The art of giving and receiving good feedback: Effective team dynamics in the digital world

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8 min

Feedback is all around us: we give comments on other people’s projects, correct our drafts after a manager looks over them, and talk with each other about successes and failures. If we do this regularly, is there anything left for us to learn?

Short answer: yes, and there’s a ton you can do to become a better team player. According to Forbes, four out of ten employees are not engaged if they are not actively receiving feedback, while more than 80% see it as helpful – both negative and positive. 

Companies that give their employees regular feedback have a 14.9% lower turnover rate than companies that don’t.

We asked our System Architect Ilja Bobkevič, a former Senior Software Engineer at Spotify, who is an enthusiast of the brutal honesty principle, about the feedback loop in the digital world, and some practical tips that everyone can pick up to become better at feedback. 

Why do you think giving good feedback is important? Is it more complicated than it looks, and why?

Feedback is at the core of self-development. Otherwise, how can you improve? It surrounds us more than we think and lies at the heart of our interactions with each other. Most of us can benefit from looking at how we react to others and what reactions we provoke ourselves. 

Working remotely hasn’t been very good for this core interaction. Half of the communication is cut off. For example, we use so much body language when we talk, but in the virtual world, it is either partially visible or lost completely if we’re texting. So now, even when we engage in feedback sessions or just talk, a lot of communication and subtext gets lost in translation. How to interact and give feedback in this new virtual world is a skill that we all need to re-learn. 

What are the core principles of giving good feedback, especially in the virtual world? What can each of us do to become better team players?

What Interactio teaches its new employees from day one is a concept of brutal honesty. What does it mean? Being honest with ourselves first and then being honest with others. We simply can’t afford to be non-genuine with each other: it hurts our collaboration, relationships, and feelings, and it might also change the message we want to pass on. Adjust the message just to make it sound nicer and less direct – and you might completely change the perceived meaning. 

It’s especially true when it comes to a multicultural environment like Interactio, where you have teammates from different cultures and native languages who all communicate in English with each other. There are some barriers still, and other folks might misunderstand the message we transmit. So making our communication very clear and telling how it is, without reservation, helps us make sure everyone’s on the same page and speed up the process. 

However, it does take a lot of time and effort to get into that mental model. Obviously, it is very challenging to make sure that both people interpret the message the same way. You might intend it to be straightforward and genuine, but the other person sees it as offensive. It’s a fine line, and it takes a certain amount of background knowledge and mindset to get good at it. 

What are some practical steps for people who want to become better at receiving and giving feedback?

As with everything, practice and self-education is the key. Get strong information that will help to guide you, like books and blog posts. Have specific goals in mind: if getting the right message across in an honest way is your goal, explore the space and see the available material on the topic. I would recommend the book Radical Candor as one of the options.

If we know what needs to be done but never actually do it, it doesn’t really help, right? So the key is to practice training yourself, daring to say what you want, identifying these feedback scenarios, and predicting what’s going to happen if you send a message to this group of people. 

Think about this, “Can I predict their reaction, based on who they are and how they perceive me?” You might adjust one or two words, but it will still be a clear message. In some scenarios, it’s even helpful to have ready-to-go templates for messages, a framework if you will, and adjust accordingly. Experiment, see what works with some people and what doesn’t, and you’ll eventually find your own feedback style for your colleagues.

What about receiving feedback? Are there any good tips on responding to feedback?

For sure! Feedback is a stick with two ends – whatever you say goes two ways. Being on one end of the conversation, consciously giving feedback, also makes us think about the other end of the exchange – receiving feedback. It almost forces us to rethink the whole process and, in a way, helps to deconstruct a message when we receive it. 

Questions like “Where was the person coming from?” and “Why did they say what they said?” start to arise naturally instead of an instant gut reaction. We can put ourselves in that person’s shoes and avoid defensive thinking about straightforward feedback – something that we all tend to do. 

Literature on this topic preaches constantly being in the loop with people you work with and expressing your feelings. For example, from my experience, Lithuanians don’t tend to talk about their emotions, especially in the workplace. Still, it’s crucial to learn if you want to create an honest and healthy environment. 

Having the courage to go up to your colleague and say, “You know, what you said to me yesterday about that project offended me” or “I am not really sure what you meant by this comment” and talk things out is as important as it gets. Nobody is going to be perfect in the process, so it’s important to have a neutral conversation: telling the other person how that feedback made you feel and think and asking if that was the original intention. 

The art of giving and receiving feedback is very practical. Even though we went through some of the literature and learning, it’s the practice that refines your skills. So the next time you receive a comment about your project or need to give an opinion, think about some of the concepts like brutal honesty – and you’ll see how much it changes your communication and relationships with your team.

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Published on

Jan 5, 2022

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Ilja Bobkevič

System Architect at Interactio

Ilja is a System Architect at Interactio, leading the infrastructure team as well as the company's back-end group. He establishes best practices in engineering and defines the technological stack for the backend, real-time, and data systems.