Providing regular peer feedback is a part of healthy engineering culture. It is usually collected in a written form by a manager, aggregated, and delivered to the recipient.
This post intends to be a short cheat sheet for those who provide peer feedback (respondents). It targets people who are about to write their first peer feedback and don’t know where to start, as well as those who have done it many times and need a refresher to keep the quality high. It focuses on written regular feedback. However, some advice can still be helpful for verbal or ad-hoc feedback.
Why is it essential to give feedback
Most professionals want to become a better version of themselves. It’s hard to do relying only on self-reflection. Planning for improvement based only on your own observations is similar to Münchhausen pulling himself out of a mire by his own hair. The blind spots are nearly impossible to get rid of without external input.
Why should I care about delivering feedback properly
Properly delivered feedback has a higher chance of converting into behavior change. And this is better for several reasons:
Interaction with the person will become more productive and satisfying for you and other teammates and for the person themself.
You will see a higher return on your time investments.
The most valuable gifts are the ones money can’t buy, or in other words, something the person cannot obtain themselves. Feedback is this kind of gift: giving feedback that helps others grow makes you a better professional as well.
Prepare to give feedback
As we write peer feedback only occasionally, it requires concentration and a mindset switch. Prepare the right environment for yourself to provide the best feedback you can:
Allocate enough time. The time you may need can easily be over an hour, depending on how detailed your feedback is.
Eliminate all distractions (turn off notifications, go to a meeting room or a booth specifically booked for it).
Remember (or even write down) all recent interactions with the person you are giving feedback. Projects you’ve been working on together, discussions you had one-on-one or in a group, reviews, documentation, and informal conversations that stood out.
Don’t try to optimize by multitasking or speeding up. Rushing the feedback may be more harmful than not giving it at all.
Anatomy of peer feedback
The most common peer feedback structure is two contrasting blocks: what the person does well and what they can improve. It is often treated as “positive” and “negative” feedback. I would suggest thinking of those in classic retrospective categories: start, stop, continue. Where both “start” and “stop” are improvement suggestions, and “continue” is something the person does well.
Shaping your feedback
There are several practical rules for shaping the feedback to make it more convincing and impactful.
Differentiate observations and interpretations
Observations are objective facts anyone can agree on. In the context of feedback, it is, for example, something the person has said or done. Interpretations are subjective. It is often an opinion you’ve formed based on observation or an emotional response to the action.
“You don’t value the input of others in the conversation.”
“You have interrupted another person in the conversation ...”
Caution: Avoid giving opinions not supported by observations and vice versa. You don’t give them a chance to reflect on the situation without providing any observations. If you miss the interpretation, it is unclear why changing or keeping the behavior is valuable.
Don’t state interpretations as facts. Word it in a way to emphasize that it is your interpretation. It makes feedback more relatable and disarms natural defensive reactions. In the end, you can’t disagree about facts, and influence on others is precisely what you want to know.
“You don’t value the input of others in the conversation.”
“... it made me feel that you don’t value the input of others in the conversation.”
Caution: I mentioned before that you can’t disagree about facts. If you feel the person can disagree about the fact you’ve provided, look again. Probably your “fact” has a little interpretation in it. In this case, try to separate one from another once again.
“You have made a rude joke.”
“You have made a joke which I consider not appropriate.”
Be specific about your observations
Even if you think a behavior you describe is typical for the person, it is crucial to provide specific examples. One or two most recent ones are usually enough. Once again, It gives a chance for the person to reflect on those moments as well. It makes your feedback much more convincing and helps the person to see their behavior in context.
“You always interrupt others in a discussion.”
“You interrupted Mike in the refinement a week ago and Peter in the last retro.”
Caution: If you cannot recall recent examples of the behavior you wanted to mention, it may be worth self-reflecting. Does the person still demonstrates the behavior, or does your perception trick you? Can a previously formed impression stick with you for longer than needed?
The framework above is also known as “AID feedback.” AID stands for “action, impact, desirable behavior.” The last one can be pretty obvious yet worth mentioning; the first two are absolutely required.
Positive (“continue”) feedback
It seems like positive feedback is the easiest to provide, as it doesn’t imply any tension or bad feelings when receiving it. It is crucial to offer it and deliver it properly. Without acknowledging their positive behavior, the person will not know that others value it and can stop doing it. The following questions can help to come up with positive feedback if you struggle to find it:
When the person exceeded your expectations or fulfilled them exactly?
When was the last time you were thankful that you were working with the person?
What are the recent achievements of the person and their team, and their contribution to those?
What recent improvements have you noticed (either based on your previous feedback or not)?
Some people feel bad talking about improvements. They may feel they are complaining about others, afraid to hurt their feelings, or cause trouble. When “packaged” correctly, the feedback will not hurt, and ignoring possible improvements, can cause much more trouble in the future. To facilitate writing improvement feedback, think separately of “stop” and “start” improvement suggestions.
Think of moments when you would do something differently if you were that person.
Think of moments when your expectations were not met (i.e., dependencies or attitude).
Suggest stopping something:
If behavior can hurt the motivation or growth of others.
If behavior can damage themselves (i.e., cause burnout).
Suggest starting something:
If you felt something was missing from their end in the most recent touch points.
If you see professional growth opportunities, you think the person should take.
Improve on giving feedback
People are the most valuable asset of most businesses. Maintaining a healthy feedback culture can grow that value further and give the people involved a sense of growth and accomplishment. Keep learning how to do it, practice giving feedback, do it regularly, and request input from others.