Constructive feedback, business travel, and a half-baked framework
Warm weather is back, and so is business travel. I must say I’m much more excited about the former than the latter. I spent many years as a frequent flyer — no standing mid-week plans, suitcase always half-packed, one eye forever on my elite status. But after two years of being home (usually literally in the four walls of my home), two trips in May has been jarring.
Partly, this is because air travel is objectively less pleasant than in the before-times (masking, submitting proofs of vaccine, staggered offloading when you land at Pearson).
Partly, this is because my children are now old enough to be disconcerted1 in a way they weren’t before
But mostly, I think it’s the same reason everyone, everywhere is feeling reluctant to go back to the office. In 2+ years, we got comfortable with new routines, and going back to the old ones feels disruptive and disagreeable.
What I am happy to report is that the travel was totally worth it. It’s not just that it was nice to see people in real life and share a meal (although it was that). It’s that we travelled to do work that was so much easier in-person than virtually. For both trips, we started with amorphous blobs of ambiguity, but after two days of being in the same room with all the rich communication that implies, we had clarity, action items, and newfound energy for the tasks ahead. I don’t think we would have gotten to the same place remotely, and I know it would have taken significantly longer.
It’s a significant improvement from the before-times, when we collectively gave little thought to whether the travel was actually worth the hassle. I would so often fly for something like a read-out or a review meeting that works just as effectively over Zoom2. My fondest hope is that we hold on to this new thoughtfulness about business travel, and save the trips for when it really makes a difference in the outcomes of the work.
Constructive Feedback and Remote Work
Speaking of areas where being in-person makes a difference — this month, I want to explore the notion of constructive feedback, how it can get especially sticky in a virtual setting, and what to do about it.
Three types of feedback
I don’t think you’ll find this in a textbook anywhere, but I divide constructive feedback into three categories:
Substantive feedback on the work — This is the kind of feedback that gets delivered via track changes or handwritten comments on a specific document. It sounds like, “let’s revise this slide to better highlight the metrics,” or “I’d like to see you rework the intro so that it better sets up the key findings in section 2.” When everyone understands this feedback as coming from a shared goal to produce the best work possible, it doesn’t feel personal. There is no subtext that someone fell short or made a mistake, so it is straightforward3 to deliver, whether in-person or virtually.
Consequential feedback on unacceptable behaviours — This is the kind of feedback you deliver when someone has done something entirely inappropriate, which requires censure and often HR paperwork. It is always hard to deliver, not just because the consequences are serious, but because the behaviour itself problematic enough to impugn a person’s character. This kind of feedback is thankfully rare, and I actually haven’t had occasion to deliver this kind of feedback in the last two years,4 so I can’t say how it goes over in-person vs. virtually. However, my suspicion is that this kind of feedback might actually be better delivered virtually. The person delivering the feedback can more easily refer to notes to deliver a clearer message; the person receiving the feedback has a bit more emotional space to process.
‘No-drama’ feedback on minor aberrations — This is feedback where I think there is the most potential for things to go sideways remotely. By ‘minor aberrations,’ I mean venial sins like not getting your expense reports filed on time, not doing the pre-work for an important meeting, letting your bad mood get the better of you. By ‘no-drama,’ I mean the goal is to reinforce the organization’s expectations, but do it in a way that doesn’t make a big deal about this one oversight. Whether remote or in-person, I think it’s the feedback that is the hardest to deliver consistently, and the kind that is most important for the broader organizational culture.
Why is no-drama feedback hard and important?
No drama feedback is more emotionally charged than substantive feedback on the work, because it entails falling short of a clear expectation, which might also imply a lapse in judgement5. Because it’s a bit more fraught, there’s a strong tendency to let the minor aberrations slide. By definition, we’re talking about small oversights that aren’t really a problem if they happen occasionally and/or for good reason. One late expense report, one missed assignment, one bad day — these things happen, and we all deserve some grace.
On the other hand, any one aberration could be the start of a pattern. If your no-drama feedback can prevent that pattern from forming, that’s so much better than waiting until the bad habits are established. One late expense report is no big deal, but 6 months of missing reports starts to cause real issues. But once you’ve left a minor aberration to fester, it stops being minor and you can no longer give no-drama feedback. You’ve reached a tipping point where your options are either to permanently lower expectations, or to deliver consequential feedback for (a pattern of) unacceptable behaviour.
And this is why no-drama feedback is so important within an organizational culture. When managers deliver it consistently and well, performance standards stay high and HR-related churn stays low6. Arguably, no-drama feedback is even more important when we’re working remotely. Because it’s harder to infer behavioural expectations without the benefit of being in-person, we’re much more reliant on explicit communication of expectations, both proactively, and in the feedback we get when we fall short.
What does good no-drama feedback look like?
The ideal scenario for no-drama feedback is a quick sidebar at the earliest opportunity. In an office setting, you can usually manage this by making eye contact as a meeting is wrapping up, by walking out of the room together, or by swinging by their desk.
I try to open up with an observation and a question to gather more context. (“I noticed you didn’t submit your thing by the deadline. What’s up?”) Often that results in the person giving themselves the feedback. (“I completely dropped the ball on that because I was so pre-occupied with X. I should have given you a heads-up.”)
One you have the context, you’re well-positioned to reinforce the clear expectation for future (“Missing the deadline is not ideal, but if there’s no other way, please give me a heads-up”), and the fact that it’s no big deal it happened this time (“I understand X put you in a difficult position”).
The goal is for the person to leave the interaction with the behavioural expectation reinforced, but feeling supported and not shamed. And the whole thing takes less than five minutes.
The challenges of remote no-drama feedback
Unfortunately, so many of the elements of good no-drama feedback break down in a remote setting. It’s much easier to just let it slide and not give the feedback in the first place; and if you do go ahead and give the feedback, it’s much harder to keep the drama out:
Setting: In person, it's easy to casually start a conversation, asking questions that deliver the no-drama feedback such that it hardly feels like feedback at all. Phone or video calls are the closest analogue to face-to-face, but in a lot of environments, they don’t feel casual — in many places, phone/video calls are exclusively things that are scheduled and calendared in advance. For no-drama feedback, scheduling a call (sometimes days later) feels instinctively wrong. It’s imbuing the situation with too much import, and potentially delaying the conversation to the point where it feels well, dramatic, to dredge it back up.
Subtext: When communicating in writing, you lose the ability to use tone and body language to underscore the no-drama aspect of the feedback. People read in lots of different subtext to the written word, and you can quickly find yourself in a situation where you’ve created lots of drama when you were aiming for none. And good luck drafting that email in the same five minutes it would have taken you to have the conversation.
Synchronicity: Remote work and back-to-back calendars make it hard to find time for a synchronous conversation. But if feedback is a one-way communication (i.e. sending out a message rather than having a back-and-forth conversation), you’ll be tempted to skip the context-gathering step — opening with a question prolongs the uncomfortable feeling of being in the middle of giving feedback. But most people are working hard, striving to do well, and contributing in meaningful ways, and you want to give feedback that acknowledges this context. Ultimately, feedback can only be truly ‘no-drama’ if the person receiving it feels seen, supported, and valued for their specific contributions.
Making no-drama feedback easier
Bad things happen if we skip no-drama feedback, especially in a remote or hybrid environment. But I don’t think remote no-drama feedback is an intractable problem, if you can establish some cultural norms to support it:
Create a culture where it’s normal to say, “can I call you for a quick second” to deliver no-drama feedback. This works especially well if you can also be in the habit of making those calls to convey messages like, “I just have to tell you that was really awesome. So good on [specifics].”
Name it. “No-drama feedback” is just my term for it, but come up with a moniker you like and make it part of your organization’s vernacular. Then use that name in your set-up, so everyone knows what the goal is. (“I’d like to give you some no-drama feedback if that’s okay.”). It doesn’t make the problem of unintended subtext go away entirely, but it helps keep people on the right ladder of inference.
When working remotely, make it okay to sacrifice timeliness to keep subtext and synchronicity. The gold standard is to deliver feedback as in-the-moment if possible. But you can make it a cultural norm to raise feedback after a delay, without it carrying any special import. Having a name also helps remind someone that even though you’re bringing up something from a few days ago, it’s still no-drama.
One defining feature of no-drama feedback situations is that they cease to be an issue if you’re proactive in communicating about them. If I give a heads-up about my late expenses, I’m communicating “I know this is the expectation, but I’m exercising judgement in the face of competing priorities.” When I do that, my boss isn’t left wondering if I don’t know the expectations, and she also has the opportunity to provide additional context that might change how I’m prioritizing things. If you can make this level of accountability and proactive communication one of your behavioural expectations, you’ll have much less need to deliver no-drama feedback in the first place.
What I’m Working On
I’m deep into a customer experience project at the moment, and thinking a lot about the interplay with employee experience. I think the two are inextricably linked, but we often think of them as completely separate topics (often owned by different parts of the organization).
But the reality is that the customer experience strategy will shape how employees experience their day-to-day working lives, for good or ill. And we should be especially wary about customer experience work that creates pernicious effects on employee experience. There was an article this week about Starbucks ‘connection’ scores, and you can see very clearly how the customer experience aspiration…
“the connection that a customer and partner have in a store is the differentiator for us”
…has created weirdness on the ground for staff…
“Workers said in order to influence the ratings, managers often pushed them to engage customers in conversations that seemed inauthentic. “It’s so fake and cringey,” said Cierra Goolsby, 29, a Starbucks worker in Carbondale, Illinois.”
Anyway, all that is prelude to say I have been noodling on a little framework that integrates customer experience strategy with employee experience.
The idea here is that customer experience should be rooted in the employee experience, just as surely as it rooted in customer needs. The reasons your employees are motivated to come into work every day are both enablers and constraints on your customer experience ambitions. Similarly, the ways you ask employees to steward the customer experience into reality need to be informed by how it will affect the employee experience. This is all half-baked for the moment, but very much looking forward to further refining over the weeks and months ahead.
And with that, wishing you all a lovely June!
My four year old did a circle time on worries while I was away, and his contribution was, “when my mom goes away I’m worried she might never come back from another country.” Ouch.
Not that we used Zoom in the before-times. It would have been unthinkable to suggest your clients would turn on a video camera. It was polycoms and conference lines all the way down.
Straightforward does not mean easy! But rather, it is much less likely to be fraught with an emotional component.
That is, in a professional capacity. In my role as parent I deliver this kind of feedback about 17 times a day. “That was not a kind choice to hit your brother. I am very disappointed.” Maybe I should try delivering the feedback via Zoom and see if that is more effective.
As often as not, it’s a case of multiple competing priorities, and it was actually a reasonable judgment call to drop that particular ball. But the subtext of ‘I’m not sure you made the right call,’ is there either way.
That is to say, a culture with consistent no-drama feedback doesn’t just mean there is no drama associated with a particular piece of feedback, but that the overall levels of drama in the organization are significantly lower.