Facilitating the Spread of Knowledge and Innovation in Professional Software Development

Write for InfoQ


Choose your language

InfoQ Homepage Presentations Baby Got Feedback: How to Give and Take Feedback Like A Boss

Baby Got Feedback: How to Give and Take Feedback Like A Boss



Sarah Hagan uses empirical research, practical tips, and parodied song lyrics around how to be a better feedback receiver and become more effective in giving feedback.


Sarah Hagan is the Research Manager of the People Analytics team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation using analytics and behavioral psychology to understand employees and make work better. She works across BMGF’s People Operations teams to bring data to people practices and ensure they're making the best decisions about employees. Before that, she worked at Redfin and Nordstrom.

About the conference

Software is changing the world. QCon empowers software development by facilitating the spread of knowledge and innovation in the developer community. A practitioner-driven conference, QCon is designed for technical team leads, architects, engineering directors, and project managers who influence innovation in their teams.


Before I start, I'm going to give you a very transparent warning. Plenty of time in advance - I joked about judging you if you leave, but I won't judge you if you leave right now after I tell you that I'm going to make you practice giving feedback in this session. Right, yes, we joke about it because it's terrifying. But I want to tell you right now, I'm going to put you in that uncomfortable space.

I'm going to talk a little bit today about giving and receiving feedback. And although my talk title says like a boss, that's a joke and a lonely island reference, mostly because our bosses suck just as much as we do at giving feedback and taking feedback and having that continuous feedback dialogue. So for the next 40 or so minutes, we're going to get a little uncomfortable and talk about these really awkward conversations. And we won't know how to get better unless we practice and build that feedback muscle. So you're going to practice, so get ready.

I think a lot of people think they're really good at giving feedback, but it usually comes across like this. “My friends are dumb and they need to know”. That's not great feedback. The ability to give and listen to feedback is actually really marketable both as an individual and as a manager. And I'm going to talk mostly about an individual, but recognize that this is extra important if you're a manager because there's usually responsibility for you to have those feedback conversations consistently. Companies that encourage open and honest feedback have 270% greater return than companies that don't. So, yes, it's about being a good person, but it's also about results.

For over 20 years, fMRI research has consistently shown what is referred to as a neurocognitive overlap between physical pain and social pain. I'm a neuroscientist by training so I love this stuff. I'm going to say that again in like non-science speak. Physical pain and the pain that you feel when you get feedback are shared neuro-circuitry. That means that it hurts, literally, to get feedback in your brain.

Now, unsurprisingly, we're more likely to stop interacting with people who give us negative feedback because we don't like that feeling of pain. We actually start avoiding people who are trying to help us be better people because it hurts to get feedback. But this is kind of weird, and kind of bonkers, I know. Research on social pain, so that's getting negative feedback, shows that people who are more sensitive to physical pain are actually more sensitive to hearing critical feedback. And just like you can take Tylenol to blunt the effects of physical pain, you can actually take Tylenol to blunt the effects of social pain. I know, it's weird, you don't have to do it. And just like pain gets blunted the more times you hit the same space, that feeling of social pain is going to be blunted the more that you hear negative feedback.

Seek Feedback

So you're going to hate this and I get it. But the first part at being good at this continuous feedback attitude and culture at work is to seek feedback from your colleagues, yes. So I want to give you two jumping off points for how to get feedback. The first is something specific and event related. “How did I show up in that meeting?” “Can you give me some feedback about that email?” This is pretty innocuous, right? There's an event, a very specific occurrence that happens that you are asking feedback on. This works really well because the person giving you feedback is only going to give you feedback about what you asked on, so it's a safe space. It's also really helpful because it's usually a lot more actionable: “Here is what I would do in the future.”

Alternatively, we can have general feedback, or how you can be more successful in your role. “How can I or my team support you and your team better?” These are general questions that actually work really well if you don't have a pre-existing relationship with someone that you're asking for feedback on, you have very limited interaction. In general, feedback is great because it's up to the person giving the feedback to do all the hard work. But asking the right questions matter. So be thinking about that when you're asking for feedback. All right, but asking for feedback, low hanging fruit, super easy to do, “tell me how I'm doing.” It's hearing that feedback that's really difficult.

So I want to prep you about how you can think about negative feedback in a more positive way. Although feedback can be positive, I think I'm going to talk about negative feedback because that's the hard stuff to hear, right? We all love praise and being told that we're really great, but it's that negative feedback that we're all afraid of and that's why we don't want to have that conversation.

So most of our negative reactions fall in three big buckets that question something about our identity or who we are. The first is the truth. When we get feedback that we may not necessarily agree with, it's super easy to discard it and say, "That's not me." Instead of thinking that that feedback is wrong, shift your mindset to, "Tell me more." This mindset shift can help you overcome maybe blind spots that you didn't recognize that you had. “That's not me.” “Interesting, can you explain?”

The second is relationships. Now we have a relationship with everybody that we interact with, whether or not it's someone we just met, someone we married, someone who is our manager, maybe our manager to someone you married. No judging, maybe it's your colleagues, but each of those relationships bring baggage. And it's really hard to separate that feedback on who is giving you that feedback with what the feedback is. If you get feedback and you find yourself really focusing on that relationship, try to switch from who is giving you that feedback to who and what simultaneously. Here is an example. “You're not communicating with me.” That's what I would say to my husband. Bad feedback. It should be, “We're not communicating well. Here is how best to communicate with me. In the future, how can I communicate with you?” focusing on the communication and the fact that we're married.

The last is identity or how we see ourselves. A lot of people get negative feedback and then they feel it in their core. It's that social pain, right? But negative feedback doesn't mean that you're a bad person, and it's really hard to get away from that distorted thinking. Think about the feedback that you're getting as a growth opportunity and not tied up with who you are. Just like I tell my toddler, and just like I tell Harry, we're all learning how to be people. And it's hard to be a person, right? So think about it in more of a growth mindset. How can I learn to be a better person by actioning on this feedback?

Give Feedback

So that's all about receiving feedback, now I want to talk a little bit about giving feedback. Giving feedback is super terrifying the first time you have to give it in high stake situations. So I recommend practice in low stakes situations, right? We need to build that feedback muscle and how can we build it? By practicing. There is some pretty cool research though on how feedback can be best given. And this research transcends a lot of those tough areas, like thinking about personality styles and introverts versus extroverts, even DE and I differences. This research is going to help you give feedback better.

This is the sucky one, especially if you're in a distributed team. But I promise you, this conversation is going to go better if you do it face-to-face. There is actually research that shows that humans assume tone even if no tone was intended. There is an entire Key and Peele four minute sketch on YouTube that you can watch about them assuming tone through texts with a period instead of an exclamation point, okay? If you're part of a distributed team or a remote team, hey, that's great, do a quick Skype call or Google Hangout. I think Slack has a video call now, right? You do that and do it face-to-face. Try not, if you can, to do it over email. If any of you have received an email from your manager that says, "We need to talk with a period," how do you take that? It's usually really negative even though your manager didn't mean it. Think about that when you're trying to provide feedback.

The second is to prime the feedback, and by that I mean let the receiver know that you're about to provide them with some feedback. This does a couple things. One, it gives them an out. So when you say, "Do you have time for some feedback?" They have the ability to say, "No." Now, most people don't. So when they say yes, they're already on your side, they're already ready to hear what you have to say. Some research shows that you get better results if you actually say this as a statement. Here is my honest feedback. That makes me kind of uncomfortable, that's not really my style. You know your style and you know what works for you, but by letting people know that feedback is about to come, they are then ready or primed to take that conversation.

The third is to be direct and state your intention to be helpful. You guys know the sandwich protocol, right? Where you say a positive and then you slip in the negative feedback and then you finish with the positive, so they like you better? Yes, there is ample research on this, that this is not effective. In fact, it's less effective than being direct. Why? For a couple reasons. It's a crutch for those giving the feedback and not those receiving it. People, over time, who get that compliment sandwich keep dreading praise, because they're waiting for the other shoe to drop. And people start to doubt the authenticity of those giving that praise because it sounds like it's false praise. And lastly, the impact of behavior change, if there is any sort of behavior change that's necessary, is lessened because they're hearing good things at the same time. Just be direct.

The fourth is to make it timely. If you tell me that I did something six months ago, I am going to presume that you have been holding that against me for the past six months because you didn't tell me about it. The fifth is to focus on the SBI: situation, behavior, impact. I'm priming you for that. I'm not going to talk about it quite yet. And then the last is to follow up when appropriate. When you see behavior change, comment on that behavior change, provide positive praise. Tell them that you're thankful that they listened to your feedback. Continue that feedback loop.

SBI: Situation, Behavior, Impact

So I talk about SBI, which is super helpful when I don't tell you what that is. SBI is a research driven way to give feedback, and it's super great but really awkward when you're trying to do it on the fly. So this type of feedback, giving the SBI and consistently giving your feedback in this way, has been shown over and over to provide the best results and actually makes the conversation really easy. So when you have feedback, report it in the SBI form: situation, anchored in time and place. Specific enough that the person that you're giving your feedback to should be able to remember and recall exactly what you were talking about. And remember, it shouldn't have been six months ago, it should have been pretty recent: “In the hallway when I asked you to send me that email.” “At the conference last week.” “In our conference call with executives on the 14th.” Make it specific and anchor it in time and place.

The second piece is behavior, that is the observable action of what happened. My best advice on this part is really think about what a video is capturing, like what is a video seeing? That's zero judgment, it's only what happened. Instead of using judgments like, “You were angry”, talk about the behavior. “You were slamming your fist on the table”, “You rolled your eyes, you avoided me for two weeks.”

And then finish up with the impact. What's the impact on you, on others, on your shared task together, on the company, maybe your business partners. The impact is what happened and how you felt, and potentially consequences. Now that's a lot, so here is an example. Instead of, “You were really rude yesterday”, the SBI, the situation: “During our conference call yesterday, you know exactly what I'm talking about and where we were.” Behavior: “I noticed you interrupted several of us on multiple occasions”. Behavior is interruption. Impact: “I was frustrated”, so impact on me, “and I sense that others were also affected. I'm concerned-” this is the follow up- “that those interruptions are getting in the way of the team that we've been building and the comfort that everyone has been developing for creative solutions”, impact on others in the task. Don't offer solutions, let them respond. SBI.

Sometimes it's really great to ask in a question, instead of, “You were really rude yesterday”, or, “During our conference call yesterday, blah, blah”, I like to take the inquiry approach, “How do you think that conference call went yesterday?” A lot of times people know that they misstepped, but there isn't a really good avenue for them to be able to tell you, especially if you're a people manager. So sometimes that helps.

Now we're going to watch a video, and we are going to talk about the SBI feedback on that video. I want to preface the video with you may recognize people in this video, but pretend like you don't know them. Pretend like you are being asked to provide feedback to this meeting facilitator about how the meeting is going. It's going to be super short, but be thinking about the situation, the behavior that you're seeing, and then the impact on you as a team member and your other team members. Let's turn it.

“Man 1: The fundamentals of business. ‘Mental’ is a part of the word, I have underlined it. Because you're mental, if you don't have a good time. You have to enjoy it.

Man 2: The ‘fun’ is in it.

Man 1: Get out.

Man 2: Yes, I know.”

Hagan: What was the situation? Where were we? We were in a meeting. It's great, in Ohio. Yes, we were in a meeting. What was the behavior that we saw?

Audience: That's one working with you.

Hagan: So I heard “someone was being rude”, which is a judgment. Take a step back and think what did you just see, now what did you interpret? Can you say it again?

Audience: Somebody leaving the room.

Hagan: Someone left the room. His contributions were dismissed. What else, behaviors. The facilitator was focusing on the word “mental”, great. What else happened? Someone corrected the boss. Yes, we're just on behaviors. The facilitator was terse. All right, what is the impact? Some people jumped to impact already, which is great that you're thinking that far, but I want you to think in chunks. Situation, behavior, and what was the impact? So, say that again.

Audience: No participation.

Hagan: You probably are losing participation with everybody else when you are that terse. What else?

Audience: Distraction.

Hagan: The person leaving is a distraction. People seem scared.

Audience: And the guy when making word mental is probably pointing to somebody in that room.

Hagan: We could potentially be offending someone by focusing on the word “mental”. My computer is like, “Login again”. All right, so using the SBI method in feedback is really helpful because you could take away those judgments and focus more on what's happening. All right, we're going to watch that one more time, and be thinking about what you just heard. And notice when you're jumping to judgments about how people are feeling instead of what happened.

That was kind of a miss the second time, but you saw it the first time. Be thinking about when you're making those judgments. So when we asked people to talk about the behaviors, notice that a couple people said things about feelings, angry, judgments. Try not to do that. Try to focus mostly on the situation and the behavior and then how it impacted you.

Surprise. You are about to work with a partner and give feedback to someone. Now, your partner doesn't actually have to be the person that you're giving feedback to, and in fact, I don't think that anybody is probably sitting next to the person that they need to get feedback to. But I want you to think about a situation where you need to give, or maybe should have given, feedback. Maybe someone's a dick at work and you don't like working with them. Feel it man, we were just talking about it at lunch. Maybe, someone dropped the ball during a presentation and then made your team look bad. Maybe, you just don't like someone and you can't quite figure out why. Think about why, think about that situation.

Now with a partner, everybody grab a partner, you're going to practice feedback. So first I'll give you a sec to grab a partner. I warned you, it's not a surprise. Threesomes are great, yes, yes, yes. All right, does everybody have a partner, does anybody need one? Everybody good with a partner. So I'm going to time you, and for five minutes, pick one of the two or three if you're in a threesome, a tripod, whatever you want to call it. Pick one, that's going to be the first person, and your job is to explain just a little bit about whatever has been happening, give it a little back story, I'm sure there is a back story. Then practice giving your feedback in the SBI method: situation, behavior, and impact.

Because I'm nice, I provided you with words that you can use if you're looking for things that you need to talk about when you're talking about that impact piece. Remember, this feedback can also be positive. We've been talking about negative feedback because again, that's what we're afraid of but we can talk about positive feedback too using the SBI method. So for the first five minutes, don't provide any feedback, just provide a little bit of back story and then give exactly how you would like to give that other person that conversation. Go.

Chill it out, calm it down, having a good time. It was way more participation than I expected, only one person left the room, I was counting. So, you know? All right, how did that feel?

Audience: Good, absolutely good.

Hagan: Felt good. Well, did it come easy?

Audience: Not in person.

Hagan: It's super hard. Did anybody notice and find themselves trying to jump to judgments and can give me an example? Totally cool, I do it all the time. You guys are pros already.

Participant 1: I have a co-worker who we didn’t hire a son-in-law, and we hired somebody else who was still really qualified. So I used to express a lot of questions about why we made that choice. I was jumping to conclusions that the reason why he was upset about this other hiring is because we [inaudible 00:26:00].

Hagan: I like that. So if you are on the video and didn't hear that, he was saying that there was someone who he didn't hire who was his son-in-law, and someone else that he did hire who wasn't his son-in-law, and he was finding himself jumping to conclusions about the negative reactions that he got from the person who he didn't hire. Awesome.

I'm going to have you do it again but switch partners if you didn't switch partners. If you did switch partners, great, you're going to do it again. It's practice, right? Think of a different situation. Somebody said, "Should this be real or hypothetical?" I don't know, do whatever you want. I would practice with something real. Think about someone who you think really needs some feedback, again, preferably negative feedback, because again, we're building up that feedback muscle. We're trying really hard to practice the SBI method so it starts coming second nature instead of feeling like we have to follow notes and look at the words of impact, which is okay. It's better than telling someone you're an idiot, which someone jokingly said over here, but happens all the time. All right, five more minutes, practice again.

Go ahead and wrap up. Slowing it down. You can take pictures but I will also give you a planner where you can go use it. All righty, I love the lively conversation. I did catch one person sleeping so I took a photo. Thank you for being delightful. And most people were talking about the feedback too, which is pretty wonderful. I get it, right? We were just talking about the glucose crush of post lunch. So I really appreciate you having those conversations.

So before I wrap up, I just want to let you know that you're going to have to keep building your skill of sharing feedback, and it takes practice. And this room was really animated. When I practice, I'm awkward. And I feel like I don't know what to say, and I'm trying to write out in my feedback planner, which I have one, how I'm going to build that conversation. Because I want to make sure that that feedback is heard, particularly when it comes to negative feedback and it's really, really hard.

Over time, this is going to come naturally, I promise. And really, we're all trying to be better people and better employees. And we really need to make sure that we're modeling a space for safe communication. Again, really important if you're a manager, but even if you're just a team member and you're an individual contributor, you can set the stage for having a culture of continuous feedback that's open and honest by asking for feedback and providing feedback, and letting people know that it's because you care.

Now, I have a link to my slides. I also have a link to more resources. If you're really interested in science, I've got some links to some primary sources, which are pretty cool. I also have a feedback planner sheet. That sounds silly, but again, when you're in a situation where there is high stakes, it's super awkward to just try to wing it. So it's really helpful; it talks about the SBI and then has words for impact. It also has a second example about how to frame that feedback.

Questions and Answers

Participant 2: When you seek feedback from others, how can you get them to be honest with you? Sometimes when you ask for feedback, they don't want to hurt your feelings. So they'll just, like you said, “How did I do with the meeting?” And let's say just you crashed and burned. They're like, "Well, it was okay." How do you get people to be honest with you for feedback?

Hagan: Yes. How do you get people to be honest with you when they're giving you feedback and you ask for it? A couple things, one, you build that relationship by acting on the feedback that you get. You thank them for that feedback, and even if you do disagree, you circle back around and say, "You know, Harry, that feedback was great and I was a little uncomfortable with it, so I went and asked my manager about it. And here is how I've decided to act on it.”, whether or not that's something that you completely change or you decide to keep going the way that you're going, if you give them reasons why, they aren't hurt and really that's all that they want.

Participant 3: I'm really an introvert though. I recently got some feedback on how I give feedback. And the person specifically requested me to give my feedback with sandwiches. Yes, I got science on my side. But like the person specifically requested me to give the feedback with some sprinkles of sugar on top of that. And how do I react to such feedback, because I know they're not correct per se, but I wouldn't like to just dismiss. Maybe I'm doing something wrong, but the way they're requesting me to fix it is not really the great fix, so how do I go about this feedback?

Hagan: Yes. So I'm guessing the feedback wasn't, “Compliment me before you tell me something”. It's that they didn't react to the way that you were telling them in the first place. And so that may be a little bit of that identity that we were talking about. They may feel that when you're direct and say, you know, here's my feedback, that it comes across as too blunt, or is somehow hitting that identity. I'm guessing, I'm totally just throwing it out. So I in the future would maybe say something like, "I would love to give you this feedback because I know that you want it. And I hope you know that I think you're great. But I really think that this feedback is going to help you be even better." And so maybe it's a little bit of compliment on sandwich, but it's really telling them that you're giving that feedback because you want to help them, and really trying to reframe it as, “You're telling me something negative”, into, “You're telling me something that will help me grow.” So it's kind of using that identity trigger, but forget, it's called mind games, yes.

Participant 4: I have no idea who this woman is. I actually really have a question for real. So considering different types of personalities with feedback, like some people are more blunt and straightforward, some people are extremely sensitive. Is there a different style you should use or is it sort of kind of across the board, SBI works really well?

Hagan: So SBI is more of the content and less of the format, if that makes sense. So the content should be SBI: situation, behavior and impact, over and over. But how you give that feedback is really dependent on that relationship that you have. So if you have a joking relationship, by all means, joke, right? You want the person that you're interacting with to recognize that that feedback is coming from a genuine and authentic place, and they're not going to take it if you aren't genuine and authentic. Most of the times when negative feedback happens, it's because a manager has to lay down the law with someone who is maybe not showing up their best. So in those situations, I would be maybe a little bit more formal to recognize that this is an important piece of feedback and it's affecting all of us.

Participant 5: I think a lot of us, and I've definitely done this too, when we hear criticism, we'll get into this panic mode of either getting defensive or trying to deflect it or something like that. And I think that SBI is definitely one great way to probably reduce that a little bit, but as someone giving feedback or maybe even receiving too, do you have any other tips on how to avoid that response, so that someone, including yourself if you're the one receiving feedback, you know, honestly consider it and think about what that person's point of view might be and why they see it that way?

Hagan: Yes. So I'm going to talk about receiving feedback since I think that was kind of the underlying question. It sucks. When someone tells you that you're not doing something correct, it's usually negative, right? That hits it, it's that identity piece. And so for me, a lot of times when I get criticism and it's valid criticism, I want to reflect on it. So I say, "Thank you," and then I think about it and then go back to that person and say like, "I really needed to reflect, I appreciate your feedback."

I think that that step away is super helpful because it helps me process. And remember, just because you asked for feedback doesn't mean that you actually have to take it, which means that feedback could be wrong. And if you're really feeling like it's wrong, ask a colleague or someone that you super trust or even your spouse or your best friend to really spot check how you show up. Because maybe they have a different point of view or something that they've seen that they just haven't mentioned to you.

Participant 6: Just wondering if you could share your thoughts on 360 feedback process and whether or not it's good to do those anonymously, non-anonymously or anything you can share in that regard.

Hagan: You're going to hate this answer. My org is going through this right now. I think that anonymity is a double edged sword. I think when you have transparent feedback, that's great, but people may feel less comfortable providing you that feedback when their name's attached to it. Now it's unfortunate that that's the way that it is, because if you had an open and honest communication kind of cycle, you wouldn't feel bad saying, "Oh, my name is on it when I tell you this negative feedback."

The problem is most people aren't that up front and aren't that comfortable, and so a lot of times in 360s, I feel like people are less forthcoming when their name's on it. That said, if the only avenue that you have to provide feedback is a 360 eval, there is something wrong and you have to figure out a better way to work with the people around you. And hopefully, that leadership is providing open and encouraging open feedback so that you could feel a little bit better about coming to someone in leadership with some criticism.

Participant 7: I'm in a leadership position, and I don't get a lot of feedback from my team. One exercise that we did during a retro was this, like write down a positive and negative for everyone in the room. And I got no negatives, which I don't believe, is basically the problem. What are some avenues I can use to get feedback from my team?

Hagan: I appreciate you wanting that feedback, and there seems to be something that whether it is individual personalities who maybe are afraid of providing that feedback, even if it has nothing to do with you, right, we all bring baggage to our jobs. And it may be that the one time that they gave their boss negative feedback, they got let go or they feel like it was retribution. So recognize that people come with that avenue. And then this is going to be kind of a funny response, have you asked them how you could get feedback better? Because, potentially, they don't feel comfortable having it read aloud at a retro. Maybe you put them on the spot, maybe you ask them for too general feedback and they really wanted to give you specific feedback or vice versa. So there could be a lot of reasons on why you're getting the response that you are.

But I would encourage you to just say something like, “I've been asking for feedback to help our team, but I also want feedback to help me grow. And everybody is giving me really good things, which is great, but I don't know what to work on. So I really need you to provide me with some things to go.” I'm getting literally stop signs.


See more presentations with transcripts


Recorded at:

Feb 15, 2019