Throughout my career, my process and standards for feedback have remained pretty consistent. So this page attempts to distill down the key points into a relatively short guide.
Types of Feedback
Let’s start by breaking feedback down into two categories: developmental and performance. Each one has different implications for the recipient.
Developmental feedback is the feedback that you provide to your peers, up to your manager, and down to those that you don’t directly manage (eg. lower level ICs). It does not carry a direct bearing on your performance review, though your peers are likely to recycle feedback provided developmentally when providing formal performance feedback.
Performance feedback is a special form of feedback that comes from or through your manager. Performance feedback doesn’t necessarily originate from your manager, but it is feedback that your manager has either observed or collected from others that they believe may get in the way of you growing or progressing in your career, or may be risks along the way.
My preferred delivery tool for feedback is SBI, which stands for Situation, Behavior, Impact. There are variations on this that exist as well, but I stick with what works for me. Others have written in much more length and eloquence than I can provide, so LMGTFY1, but one of my favorites is Giving Productive Behavioural Feedback Using the SBI Model.
- Situation is when – the context for the feedback
- Behavior is what – objectively, what specific thing did someone do or say?
- Impact is how the behavior affected the feedback giver – the subjective impact of the behavior on the individual
Some sample feedback in an SBI format may look like:
|Alice||Hey, Bob, do you mind if I give you some feedback on our Post-Incident Review meeting yesterday?|
|Alice||(situation) Yesterday, during our post-incident review,|
|(behavior) you said that “the operator made a stupid mistake,” after we had specified that I was the operator during the incident.|
|(impact) This made me feel like I should have known better, even though I followed the instructions in the runbook.|
The main things this example does right are:
- the situation is clearly set up and within feedback SLA,
- the behavior is very clear and specific – directly quoting the recipient, and
- the impact is made with an I statement – the recipient can’t disagree with how their words are perceived.
While Bob may want to react with “that wasn’t my intent” and provide context, he cannot disagree with the fact that he made Alice feel stupid.
Feedback should be given while the context is fresh in both the giver and receiver’s minds. As a general rule, therefore, I try to provide all feedback within 2 business days of the situation whenever possible (factoring out PTO, async communication, and other factors). After 2 days, the giver may have moved on or even lost the motivation to provide the feedback in the first place.
Receiving Developmental Feedback
Giving feedback is only half of the equation. You also need to be good at receiving feedback. This section outlines some standards for receiving developmental feedback (the kind not related to your job performance) from your peers. Hays also has a good primer on the subject.
The act of delivering feedback is stressful. Your response to the feedback will be coming at a moment when the giver is at a very vulnerable place: they’re taking a big risk to give you feedback. Which leads to my first rule of receiving feedback:
As a recipient, you need to actually receive the feedback.
Our instinctual reaction to feedback is to retreat into a defensive mode to explain what we perceive the cause or situation that led to the feedback.
Stop. Receive. Reflect.
Feedback isn’t always an indication that you did something wrong. Feedback is a formal method of communicating a difference in perspective. The feedback giver is letting their guard down and providing you an opportunity to step into their mind and see your actions from their perspective. Which leads to the next rule of receiving feedback:
You don’t always need to accept or act on the feedback.
Early in my career, I got advice that has stuck with me: you’ll never be able to make everyone happy. As an empathic introvert, this was incredibly difficult for me to hear at the time. But I’ve internalized it, and now I make a conscious decision every time I hear feedback about whether it’s feedback that I accept or reject.
To be clear here, though: rejecting all feedback is not a correct interpretation of this rule.
A better example: I’ve received feedback that I can sometimes be too decisive. The impact of this behavior is the stripping of team members’ agency. However, I haven’t responded to this feedback by choosing to stop being decisive. Instead, I’ve used the feedback to develop a self-awareness of my decisiveness so I can be intentional about when I am being decisive and when I step back.
Another example of rejecting feedback is feedback from customers about a product that you’re working on. Using customer feedback to directly build your team’s roadmap isn’t good product management. Instead, you should use customer feedback to influence the choices you know you need to make about your product. It’s obvious when a product is intentional and refined versus a Frankensteinian Monster that’s an aggregation of every single piece of feedback from every single customer.
The next rule, and I cannot overstate the important of this one:
Thank the feedback giver.
No matter what. Even if they just told you something that you completely, utterly disagree with, thank them. You can express your disagreement in how you choose to act (or not act) on the feedback. Feedback is not an interaction where there’s a winner and a loser. Getting the last word in after receiving feedback devalues the feedback you just received and turns feedback into a confrontation, whether you mean it to be or not, and I can guarantee that that person will never want to give you feedback again. Take the feedback, commit to processing it, and move on.
You are, however, allowed to ask questions! But ask questions that clarify your understanding of the other person’s perspective.
Ask questions that clarify the behavior or impact, not to challenge the feedback.
✅ Which phrase did I use that was the most hurtful?
✅ How could I have said it in a way that made more sense?
✅ Can you be more specific about the exact behavior you observed?
❌ Why didn’t you give me that feedback last time I did that?
❌ But don’t you think that’s what they needed to hear?
❌ That’s what my boss told me to do, though.
The first three examples express curiosity, trying to help the feedback recipient understand the feedback. The last three are indirectly attempting to shed the recipient of the responsibility for the behavior that led to the feedback.
A special note on feedback from your manager
There’s a special kind of feedback that comes with baggage. Formal feedback from your manager. If you’re reading this page, that might even be me!
When I’m doing my job well, you should know when feedback is performance-oriented (eg. you’re not performing at the level I expect you to) versus developmental. Developmental feedback comes in many forms, but one example may be feedback on a slide presentation you gave at a company meeting. There may be parts of that feedback that are linked to performance – for example, if you are working with your manager on being a clearer communicator, the presentation may be an opportunity to work on that.
Okay, so put another blunt way: you should always know when feedback is “your job is on the line” versus “you could have done even better if.” And if that’s not clear, ask.
What if you disagree with your manager’s feedback?
This is an interesting one to discuss. Let’s start from the framing above of feedback as a method of communicating a difference in perspective. When you disagree with your manager’s performance feedback, you’re stating a difference in perspective, usually on the same outcomes. I’ll give you some tools to use when you disagree with feedback:
1. Reframe on outcomes
First, if it’s not clear, have a conversation about the outcomes of the topic of the feedback. If you and your manager disagree on the outcomes, that’s where you should start shoring up your mutual understanding. If you think you delivered a project exactly how your manager expected you to, and your manager gives you feedback that indicates that they think that it didn’t go well, you two need to start by understanding what was discrepant in expectations before discussing the feedback itself.
This is where feedback that you disagree with from your manager can actually be an incredibly useful tool. It helps to level-set between you and your manager on where they apply scrutiny and where you can rise to meet it.
2. Ask “how can I prove you wrong?”
Next, you want to move the conversation to action in a way that holds both parties accountable. By agreeing on actions you can take to improve on the behavior in the feedback, you are doing a few things:
- Furthering your understanding of your manager’s feedback by determining what would and wouldn’t address it
- Giving your manager a specific heuristic to evaluate your performance by
- Giving you an informal “contract” that you can hold your manager to in case they come back with the same feedback next time
Critically, the last one prevents you from receiving the same feedback twice. I’ve had managers that come back with the dreaded “yeah, but” when revisiting previous feedback. In other words, I did what I thought would address the feedback, but it wasn’t enough and they came up with something else to give me feedback about. If I had an agreement with my manager on how I could prove them wrong, I would have been able to call their bullshit and use our agreement to support my position that I’m doing everything that was asked of me.
3. Keep the receipts
Now that you have an agreed upon action plan, agree to it and ask your manager in a written down format: “if I do these things we agreed to, will I have addressed your feedback?”
Then make sure you have evidence of you acting on what you agreed to. You can even go so far as to ask your manager to maintain a development plan for that feedback, where you both take notes on instances where you show growth or regression on the feedback. In a functional manager/direct relationship, this is a collaborative process that helps you both strive for mutual understanding of each other’s perspectives.
But what if their feedback got in the way of my promotion?
It shouldn’t. I owe this site a doc on my promotion philosophy, but a quick tl;dr is that you should always know how far away you are from your next promotion (up until you’re very high up in levels, then it begins to shift to an opportunity model). Feedback is the tool that I use along your growth in your current level to push you to reach the next level, not the tool that holds you back. If you think you’re eligible for a promotion and you don’t get it, that’s a specific conversation to have with your manager.
And if you use #2, you should be able to negotiate with your manager a concrete set of actions you can take to make promotion in the next cycle.
“Let me Google that for you” ↩︎