The power of affirmative feedback.
What does it mean to do good work?
I recently encountered this question at a content creation workshop during a brainstorming session. This particular question brought me up short because I didn't have an answer. As someone who until recently could have been considered a "junior" or early career developer, I have a pretty good read on what good work looks like after the fact: successful projects, raises, and career opportunities. But looking back, I often struggle to pinpoint what about _my_ work generated those results.
What does it mean for me to do good work?
A couple of weeks ago I asked my manager that question and she promptly rattled off a list of stuff. Just like that, without even really thinking about it. This was startling because it highlighted a gap that I never realized existed between my view of the work I do and my manager's view. She had the perspective and experience not only to see how I add value to the company, but to put it into words. She was capable of selling me in a way that I couldn't even fathom selling myself.
This was interesting because while my manager can champion me inside our company, she can't come with me on job or client project interviews. At some point in our careers, we need to figure out how to advocate for ourselves, for better responsibilities, compensation, and titles. But we don't emerge from coding boot camps and universities with the understanding of how our entry-level positions fit into the complex machinery of software development. Learning that takes time, experience, and information. There's no substitute for the first two, but that last one—information—usually comes from leaders.
If you're in a leadership position in software, part of your job is giving your team the ability to identify good work and their place in it. How? Feedback. Specifically affirmative feedback.
Feedback as Information
Affirmative feedback is focused on areas of success: the goal is to affirm a particular behavior or decision, and encourage the receiver to repeat it. So, when should you be giving affirmative feedback?
To clarify that, let's begin with definition of feedback from a talk by Alex Harms:
"Information which is intended to help the receiver achieve their own goals."
Notice that you—the manager—are not even present in this definition. It's all about the receiver and their goals. Basically, if you're only doling out affirmative feedback when a team member's behavior impacts you, then you're missing out on a lot of opportunities. Another key word of this definition is "information": affirmative feedback should give the receiver data that they can use to continue doing good work. This is why saying "great job" isn't sufficient on its own—it doesn't really give much information.
Affirmative feedback plays into the human desire for autonomy and purpose. Your team members want to do good work, and feedback helps them do it.
What we crave is feedback that will help us grow. It totally relates back to our core needs at work; we want to know specifically what it is that we should keep doing, and what we should stop doing. - Lara Hogan (more on her in a minute)
So, in addition to giving affirmative feedback more often, we need to give it better.
How: Leveling up your Feedback with Specifics
Fortunately, it's actually pretty easy to increase the average quality level of the affirmative feedback you give. Lara Hogan has a great blog post on constructing high quality feedback, and why it's important. Lara's post also presents a straightforward formula for "actionable, specific" feedback: observation plus impact.
So, using this model, how can we turn a low quality affirmation ("you did a good job") into high quality, actionable feedback?
"The more feedback focuses on specifics...—and the more the praise is about effort and strategy rather than about achieving a particular outcome—the more effective it can be." - Dan Pink, bestselling author of the book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
To turn vague feedback into high quality affirmative feedback, we need to be specific. Rather than simply telling someone they're awesome, tell them what they did that was awesome. Try to get into the habit of providing feedback that requires at least two sentences, so you can get into the habit of answering these two questions: what did the person do, and why should they continue doing it?
Here's an example: "Thank you for jumping in on that issue while Jean was on vacation. It really demonstrated our team's commitment to shared responsibility, growth, and quality. Keep up the good work!"
When receiving praise, many of us fall into the "I was just doing my job" trap. Humility is all well and good, but this is exactly why specifics are so valuable. Specifics make it clear that it's not just about doing the job, and helps the team member understand the contextual value of their actions. And sidenote: encourage your team members, particularly underrepresented ones, to be comfortable accepting affirmative feedback! It's not about ego boosting, it's about communicating valuable information for their careers.
The information conveyed by affirmative feedback is important for everyone, but particularly early career developers. If you're leading or managing someone in their first tech job, your goal should be for that person to feel confident in themselves by knowing the answers to two questions:
- What constitutes good work?
- How do I uniquely contribute to good work on my team?
If those questions can be answered, that person will be much better set to sell their skills to the next employer or, better yet, to you!