I like to think that I consistently seek feedback from my colleagues, but the truth is that I’m more likely to focus on technical work. This is probably because I’m more inclined to work on solving an already acknowledged problem rather than try to find some new problems to work on, which is commonly the outcome of seeding feedback from your peers. It doesn’t help that it requires a specific mindset to really get good value from a peer review.
That’s why this time of year, when my organisation schedules its performance reviews, is good for me. Part of our review process is to gather feedback from a subset of our peers, so I get poked to do what I should be doing anyway, encouraging me to put down the tools for a little while and improve myself professionally with the help of the people around me.
When it comes to peer reviews, personally, I want brutal, unadulterated honesty. If I’ve gone out of my way to seek someone out to get a sense of how they feel about me professionally (or personally, as the two often overlap quite a lot), the last thing I want is for them to hide that because they are afraid of hurting my feelings or some similar sentiment. You really do need to have a good handle on your own emotions and ego before you embark on an a review with this in mind though.
In order to actually engage with people, you want to make sure that you’ve given them something to rally around and get the conversation started. In my case, I try to treat the peer review situation a lot like I would treat a retrospective for an agile team, with two relatively simply questions:
- What should I keep doing from your point of view?
- What should I stop doing from your point of view?
When targeted at personal and professional interactions with a colleague, these questions can lead to quite a lot of discussion and result in opportunities for improvement and growth.
I’m a pretty blunt sort of person, as you might be able to tell from reading any of my previous posts.
For me, I want to get right at any issues that might need to be dealt with as soon as possible, taking emotion and ego out of the equation.
Not everyone is like that, and that sort of confrontational attitude can make people uncomfortable, which is the last thing you want on the table when seeking feedback. The truth of the matter is that each person is very different, and it is as much the responsibility of the person being reviewed to encourage conversation and discussion as it is the reviewer. You have to tailor your responses and comments to whoever you are interacting with, making sure not to accidentally (or on purpose) get them to close off and shut down. Nothing good will come out of that situation.
It might seem like a lot of work, when all you really want is some simple, straightforward feedback, but making sure that everyone is comfortable and open with their thoughts will get a much better result than trying to force your way through a conversation to get at the bits you deem most useful.
Personally, I’m not the sort of person that puts a lot of stock in a strictly hierarchical view (organisation charts in particular bug me), mostly because I don’t like that archaic way of thinking. Bob reports to Mary reports to Jon reports to Susan just feels like a very out-dated way of thinking, where I prefer a much more collaborative approach where people rally around goals or projects rather than roles and titles. That’s not to say that you can escape from there being some people who have the responsibility (and power) to mandate a decision if the situation requires it, but this should be the exception rather than the norm.
How does this relate to peer reviews?
Well, not everyone thinks like that. Some people are quite fond of the hierarchical model for whatever reason and that can bring a whole host of issues to the process of getting honest feedback. These people are not wrong, they just have a different preference, and you need to be aware of those factors in order to ensure that you get the most out of the review process.
If someone considers themselves above you for example, you can probably count on getting somewhat honest feedback from them, because they feel like they can speak freely with no real fear of repercussion. Depending on the sort of person this can be both good and bad. If you’re really unlucky, you’ll have to engage with a psychopath who is looking to “win” the conversation and use it as some sort of powerplay. If you’re lucky, you’ll just get a good, unfiltered sense of how that person views you and your professional conduct.
The more difficult situation is when someone considers themselves to be below you, which can evoke in them a sense of fear around speaking their mind. This is a bad situation to be in, because it can be very hard to get that person to open up to you, regardless of how many times you make promises that this is a purely informal chat and that you’re interested in improving yourself, not punishing them for telling you how they feel. Again this is one of those situations where if you’ve established a positive and judgement-free relationship, you’ll probably be fine, but if the person has some deep seated issues around a hierarchical structure and your position in it, you’re going to have a bad time.
If you do identify a situation where a peer is afraid of speaking their mind due to perceived positional differences during a peer review, its probably too late. Pick someone else to get feedback from this time, and work on establishing a better relationship with that person so that you can get their feedback next time.
The Flip Side
Up to this point I’ve mostly just talked about how to get feedback from other people to improve yourself, which is only half of the story.
In order to be fair, you need to be able to be the reviewer as well, offering constructive feedback to those who request it, and, if necessary, encouraging people to seek feedback for personal growth as well. This sort of concept isn’t limited to just those in “managerial” positions either, as every team member should be working towards an environment where all members of the team are constantly looking to improve themselves via peer review.
Giving feedback requires a somewhat different set of skills to seeking it, but both have a lot of common elements (which I’ve gone through above). Really, its all about understanding the emotional and intellectual needs of the other person involved, and tailoring the communications based on that. In regards to specific feedback elements, you want to be honest, but you also want to provide a mixture of specifically addressable points alongside more general observations.
Remember, someone seeking feedback has already decided to grow as a person, so you’re just helping them zero in on the parts that are most interesting from your point of view. They are likely seeking the same thing from multiple people, so they might not even change the things you talk about, but its still a good opportunity to help them understand your point of view.
Seeking and giving feedback require an entirely different set of skills to solving problems with software. Both sides of the coin can very quickly end in an emotional place, even if its not intended.
From a reviewee point of view you need to be able to put ego and emotional aside and listen to what the other person has to say, while also encouraging them to say it.
From the reviewer point of view, you need to be able to speak your mind, but not alienate the person seeking feedback.
Its a delicate balancing act, but one that can generate a wealth of dividends in your professional life.
If you’re lucky, it might even make you a better person.