computer, or beautiful music.

In the days when a person worked a lifetime for a company (or a land-owner), the responsibility to take care of your talent belonged to them.  And all benefits of using your talent went to them.  In this emerging new economy, technology has enabled you to benefit directly from your talent like never before.  I won’t get into all the political scenarios being mentioned out there, but the bottom line is that individuals have increasing freedom to make something happen in their lives if they aren’t happy with the more traditional approaches to work.

But freedom comes with responsibility (darn).  And this is where the answer on feedback comes in…  markets are really good at finding stuff that works, and even better at culling out stuff that doesn’t.  Feedback is hard because it involves finding out what parts of your offer are not working for others, and often represents resistance to your aspirations.  And it’s not only your opinion that counts, it’s the opinions of the social group around you that assemble into a shared reality-of-you that count.  And feedback is the only way to discover and make sense of those opinions.

Investing with your talent in this kind of economy can be extremely uncomfortable.  As the saying goes, The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.

If feedback is so great, why is it so hard?

photo: NUT by .Luca-Italy, Flickr

photo: NUT by .Luca-Italy, Flickr

Is it just me or does this strike you as odd?  I have a Google feed that sends me a daily digest of messages that include the term feedback.  I get hundreds of them!  Many people have suggestions for how to ask for and give feedback (including me) and many people talk about why it’s so important (like this post).  I’m curious why it’s such a hot topic, yet why it’s so infrequently discussed in a positive light.  So, I’ve been trying to apply design thinking to this nut to see if I can crack open some new insights and ideas.  Here’s some of what I’m gathering.  Feel free to join in, and I’ll keep you posted as it moves along.


  • I have a friend who shares completely about what she’s thinking and seems to be very provocative in how she “pushes people’s buttons.”  For example, she has her young son get his toenails painted and lets everyone know that it’s important to do so… She rarely asks what other people think, mostly she tells stories.
  • I work with someone who rarely states his opinion, but asks amazing questions to get people to explain more about their initial comments.  When he starts to form an opinion about something he often presents it as a question (but not in an annoying, “what I hear you saying is…” kind of way).


  • Feedback is all around us, from facial expressions, to body posture, to words (and sounds).
  • People shy away from telling “the full truth” about their opinions.
  • Some people are tuned-in to other people’s reactions, suggestions, behaviors.
  • Some people seem oblivious to how they affect other people.


  • I put some post-it notes on our door at work to get people to ask questions about things I care about.  It seemed to work, and be fun.  It seems that not overstating something is more inviting to others than presenting a complete or definitive thought.
  • I’ve used Rypple to ask others questions before a meeting to help me understand what they care about and expect.  It was very easy and helped me create the agenda.

To improve my diversity of input and thinking, I’ve been reaching out to other people interested in exploring this topic, and have started a new “learning collaborative” with my friends at Rypple.  We are hosting our first design session in August and have gotten some great people from some great companies to join us.  At the first session, we’ll have folks from IDEO, Mozilla, Pixar, Method Home, the Federal Reserve Bank, Electronic Arts,, and more.  I hope this amazing collection of people working in a design process can helps get some real traction on feedback.

Accurate Self Awareness

I spend a lot of time talking to people about getting good feedback.  Usually, they’ve picked up somehow that everything is not going along as well as they’d like.  It could be a friend saying, “you should go talk with so-and-so, I think you two are not on the same page.”  Or, maybe it’s a boss telling you to shape up in a particular area.  Or, maybe you’ve noticed nobody will sit next to you in the cafeteria.

Humans are social animals
The human desire to achieve is outdone only by the human desire to fit in, so these kind of scenarios are usually unsettling at the core of your emotional well-being.  The “reptilian brain stem” portion of your brain starts sending signals to your body that you are in danger and you feel stress and anxiety.

Downward spiral

Downward spiral

Avoid the downward spiral
Over time, this is really bad for your body if you don’t deal with it. In the short term, this is really bad for your job because a lot of your energy is tied up in worry, defensiveness, etc.   Lots of people begin to “ping” those around them to see if this perceived threat is real.  Unfortunately, if this is not done well it feeds the problem and the spiral takes you down and then out to the market for a new job.

Tips for getting an accurate self assessment:

1. Ask better questions. A generic “how am I doing?” question usually leads to a neutral, safe response like, “fine.”  This gives you a false impression and accelerates the negative spiral by reinforcing your positive self image in the face of some legitimate concerns.  Instead of the generic, open-ended approach, ask a specific question about a specific concern you have.   See my “that’s a good question” post for some tips on this.

2. Ask the right people. In a panic situation, we tend to go to our closest allies for guidance and support.  But you need to build perspective when you are unsure, so extend your reach and ask some people you know will be more critical (helpful) and less inclined to protect you.  Having your feedback biased to your closer colleagues means your awareness is biased too.

3. Reduce risk for truthful input. Recognize that most people are not going to tell you their full critical opinion

Scaredy Cats

Scaredy Cats

because it is “risky” to do so.  They may not want to hurt your feelings, may feel their opinion is not important, may believe it’s not their place to be critical of you, or be afraid that they’ll get a reputation for being harsh or unforgiving.  Try these two ways to get the full story from others:

  • Build trust and be persistent.  Think of this like coaxing a cat out from under the bed.  Here kitty, kitty…
  • Provide an anonymous channel to you.  You can ask a friend to gather some input for you, or you can use a tool like Rypple to do it yourself.