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The Benefiting from Personal Feedback pattern

If you listen, reflect and act effectively, feedback from others can provide many benefits: a better you and a better perception of you.

Why This Pattern?

We benefit from many forms of feedback. The "Benefiting from Personal Feedback" pattern (BPF) covers the feedback provided by one person to another. This may be between a manager and a member of his/her team, a teacher and pupil, a mentor and mentee, two friends, colleagues, or family members.

Let's start with a definition of Personal Feedback for the purposes of this pattern:

What is the Benefiting from Personal Feedback pattern?

Feedback provided from others offers a number of potential benefits to the receiver. The purpose of this pattern is to define a method of receiving feedback that enables these benefits to be gained.

Benefits from the feedback content: a better you

Benefits from receiving the benefit effectively: a better perception of you

Benefiting from Personal Feedback pattern

How to Use the Pattern

There are four distinct steps to the BPF pattern:

Step 1: Be aware that someone is wanting to give you feedback

The first step of the BPF pattern is to be aware that the person you are talking to is about to give you feedback, or already in the process of doing so. This awareness allows us to prepare ourselves to effectively receive the feedback. To put ourselves in "feedback receiving mode", if you like.

There are many different types of situation where feedback is offered from one person to another. You could classify these as:

Unplanned feedback situations are the most difficult to identify. At what point does a chat over a coffee become a feedback situation? Clearly it is not practical to prepare yourself to receive "feedback" from every conversation. Where a conversation introduces new information relating to you or your behaviour, then you should consider yourself in a feedback situation. This is particularly true if that information makes you feel uncomfortable and/or is surprising. Use your Conversation Skills to guide the conversation towards or away from the feedback depending on the situation (see Step 2 for more information on this).

In most cases the formal situations will be obvious to identify. You will have probably accepted an advance invitation for a meeting with a clear agenda. Expect to receive feedback if you are going into such a meeting.

Informal-planned situations, such as code reviews, are also very likely to include some feedback. Effective code reviews will discuss, for example, whether alternative approaches have been considered and whether the outcome matches expectations. Again: expect to receive feedback if you are going into such a meeting.

You are likely to benefit from Preparation in either of the planned situations. If you have taken a few minutes to consider what feedback to expect you may not be so surprised by what you hear. Your preparation can also help you plan how to react to surprising or disappointing feedback.

Step 2: Are you prepared to receive feedback?

This step is frequently missed by people who are about to receive feedback. We are not always in an appropriate situation, location or "mood" to receive feedback effectively. This step encourages the receiver to delay the feedback session if they do not feel ready to receive it effectively and constructively. Use your Emotional Awareness to help make this decision.

Here is a simple test to check whether you are prepared to effectively receive feedback that is being offered.

If you answer "no" to any of these questions then the feedback session is at risk of being ineffective and potentially destructive. Find a polite way to delay the discussion until the situation has changed. Remember: the feedback is an opportunity for you to improve, so don't lose the opportunity by delaying unnecessarily.

Step 3: Receive the feedback

For many the most valuable suggestion from this pattern will be to separate the receiving of feedback from the reaction to it. This step focuses purely on how to effectively receive the feedback. Let's define the outcomes we want from this step:

In particular, you should notice that there is no mention in these outcomes of any action being planned or taken based on the feedback. That is the purpose of the following step. Your aim at this stage is simply to receive and understand the feedback message.

The most important soft skill you will use in this stage is effective Listening. When listening to feedback, remember your purpose: to understand the message from the speaker. That message will be in both the spoken words and the non-verbal elements of communication - the body language.

Let's summarise some Dos and Do Nots that will help us to listen to feedback in an effective way:

Feedback that includes a message that you have not heard before is very likely to be more valuable to you than a message you have heard before. New feedback messages also surprise us, and this surprise makes it more likely that we will do the "Do Nots" listed above. It is very tempting to evaluate, challenge or defend ourselves when receiving surprising new information.

Putting these points together we reach an alarming observation: the more valuable the Feedback message, the less likely we will receive it effectively. You may, therefore, benefit by taking a moment to compose yourself when the feedback message surprises you. Remember the purpose of this step. Tell yourself:

Once you have received all the feedback being offered, you have two final tasks to complete this step.

  1. If you haven't already: repeat the message you have understood from the feedback. This provides confirmation that there is a shared understanding of the message.
  2. Finally, ensure you thank the provider for their time and for giving you feedback.

Step 4: Act on the feedback

Having followed the earlier steps of the pattern, you should now have a good understanding of some new feedback. It is now time to act on that feedback, if you choose to.

When the action to take is clear, you may discuss this in the feedback conversation itself. This is not typically the case. Where it isn't, set yourself a time to analyse the feedback and decide any actions to take. The following sections provide some guidance on how to approach this.

Should I act on the feedback?

Personal Feedback is new information that may help you to improve or be perceived to improve. It is your choice whether or not to use this new information.

Take time to Self Reflect and analyse the Feedback message. You might consider the following questions to help you decide any action based on the new information.

Question Consideration
Do I believe the feedback message to be true, fair and accurate? As with any information, a feedback message may not be "correct". If you choose to make this conclusion, don't completely dismiss the feedback. Instead, remember it in case you hear it again.
Have I heard this feedback message before? Hearing a repeated message increases the likelihood that it is both real, and significant. If you decided not to act on this message previously, consider changing that decision. If you did act on the message previously, consider whether you need to alter the action.
How important do I think the feedback message is? Not all feedback messages are equal. Some will have a smaller impact than others. You probably can't act on all the feedback you receive, so try to focus on the messages you think are more important.

What action should I take?

Naturally, the appropriate action depends on the type of feedback provided. It may be to alter your behaviour in a certain scenario, try a new strategy, approach or technique or perform a specific task. Whatever the action is, it will be most beneficial if you make it SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timebound. Less defined actions are likely to be forgotten or fail to achieve the desired results.

How can I check whether my actions have made a difference?

You have followed the Benefit from Personal Feedback pattern because you wanted to make improvements. How do you know if you have been successful? If you have made SMART actions (see above), then they are measurable by definition. Go ahead and make that measurement. Some measures will be quantifiable and others qualitative - both are completely valid.

If you have made an effective improvement following someone's feedback then they will appreciate and deserve your thanks (again). They may also be able to opine whether you have made an improvement.

Outcomes from the Pattern

Outcome 1: You have made an improvement

By following the steps of the BPF pattern, you are likely to benefit from Personal Feedback provided by others. Personal Feedback is a very powerful stimulus to improve what you achieve and how you achieve it.

In many cases the improvements you make need to be worked on regularly. This is most obvious with behavioural changes. There is little value in making a short term improvement in your behaviour if you then regress to your previous, less optimal behaviour. Challenge yourself to remember and repeat the actions you took to make the improvement.

Outcome 2: Feedback provider likely impressed and will feed back again

One great thing about Personal Feedback is that it offers two opportunities to benefit. In addition to benefiting directly from the improvements discussed above, merely receiving feedback in an effective way will benefit you. If the feedback provider sees you listening effectively and taking, or considering actions, they are likely to be impressed. This benefits you as they will hold an enhanced opinion of you, and be more likely to provide you with more feedback in the future.

The Pattern in Action

This is a fictional story with fictional characters.

A Code Review meeting

Nikki is a software developer working in an agile team. The team's development process includes a peer to peer code review for all new features. Olaf, another member of the team, has just finished the development of a user story that took him double the expected time to complete. Pleased with his work, Olaf invites Nikki to a code review meeting.

Nikki and Olaf sit together at Olaf's desk. Olaf starts showing Nikki the code. He is proud of his solution as he found the story quite complex to complete. The user story read: "as a Finance Report Author I want the Reporting Database to hold an up-to-date record of all Customer Information".

The Feedback

After a couple of minutes, Nikki asks Olaf "What was the acceptance criteria for this story Olaf? What does 'up-to-date' mean specifically?" Olaf replies "Well... up-to-date, current. You know: if a Customer is added or edited then the Reporting Database is immediately updated." "Did you confirm that with anyone Olaf?" , questions Nikki. She clarifies: "Making immediate Customer Information updates doesn't seem to make sense given that the rest of the Reporting Database is only refreshed daily."

The (regrettable) Instinctive Reaction

Olaf crosses his arms, looks down and shakes his head. Moments later Olaf loudly replies: "Well it says 'up-to-date' and that is what I have done. How would I know that 'up-to-date' was supposed to mean 'update daily'? My solution is better anyway."

Nikki is tempted to tell Olaf: "Updating the Customers immediately makes no difference if the Finance data is only updated daily. Your solution is not better. It gives the same end result, but is more complex and took double the time to develop. You could have been doing something else in that time." She takes a breath, realising this wouldn't be helpful, especially given Olaf's body language. Instead, after a short pause, she calmly says: "OK let's leave that for now. I also see you have used the ABC message bus technology. Did you know we are using the XYZ message bus technology everywhere else in the solution? Is there a reason why you didn't use XYZ?"

Olaf is still visibly frustrated and responds sharply. "What difference does it make? I have never used XYZ and ABC is probably better anyway." He tuts, and leans back in his chair, arms still folded. Nikki stands up and tells Olaf "I don't see any point continuing this review Olaf. You don't seem to be interested in hearing my thoughts. Can you ask someone else to review your code in future."

The Self-Reflection

On the train home that evening Olaf reflects on the review session. He was expecting an easy review and praise. He wasn't prepared for the feedback from Nikki. He now realises Nikki's comments were very fair. He should have checked what was expected for 'up-to-date' and of course he understands the benefits of using a consistent technical stack.

He will put things right tomorrow. He will apologise to Nikki for reacting so defensively and figure out how to replace ABC with XYZ. He also vows to himself that in future he will listen to any feedback people offer him carefully. He will focus on understanding any comments made. Only when he has understood the feedback will he attempt to assess it. When he is surprised by feedback, as he was with Nikki's, he will take time to consider his response.

Nikki is very happy to accept Olaf's apology and to hear about his new resolution. She tells Olaf: "Thank you for making changes to the code in response to my feedback. As you know I was upset by your initial reaction. Let me know if there is any way I can help you with your new resolution to listen carefully to feedback."

Anti-Patterns: Pitfalls to Avoid

In the example, Olaf didn't initially follow the BPF pattern. In particular he didn't listen to the feedback effectively. Instead of concentrating on understand the feedback message, his attention moved to instinctive defense of his actions. After taking time to reflect, Olaf realised his error and took some great actions to gain at least some of the benefits from the feedback and make a longer term self-improvement. Here are some risks to be aware of when receiving Personal Feedback.

Not listening to the feedback

It is a very common habit to instinctively react in a defensive manner to feedback that challenges our actions or behaviours. It takes a lot of courage and self control to listen to such comments without instantly responding with verbal and non-verbal self-protection and justification. Despite this behaviour being so common, it can be highly detrimental. Firstly, If the receiver does not listen carefully to the feedback they are very unlikely to benefit from it. Secondly, the provider of feedback is likely to be disappointed by the closed response. This disappointment may result in the provider choosing not to provide feedback in the future and to hold a diminished perception of the receiver.

Not acting on the feedback

Like any new information, feedback can only drive improvement if it is acted on. It is unlikely that it will be practical or beneficial to act on every piece of feedback received. Following the other extreme: not acting on any feedback, will cause improvement opportunities to be missed. Look for common themes in the feedback you have received and consider what changes you could make.

I don't see the value of feedback

Personal Feedback has just a single purpose: to offer the receiver an option to self-improve. There is no obligation for the receiver to act on the feedback, but as we have seen no action results in no benefit.

It is likely that some people disguise "not wanting" feedback with "not seeing the value" of feedback. Most people will have had uncomfortable or bad feedback experiences. This can lead some to try to hide from feedback opportunities. The purpose of this pattern is to provide a comfortable and effective approach for receiving personal feedback.

No-one ever offers me feedback

If you feel this way then there are three possibilities:

Following the steps in this pattern should address the first two possibilities. Whatever the reason for you not receiving feedback, proactively asking for feedback is a great way to impress, as well as gaining the benefits of Personal Feedback.