The Feedback Boomarang

People criticize or applaud others regularly and seem to forget that human beings are defensive creatures. They will criticize or applaud you back. If they cannot return the favor directly, they’ll find another way – often behind backs. It’s only human.

If you feel entitled to give feedback, you should be willing to receive it. Take that notion a step further: dish out feedback expecting to get some back. Managers do themselves a disservice by sitting high and mighty over direct reports that have no forum to return the feedback favor. I mean to call it a “favor” because employees have great insight into their boss’s management style that could seriously help the manager grow and improve. When feedback is a one way street that only cascades downhill, the genuine reciprocation of ideas and flow of information that helps a machine accelerate forward collapses. Honesty, inspiration and purpose all suffer when the feedback loop breaks (or never existed in the first place).

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Feedback Waterfalls Should Defy Gravity

In most organizations, feedback, performance reviews and criticism flows in only one direction: from top to the bottom. As a manager, the taboo of upwards feedback frustrates me. I am not perfect, nor can anyone else be. We all have a lot to learn from others, especially those who suffer our leadership every day. As often as possible, I ask for feedback from my team and peers. Those not afraid to be honest with me or answer my candid questions can help me identify noteworthy, correctable faults. A win-win for everyone.

Invite punishment-free feedback from your team on a regular basis. If you’re worried people won’t be honest with you (or if you do not trust yourself from taking criticism personally), create an anonymous feedback pipeline. After a while, your team will come out of their shells and be straight with you colloquially. As important as it is for you to make decisions quickly as a leader, it’s equally or more important for your team to call you out on your bullshit as quickly as possible before things go astray.

Let It Flow

If you want to foster a culture of open ideas, you cannot stand in the way. Do not shoot suggestions down, do not fight back and never stifle the feedback loop. Close your mouth and bite your tongue if you have to. Whatever it takes to let your team know that they are being listened to and that there is room for their ideas. After ideas have been heard, let open debate ensue. Invite extra opinions and open your ears even wider. Make sure opinions are genuinely collected and heard. Show the idea collection process with surveys, emails, whiteboards, etc. if you think it will help your team see and appreciate your reception to their opinions. And do not fear disagreements. Disagreements are healthy – they suggest that ideas are being contributed and tested. As with any relationship, team relationships stand to grow and strengthen through overcoming disagreements.

If you need to make a quick decision and do not have time for collecting feedback, don’t close the deal immediately. Help everyone understand why you feel the way you do and thank them for their understanding. At the very least, it shows you respect their autonomy and the other contributions they make.

Give Employees Feedback Permission

Seth Levine made me think a lot today about feedback loops within organizations. Employees fear giving feedback to their managers or superiors. Makes sense – if you take constructive criticism too far, you may find yourself on the street. Tragically, most managers and executives want and need advice to help them do their job better. While leadership coaches may help, third parties are not close enough to the conversation. Only people within the organization spend enough time around you to identify a specific and timely list of your faults. More importantly, outside help cannot understand all of the personality types you lead. Every team is different and takes a different approach. At the end of the day, you must own a leadership style that fits your team.

Fortunately, there are people who can help – your employees. By giving your team permission to provide feedback, you open a door to better-understand your style and flaws. Permission is not enough, however (remember: people fear the guillotine) – you must build structure to provide feedback. Some managers approach this anonymously, with surveys and the like. Others organize reciprocal reviews and have it out one-on-one. The anonymous approach allows employees to craft their responses and be more candid. A more open and direct approach can work for people who can manage tempers like monks. I suggest a combination of the two to get the full picture.

If your team corroborates specific faults across the board, you should take a pretty big hint. By including your people in the dialogue, you can empower them to challenge you to improve. If everyone can set egos aside, feedback permission can radically improve morale in the workspace, the drive for improvement, personal ownership of their role in the company, and collaborative honesty overall. I don’t care what numbers or information you share with your team; you are not truly transparent as an organization until teammates have the freedom to be honest with each other.

Don’t Censor Yourself

Let the words flow. If you have something you’d like to say, say it. Do not be afraid what other people will think. Permit yourself to say something wrong. Stay open to criticism and feedback – it’s the only way to refine your voice and position against millions of other voices.

When I started this blog, posts took around an hour per day. I was afraid what people might think, so I spent a lot of time on them. A year later, I care less about the craft of my posts and more about the ideas I want to communicate. Now, with a few exceptions, posts take me no more than 20 minutes per day. As soon as I surrendered my preoccupation with perfect writing, the thoughts flowed more freely, and it demanded far less of my time.

Censoring yourself not only compromises your character, it can compromise your time. Do not fail yourself or your ideas with perfectionism. Spit it out, fool.

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The Ugly Path to Beautiful Design

Design is difficult. Perfectionists want to nitpick until they are blue in the face. Most never finish satisfied. The few who feel they got it just right invariably get torn apart by the public or by passing time. Burdened by stress herein, many never finish at all.

Beautiful design seldom comes from a single stroke or first draft. It takes iteration upon iteration to arrive at success. The path to creating widely accepted design depends entirely on feedback. No single designer wields a universal sensibility, so each design must be put to the test.

No matter how focused or specific your target audience is, you have no way to inherently know how to approach the look and feel of your creation until you drop your pants and present it.

Put out something ugly first so people can call it ugly and help you define what pretty is. Listen to the criticism carefully and identify the common taste denominator woven throughout your core audience. Without compromising your vision, steer work in that direction. Before long, your audience, you, and your design may find common ground.