Three Types of Effective Feedback

Feedback! That's that thing that happens when a microphone gets too close to a speaker. It suddenly gets extremely loud, everyone covers their ears, and the singer frantically leaps away from the speaker.

Well, in the context of our professional growth, that's not what feedback is, but it's kind of how feedback works. Most of us want to become better at our craft and more collaborative with our colleagues. Feedback is the mechanism by which this is best accomplished.

Feedback is simply information about the effectiveness of what we are doing. If we want to grow and become better, we need to know whether what we are doing now is effective or not. We want to keep doing things that others find effective and adjust actions others find ineffective.

Like in the example of the speaker, the microphone kept getting positive feedback that its ability to amplify sound was good, and so the effect became louder and louder; I guess it's not a perfect analogy, but hey, we want good practices to proliferate in the same way!

Anyway, this post is not about feedback itself, but about the way feedback is presented. You see, giving and receiving feedback can be a rather sensitive conversation. People generally don't like to be told when they are doing something wrong; taken the wrong way, it can lead to people thinking, "Oh no, there's something wrong with me," rather than what they really ought to be thinking, "Hmm, there's something wrong with what I'm doing."

The approach, therefore, is important, and it's why we seek to give constructive feedback rather than negative feedback.

The way we see feedback makes a huge difference on how both we give and receive it.

To me, all forms of feedback are inherently constructive in that the goal is always to build the receiver up. Additionally, I don't think feedback is as black and white as "good" and "bad" feedback. And so I want to propose what I'm calling the three types of effective feedback: Affirming, Adjusting, and Advancing feedback.

But before we get into those, let's take a look at how feedback is often viewed and hence why I think our language around feedback can be improved.

"Positive" and "Negative" Feedback

Anchor for "Positive" and "Negative" Feedback

Usually, feedback is framed as being "positive" or "negative". That is, people should keep doing positive things, and people should stop doing negative things. Though, "negative" feedback is often called "constructive" feedback instead since the word "negative" tends to be rather discouraging. I, for one, don't enjoy people thinking I'm a negative influence on the team, but I'm happy to know what I can do differently to improve how I work with others. Simply changing the name from "negative" to "constructive" shifts the perspective.

For similar reasons, I try to avoid the term "positive" feedback as well. The word "positive" implies a dichotomy, suggesting that constructive feedback must be negative. Furthermore, positive feedback is more than just telling people why they are good; it's meant to inform people on things they are doing which they should keep doing. So perhaps there's a word we can use to describe this kind of feedback which will shift our perspective?

Additionally, I also tend to receive feedback about what I should be seeking next or start doing. Is this kind of feedback positive or negative? I mean, it's negative in the sense that there's something I should be doing but am not. But it's positive in the sense that I'm apparently ready to take the next steps in my personal development. What do you call this kind of feedback?

The Three Types of Feedback

Anchor for The Three Types of Feedback

And so I've come to recognize that there are at least three types of effective feedback:

  • Affirming Feedback: What you should keep doing
  • Adjusting Feedback: What you should seek to amend
  • Advancing Feedback: What you can do beyond what you're already doing

Let's take a deeper look at each of these types of feedback and see how they can be utilized for our professional development.

To be honest, I spent an unnecessary amount of time trying to get the names for all three types of feedback starting with the same letter.

The goal of affirming feedback is to reinforce good and effective behaviour. Many times, people are doing good things, or perhaps even going above and beyond. We want to recognize this! By affirming that what others are doing is overall helpful to the team, we encourage them to keep doing those things.

Here's an example of affirming feedback:

I noticed that our cohesion with the New York team has improved substantially after you started facilitating our weekly "cross-country catch-up" meetings! Everyone is more aware of the work going on, and I find myself needing to send less emails to them.

In this example, the giver is letting the receiver know a couple of things. First, their "cross-country catch-up" meetings have been helping the two teams communicate with each other. Second, the receiver is good at facilitating those meetings and is probably utilizing effective techniques to ensure everyone is on the same page. By affirming these practices, the receiver knows to keep holding these meetings.

The importance affirming feedback tends to be underestimated. It does so much more than just let people know the work they are doing is good. Affirming feedback is one of the principle ways team morale can be kept high. It bolsters confidence and improves relationships. I personally believe team morale is among the most important determinators of success, and so actively giving affirming feedback is paramount.

The absence of negative feedback is not the same as affirming feedback!

The goal of adjusting feedback is to bring awareness to behaviours that should change in order to increase effectiveness. Notice that the emphasis is on the change, and that's why it's called adjusting feedback. We don't want to focus on the bad things. We want to focus on how they can be made better. By adjusting certain practices, the receiver and the team can overall benefit.

Here's an example of adjusting feedback I personally received which totally changed my entire outlook on legacy code:

I feel very uncomfortable with the way you complain about and sometimes insult the code you're working on. I suppose the code isn't written in the best way, but you never know who wrote it or the circumstances under which it was written.

In this example, a co-worker came to me expressing concern about the way I talked about legacy code. You will notice that all this feedback actually says is a behaviour the giver observed (complaining about code) and why this behaviour was ineffective (it made him uncomfortable). He does not tell me how I should change this behaviour, so now it's up to me the receiver to ask, "Given this feedback, how should I adjust what I do to make the team more comfortable with me?"

Needless to say, I stopped calling code bad! Now I always ask, "How can this code be improved?" rather than, "What makes this code bad?" It makes a huge difference.

When giving adjusting feedback, it is important not to prescribe a solution to the situation. The two most important things to address are:

  1. What is the observed behaviour?
  2. How does that make you feel, or what is the noticed effect?

And as the receiver, the important thing to think about is:

  • How should I adjust my behaviour to mitigate the noticed effect?

The answer to that question can be a collaboration between the giver and receiver.

Adjusting feedback is very important, but it can also be difficult to provide. That's why I feel it is important to take this feedback with the right mindset. It's not about calling people out or even pointing out "negative" behaviours. It's about adjusting the way we work so that the team can work better together.

If adjusting feedback is not given, nothing will ever change!

The goal of advancing feedback is to challenge for future growth. Here the focus is neither on reinforcing effective behaviours or adjusting ineffective ones. Rather, advancing feedback is about creating new behaviours, challenging the receiver go beyond current expectations due to success prior to this point. In this sense, the giver wishes to advance the receiver by providing an outside perspective on what roles a team might need and how the receiver can uniquely fill those roles.

I have seen this called "feedforward" because it tends to be more focused on what _could_ be done rather than on what _has_ been done. I still feel this is a form of true feedback, though, because it is in fact based on past behaviours. Recommendations for growth are born out of past success.

Here's an example:

You have a lot of good ideas when it comes to refactoring code into reusable patterns. In fact, I actually feel you are capable of helping lead the team in adhering to best practices.

We see in this example that the giver begins with some affirming feedback about the receiver's refactoring skills, but it turns into advancing feedback about how those skills can be better applied. In this case, there isn't an expectation that the receiver actually lead the team in this way. Rather, it informs the receiver about one way in which they can grow to further their personal development.

To me, advancing feedback is distinct from adjusting feedback, hence why it deserves its own category. Adjusting feedback is about, well, adjusting present actions or behaviours, whereas advancing feedback is aimed at creating new behaviours.

In some contexts, the recommendations born out of advancing feedback could be filled by anyone else on the team. After all, in the example above, other coders could step up and lead the team in best practices, but in this case the receiver was uniquely given this feedback. This contrasts with adjusting feedback where only the feedback receiver is in control of the change.

All feedback is constructive, but advancing feedback is generative!

The point of naming these three types of feedback is not necessarily to devise some kind of formal system for giving and receiving feedback. Rather, the goal is to help us think about the way feedback is both given and received. Feedback conversations can be rather sensitive, but by shifting the perspective, even if by a little bit, a big difference can be made.

Feedback is not a dichotomy; there isn't "good" feedback and "bad" feedback. The goal is always to build up the individual and the team, by affirming things that should keep happening, adjusting things that haven't been working, and advancing things that will help the individual grow.

Hopefully you find this way of thinking about feedback useful! Be sure to leave me feedback in the comments below.