Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Insecurity 102 - Are you getting feedback?

In my previous piece, I talked about how insecurity can blight us all, and how peer networking and feedback can be a useful tool to combat it.  Here I'm going to expand this a lot more and explore about getting feedback, how to do it and how it helps.

Feedback is vital for everyone, it lets us know what we do well, and lets us know areas where we need development.  It helps keep us rounded individuals neither insecure or overconfident.

However, it’s something we shy away from, or worst still feel that feedback “should only point out flaws”.  As testers our focus is really to give individuals “feedback on a piece of software”, and indeed, that mainly means “defects”.  But we’re in danger there of giving way to the critics syndrome of Waldorf and Statler, pointing out flaws from the safety of a box.

But in my opinion, feedback should always be about being positive.  Some people will roll their eyes and go “so we can only say nice things then … political correctness gone mad!”.  But that’s not what I mean.  Feedback can say what someone does well, but it can also say when someone is weak in an area.  But here’s the tricky thing, and why many of us shy away from dealing with this side … if someone is weak in an area, you need to give them the feedback in such a way as to “light the way” so they can make decisions about addressing it.  Such feedback needs to be sensitive and about helping the individual to develop, not about destroying them.

And that’s hard to do.  It’s all easy for it to be needlessly brutal.  Imagine your best friend wants to go on X-Factor and sing in front of the judges.  The only problem is, you know that their singing stinks.  Are you going to give them feedback for this, or let them go in front of the judges and be torn to pieces?

I’m a regular at Les Mills gyms in Wellington, and do a lot of dance classes, called Body Jam.  I was asked by the Head Instructor for some feedback on her classes at the weekend, and my response was,

I have been going to Mereana's classes for about 3 years. In that time I've seen her develop and mature her instructor style considerably.

Mereana is very positive, engaging with the class in a distinctive, bubbly manner. She is very strong in giving clear direction, and is good at giving adaptive instruction to the audience when she sees people have injury / struggling with choreography. As such I really feel everyone feels both engaged and pushed from her classes.

This led into a conversation with Mereana, where I said that although we were talking about this now, I really had hoped over the last few years I had given her that feedback in bits and pieces, and none of it came as a huge surprise.  I know I’d spoken to her about how much she’d moved from “following a choreography script” to elegantly and confidently “living the values” of the program, and give something personal and unique to her instruction.  You see her teach today, and you know there's good reason why she's currently the head teacher for the program.

Back at my office, however, it’s appraisal time within my team, and I’m busy getting 360 reviews complete for them.  But the same theme is still there with my staff as it is with Mereana.  It’s too late when someone asks for feedback after 12+ months to really be giving anything that surprises.  We need to be giving feedback at work to our peers regularly, and the appraisal needs to be a “collection of all that’s been said over the year".

Feedback need not be frightening.  Poor old Phil Cool from my last article, gets feedback from everyone with a voice or a pen - it might be me saying he’s good, it might be a critic with a secret axe to grind, it might be a drunk heckler who thinks he's funnier.

We are lucky in our office environment that we have more intimate relationships with the people who can supply our feedback.  And if we don’t feel some trust to someone we work with for feedback, then maybe we have to ask ourselves if we’re in the right team.  Trust in (the majority) of those we work with is vital, but there is always going to be some conflict.

If you want to explore more the idea of giving feedback, I cannot recommend enough Johanna Rothman's book “Behind Closed Doors” which is very much about the process of one-on-one meetings, giving this kind of feedback and coaching to help develop staff, and take them further.


  1. Hello TestSheep,

    I have read some of your articles. They are very interesting. Being a software tester you're quite an interesting person. I have my friends in this field and they look humorless to me. Thanks for making my day by article such an enjoyable articles.

    Prasant Saxena
    Software Development Company

    1. Of course, in keeping with the theme of this piece ... thank you for that feedback Prasant. 8-)

  2. Please write about the 360 reviews also, I'm keen to know more about those! +1 on Johanna's book!