Stoa Daily Challenge #18
Twitter, now run under the leadership of Elon Musk, has just launched a subscription to its blue tick — priced at $8/month. This has received mixed reviews from across the world.
Today, you will help a Sr. Product Manager at Twitter capture user insights using the Voice of Customer framework and grow the Blue Tick Monetisation project.
Play the challenge here.
Now, to today's issue.
“When I was an individual contributor, I was working on a project with two other developers. One of the developers quit and the other was fired. They were not replaced and it wasn’t made evident to me that replacements would be hired. With the lack of resources, I started having to work until midnight day in and day out, including weekends in order to meet our original deadlines. This went on for months. When I finally approached my manager to explain my point of view and ask for help, he told me that it wasn’t a resource issue, but that I was bad at time management. I got so frustrated during this conversation (and was very near complete burnout at this point), he told me I was too emotional. From that point on I had no trust in my manager. He wasn’t on my side.”
This quote encapsulates the quintessential feeling of being attacked personally when you go to your manager with the aim of being heard. Instead of feeling supported, you leave feeling accused.
“This won’t work.”
“Your output is disappointing.”
“Your performance in the last quarter hasn’t been impressive and we can’t give you a promotion.”
We've all been at the receiving end of such feedback at one time or another. And depending on our frame of mind, we either completely dismissed it, took it to heart and felt hurt, or tried to think objectively about it and extract something useful out of the vague mess.
But whatever our approach was, unless the person made special efforts to look at things from our perspective, our chances of behaving differently were very low. Because we didn't know exactly what to change!
With parents or even with teachers, we had the liberty of ignoring negative feedback. But in the workplace, we don't.
We worry about how the manager perceives us, what they think of our work, and how it impacts our chances of growth in the organization. We care about our image on the whole and receive advice on the corrections to make if our work or behaviour isn’t up to the mark.
Unlike kids, employees have a tangible incentive to do well at work along with a palpable risk of losing employment. And a manager’s ability to provide helpful feedback can significantly impact the quality of work, the employee’s motivation to get better, and their decision to continue working at the firm.
So, Dear managers, I am writing this to bring to your notice some of the common ways in which we get feedback wrong, and hopefully offer a new frame to think about providing useful feedback.
Here are a few flaws that consistently stand out when we explore the range of bad feedback.
1. Abrasive honesty
Managers who’ve risen up the ranks battling tough love from their managers presume that it applies to all employees. Justifying that brutally honest feedback helps the employee do better might be a hasty correlation to make.
Oftentimes, the brutally honest feedback can scare away an employee who would’ve otherwise been eager to change. A scared employee then would look for ways to avoid approaching you for feedback in the future because they dread being destroyed by you for simply wanting to do better.
2. Accusatory language
Try to imagine the impact of the following sentence:
“I don’t understand how you could pick such a horrible font to go on the event poster. I am unsure how I can trust you with this task in the future.”
An alternative to saying the same thing more meaningfully would be,
“Maybe you can try using <font>. Also, try increasing the font by two points and see how it looks.”
With this, you changed an assertion to a suggestion. Not only did the critique land softly, you made sure that by simply suggesting instead of strongly prescribing, the recipient was more welcoming of your idea.
Accusatory language often doesn't even count as feedback because it is closer to an angry rant that's devoid of any useful information that can help the employee do differently. It also shuts out the employee, making them feel isolated.
At work, an isolated employee would find it very difficult to work with a team because they’d either be constantly looking for direction or feel constantly undermined to actually accomplish anything.
3. Vague prescriptions
While the previous two themes are common among assertive managers, managers who wish to avoid confrontations tend to resort to vague prescriptive feedback.
Have you used “This isn’t good enough” or "I'm not feeling it" as feedback on a certain presentation without really bothering to explicitly state all the ways in which it isn’t good? Unless the employee bothers to ask for the specifics from you, feedback that is as vague leads to a repetitive cycle of iterations on a task that can be avoided by communicating clearly and highlighting the specific expectations.
Vague prescriptions also come across as lazy. I remember once a candidate who was fed up with people telling him “You’re under-selling yourself” when he wanted feedback on his CV. If he was underselling, he’d have liked some pointers on which aspects he could change to not sound that way.
So, while providing feedback you’re expected to be as thorough in your review of the output as you’d expect from the quality of the employee’s output. I sense a lot of you working at creative jobs and agencies might relate the most to this kind of exchange: value-loaded judgments but none of them are actionable enough to make changes.
4. Untimely feedback
One of the other ways conflict-averse managers hinder is by providing feedback directly at the time of appraisal instead of on a weekly or monthly cadence. This could be done knowingly to avoid promoting a candidate or unknowingly because the manager doesn’t know how to go about critiquing the employee's work and helping them get better on a weekly basis.
In either case, an employee's output is severely affected because they are either overconfident in their work or in for a rude shock when the appraisals take place. An employee is left wondering why they weren’t given feedback early in the year when they still had time to fix it. It can be unnerving, to say the least. Their mental model — how they see themselves fitting in their workplace, what value they're creating, and how they're being perceived within the company — is shattered.
After all, being hired through a comprehensive process, the employee feels that what they bring to the table is trusted by the organization. Poorly communicated feedback can erode that trust completely. In certain cases, it could worsen the confidence of the person in themselves, and impact their overall capability to show up.
If you care enough about finding a way to fix this, the COIN framework of giving feedback could offer some guidelines on what can be done differently.
The COIN framework is an abbreviation for Context, Observation, Impact, and Next Steps — 4 elements that make up a comprehensive feedback that doesn't leave the receiver confused and asking more questions.
But to help you understand how it works out in practice, I'll offer you a real example.
Try visualizing this scenario:
Richa, who works as a content writer at a robotics firm is on a regular huddle with her team and the manager on Monday. She has just finished writing the plot line for a new level of a game that the firm produces and is confident of what she has written. When the huddle ends, the manager requests to meet with Richa and discuss her work from last week.
They tell Richa,
“I spoke to the product team last week after the submission of the plot line for the new level. We realized that there are certain limitations in how the plot is written which makes creating a virtual replica a bit difficult for the product team. I’d also to understand your perspective on what made you write that way. In the best case, we would have to release the new level this week but because the output of how the game looks is important to us we can consider pushing the deadline to the next week. Would you be open to discussing the bits that are challenging and re-do some parts? We can discuss this in the second half today along with the product team.”
At first, this may not seem like feedback at all to you because of how supportive, open, and empathetic it sounds. But it is feedback, and evaluating what it gets right could inform you the next time you’re tasked with giving feedback.
It captures the essence of the COIN framework.
C – Context/ Reference to the event: “..spoke to the product team last week after the submission of the plot line.”
O – Observation: “We realized that there are certain limitations in how the plot is written which makes creating a virtual replica a bit difficult for the product team.”
I – Impact of task: “We would have to release the new level this week but because the output of how the game looks is important to us we can consider pushing the deadline to the next week.”
N – Next steps: “Would you be open to discussing the bits that are challenging and re-do some parts? We can discuss this in the second half today along with the product team.”
The essence of this framework is not in the step-wise approach, but in its exhaustiveness. All the 4 aspects collectively present an exhaustive picture of the situation. They also provide ample actionable information for your employee to make changes without sounding rude, accusatory, or dismissing all of their efforts.
If your feedback isn’t precise and actionable, it isn’t helpful. Using the COIN framework or borrowing certain aspects of it while communicating criticism could go a long way in creating a supportive relationship between you and your team.
Making your team feel supported and guided could help them focus on what truly matters: the output. While working for you if they are more worried about what you will say about their work than focusing on how to get the work right for the end user, you’re doing yourself, the business, and your team a major disservice.