Feedback Mountain

28 Feb 2017

“Hire great people, and trust them to do good work”. I’ve always liked that idea. It feels right. Hiring great people is critical, and nobody likes to be micromanaged or criticized. So it seems simple – hire great people, and trust them to do good work. Try to stay out of their way.

As a naturally trusting person, warm ideas like these always stuck with me as fledgling manager. Meanwhile, it’s always seemed to me that bold maxims about driving people to achieve results serve more to enable assholes than to actually inspire a great work culture.

That said, as I’ve gotten a little older I’ve realized that there’s another reason that I naturally gravitate to the idea of trust: I’m adverse to conflict.

It’s a longstanding Canadian tradition to dislike conflict. At our best, Canadians are polite, diplomatic, and give our peers the benefit of the doubt. At our worst, we avoid rocking the boat so long that it sinks.

To be clear, when somebody earnestly solicits feedback, I love providing it. So far this year, I’ve enjoyed critiquing an app’s UX flow, providing technical and copyediting feedback to an upcoming JSON specification, and even filled out an unreasonably long city zoning policy survey. (If you want a torrential rant, ask me about Vancouver zoning after a couple pale ales.)

When unsolicited criticism come to mind though, the benefit of the doubt weighs heavily on me. They’re surely trying their best! They must already know. Do they really need me demotivating them?

Combined with my tendency to launch into free-flowing criticism when asked for it, I can give people the awful impression that I’m secretly harbouring resentment, or that my people are doing a bad job and not even hearing about it. This is the actual worst.

While I’d long known more frequent feedback was a good idea in theory, the turning point didn’t happen until a year ago. At that time, I’d noted that somebody deserved a raise – a happy occasion. I promptly confirmed that we could afford to give them a raise, cleared it with my co-founder, and asked our office manager to make the change on the upcoming payroll.

Then, I stalled. I found myself being a total awkward penguin about telling them. What the hell was wrong with me?! What could be an easier conversation than “You’re doing great, here’s more money”? This was the flashing red light in my brain that made me realize I had a problem. I needed a habit and process for giving feedback if I wanted to be an actual leader rather than just a boss.

Luckily for me, there is already a well-known and well-documented approach for managers to give and receive feedback, and that’s the One on One. When we were two people working in a basement, formally scheduling repeating 1:1 meetings seemed ludicrous. When we were four people, my hatred for recurring meetings overruled common wisdom. By the time we were ten people, we were way overdue.

A lot has been written about 1:1s, why they’re important, and what can happen in them. The core idea, though, is to have a regularly scheduled time with each person that reports to you to talk about something other than the status of their projects. This can be positive feedback, office issues, long-term growth ideas, ideas for improvement, feedback for you, personal triumphs or struggles – anything but the code.

So, how’s it going?

A year ago this week, I scheduled recurring 1:1s with everybody in the company. At the time, I sent one of my very rare team-wide emails to describe what and why.

The theory is that the agendas are led by you. The goal is to discuss new ideas, express concerns, and talk about what’s coming up. It’s not intended to be a project status meeting, but more of a people planning meeting. While they’re not performance reviews, part of the goal is to get us thinking about and talking about feedback and happiness more frequently.

While our 1:1s are continuing to evolve and improve, and still have a way to go before I think we’re at optimal feedback bandwidth, they have greatly improved my comfort and skill at giving and receiving feedback. Folks have been a lot more motivated to think about learning and growth, and most importantly long-term problems now come up way faster than when we waited for people to bring them up in the course of work.

Before 1:1s, people would often wait until they were deeply frustrated with something before bringing it up in a larger meeting. Now, I’m hearing about frustrations, hopes, and dreams while they’re still young and a lot can be done about them.

Motivated by this success, we’ve recently become more enthusiastic about experimenting with our culture and how we communicate. Great work happens when you bring up the hard questions, debate different options, re-visit assumptions, and give constructive criticism in both directions. If you’re not sold on that, you have a book to read.

I’m still adverse to micromanaging, and I still have great trust in my team, but I now know better than to attempt to fuel a team on trust alone. Teams are much better fed with clarity, support, and feedback – a diet low in calories, but high in power.

© Allen Pike. See also Twitter and Steamclock.