Feedback is the whine of a microphone. The survey you decline when you’re trying to buy a pair of pants. Or the terse email that has your stomach in knots over lunch before you meet with your manager to find out what went wrong or what you missed.
Feedback has gotten a bad rap. Synonymous with something we ignore or endure. But by seeing feedback as potential conflict, we’re missing out on meaningful opportunities to shift our focus and improve productivity.
If you want to get better at code reviews, you’re going to engage in “deliberate practice” (even if you didn’t know that name, yet). And as productivity expert Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, explains, there are two parts to deliberate practice:
- Intense focus on a specific skill you want to master.
- Corrective feedback that keeps you on track and productive.
Knowing how to receive feedback is as important as finding ways to focus. Your natural (and understandable) response to date may have been to avoid feedback; but if you’re not getting feedback you can’t become an expert in your field.
Read on for the four steps you can take to receive feedback better and learn how you can use feedback to hone your craft through deliberate practice.
What is deliberate practice?
We all want to understand how someone becomes an expert. Malcolm Gladwell has made a career out of it. And for the past 50 years, the field of performance psychology has been trying to unlock the secret to mastering the skills of a craft. In 1993, psychology professor K. Anders Ericsson gave this pursuit a name: deliberate practice.
The core idea driving deliberate practice is that it is not enough to simply practice a skill if you’re seeking mastery. This is not the rote act of repeatedly swinging a golf club or regurgitating answers from a textbook. As explained in this post from Farnam Street, intention is a critical part of deliberate practice:
“Deliberate practice means practicing with a clear awareness of the specific components of a skill we’re aiming to improve and exactly how to improve them.”
Focus, the beginning of every flow state, is the first part of deliberate practice. Identify what you want to improve. Keep it at the top of mind as you try to solve a problem.
The second part of deliberate practice is repeatedly getting feedback. Insight so you know when you’re hitting the mark and when you need to cut your losses. Feedback tells you the moment to pivot or the moment to lean in harder.
1. Cultivate a growth mindset at work.
Rethinking the process around feedback starts long before you’re sitting down in a meeting. You have to embrace what psychologist Carol Dwek refers to as a “growth mindset,” wherein criticism or feedback is an opportunity to gain more input. You’re identifying the skills you want to improve through deliberate practice.
“This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts,” says Dwek, the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
By viewing criticism through the lens of potential improvement, you can be open and curious about what you might discover. And when a manager offers you feedback, you’ll come to see that it’s because they want to help you improve. Feedback becomes a mile marker on your growth journey.
An important part to note here is that you’re not shutting down your emotions to receive feedback. In fact, you’ll only be successful if you’re deeply involved and care about your own growth. This is about being more aware of how you’re feeling in the moment. So when you feel defensive, you can pause and reset to hear feedback that will ultimately help you grow.
2. Seek out feedback regularly.
Boxer Mike Tyson once said “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” And your attempts to be open to feedback will be tested in the moments that you’re receiving – what may feel like – harsh criticism. There’s a way to soften the impact of that first blow: remember, this is about your work and “your work” is a work in progress.
In his book Ultralearning, writer Scott Young (a frequent Newport collaborator) reminds people that critiques are not personal.
“If you process it as a message about your ego rather than your skills, it’s easy to let a punch become a knockout,” says Young.
The fastest way to hone new skills, according to Young, is to seek out immediate feedback. Nobody wants to be a punching bag; but getting input regularly is part of leveling up. It’s how you delve into areas of improvement with deliberate practice.
“It’s better to get in and take the punches early so they don’t put you out for the count,” adds Young.
While you’re pulling yourself up from the canvas, bear in mind that listening doesn’t have to be passive. Lara Hogan, author of Resilient Management, notes that questions are a critical part of breaking down assumptions and avoiding judgments in what could be a tense conversation.
“Feedback conversations should really be a two-way dialogue, not a one-way series of requests,” says Hogan.
Asking questions not only provides you clarity, it also gives you the agency to subtly manage up and ensure your priorities are aligning with the needs of an engineering manager or team.
3. Acknowledge and address the moments when you feel defensive.
It’s difficult to not see feedback sessions as combative. Case in point, the number of times we’ve already talked about taking punches in this post. That’s why it’s important you not only be open to feedback; but you also acknowledge what you’ve heard.
Here are three steps to keep you centered while you’re processing feedback: Take a breath, avoid pointing fingers, and repeat back what you heard in your own words.
- Take a literal breath. When you’re in the midst of trying to unwind a problem, it’s easy to feel defensive if someone starts to point out the places where something isn’t working. Author Sarah Drasner suggests that instead of shutting down, you let out a breath.
“Breathing slowly and with purpose, and sitting properly in your chair can push back on your fight-or-flight response,” writes Drasner in Engineering Management for The Rest of Us.
Deflate your own tension and give your brain some time to process what you’re hearing. Slowing down gives you an opportunity to organize your thoughts and explore why you might be feeling defensive or what else you might need to know to move forward.
- Avoid pointing fingers. That fight response? Sometimes it shows up as “switchtracking,” a concept explored in the book Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. With switchtracking, you respond to feedback by pointing out a place where the person offered you feedback fell down in some way. I may not have done X; but you didn’t do Y…
While there may be times you need to address the work of a teammate, particularly on large projects, Drasner points out this is a separate conversation for another time. Don’t shift the focus away from the feedback you’re receiving as you risk losing the chance for insight that could speed up your discovery of a solution. You’re also stifling curiosity and potentially turning a feedback session into a combative situation.
- Repeat back what you’ve heard in your own words. Here, you can sound out an idea and maybe unlock something valuable in the discussion. This also demonstrates to your manager that you understand the feedback and will find a way to incorporate it going forward.
4. Build an action plan that incorporates given feedback.
Feedback is only transformative if it results in action. Write down the feedback you’re given and make it a point to identify action items based on what you’ve been told.
Follow up on the initial conversation and communicate how you’re going to do things differently. Make sure to keep revisiting these action items in subsequent meetings or updates to show your manager the impact of given feedback. This highlights the areas where you might need additional feedback to keep you pointed in the right direction.
If you’re a manager, this is also the moment when you can ask for feedback. By being vulnerable, you’re showing the opinions of your team matter and that receiving feedback is a necessary component of success.
“[Asking for feedback] cultivates a culture in which growth and learning are valued and seen as natural parts of work,” says Drasner.
Ultimately, that’s the goal with feedback. To normalize it. To celebrate it. To acknowledge that even if feedback is at times difficult to hear, it’s a big part of doing the work.
By preparing yourself and others to receive, acknowledge, and act on feedback, you’re going to improve your skills at a faster rate. Feedback will help you identify inefficiencies, avoid rabbit holes that eat up valuable time, and build the foundation for a stronger relationship with your team. Make feedback a part of your process to build a new habit of deliberate practice and discover your potential to master new challenges.
Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash.