8

Situation

My team at work uses online chat extensively, since we're spread out over a few locations. There are also some people in the chatroom who aren't directly on our team but work on closely related projects, and who I've never met in person.

Recently someone in the latter group (not my team, haven't met) posted a complaint in chat about a feature I implemented. I replied to ask for more details about why he disliked it. A couple other coworkers jumped in the thread as well to say they liked the feature, and we came up with a couple ideas about how to address the OP's complaints.

The thread seemed to reach a decent resolution, so I was a bit surprised when several people - including my manager - mentioned that conversation (in person) to me during the week. It sounded like they might be worried I was upset, and I wasn't really sure how to respond. I admit I was annoyed by the way OP started the conversation, but I wasn't really personally hurt - and anyways, it's not like I wanted to complain publicly at work about him (especially didn't want to sound like I was dismissing his valid feedback!).

Goal

Since several people now have brought this up, I'm wondering if I sounded upset in my chat messages. I often worry about striking the right tone at work and online, especially when I don't know the other person IRL, and it would be helpful to know if that happened here. So, I'd like to ask for feedback from the people who mentioned this.

How can I ask for an honest critique of how I handled the chat conversation, without making them feel uncomfortable or pressured?

Why not "just ask"?

I'm not very good at giving direct feedback myself, especially negative - I hate being put on the spot, and I worry a lot about offending the other person. I also have social anxiety, which makes it hard to judge whether my feelings about this are likely to be shared by others. Also, I expect I'll have to bring up the subject myself, which I'm not sure how to do now that a few days have passed. Overall, I'm interested in advice on what setting to bring this up, how to broach the subject, and what to avoid / do during the conversation (since I don't want to ask nicely just this once and then throw away future chances by handling their response poorly).

4

How can I ask for an honest critique of how I handled the chat conversation, without making them feel uncomfortable or pressured?

I'm going to approach this from a workplace perspective since that was the scenario in the question so this might not translate too well to non-workplace scenarios where similar problems could occur. Source for this is personal experience from being on both sides of such a conversation (variously as a team member and differing levels of management)

Asking for honest feedback isn't really the problem here - the problem is how you can trust that the feedback the person is giving you is honest. People are often reluctant to offer candid critiscm in a workplace environment as it may be used against them in the future or negatively affect their colleagues perception of them. This is particularly true where the person asking has senority over them (direct or not) or could be in a position to influence wider opinions of them.

Bearing this in mind I think the best plan is to approach your manager - privately, and explain that you are concerned with how the interaction was handled and whether you were mistakenly percieved to be upset or annoyed with the feedback.

Your manager makes the most sense as:

  1. You (hopefully) already have an existing rapport which will make them more comfortable to be candid with you and also give you a better trust in what they say.

  2. As your manager they will (hopefully) be used to providing constructive and candid feedback to their subordinates.

  3. As a subordinate to this person you (hopefully) have already developed a certain level of trust in them.

  4. As your manager the "power balance" for want of a better phrase is in their favor already, they don't have the same worries about upsetting you and getting poor treatment that a subordinate might were the roles reversed.

You've probably noticed that there is a couple of "hopefully"s in there - this is because it's dependent on your manager being good at what they do. If you know that they aren't (rubbish managers aren't universal but let's not pretend they don't exist!) or have had a strained relationship in the past this isn't going to be as effective.

You've probably also noticed that I only refer to approaching one person - this is because approaching multiple people to have this conversation is likely to have the reverse effect to what you intend as "The lady doth protest too much, methinks" can come in to play - if the intent is to let people know that you weren't upset by the feedback then mentioning this proactively to multiple people makes it look like it was a big deal for you (especially if more than a day has passed since.

If you have any idea of what you specifically believe you reaction to have been perceived as then directly ask this e.g:

Did my responses in [chat thread] come across as if I was defensive? I'm just concerned that people might think that and be less likely to approach me with feedback in the future.

A couple of things to note here - firstly the use of the word "concerned" vs say "worried", it's more dispassionate and (culture dependent) is more of a "professional term" - we might be concerned about the sales numbers, but we worry about paying our bills.

Secondly you are identifying a legitimate, professional reason to be having the conversation with you manager - honest feedback is useful to achieving the business goals, it's also again inferring that this is not a personal thing and people are more comfortable giving honest critiques if they have less reason to believe that any criticism isn't going to be taken personally.

7

Giving feedback can be a very difficult thing to do. I have to do it regularly at work, and it often requires a lot of mental energy from me. The hardest feedback to give is generic feedback when someone just says

Hey, can you give me some feedback about how Terry has been performing?

The best feedback I ever give is when someone asks for something specific. I've found that most people, when asking for feedback, already have an idea in mind of what it is going to be. The process can be made to go much faster and more effectively if they ask questions targeted at the information they really want.

How to be specific when asking

I've had to ask for feedback about how I handled a conversation more times than I can count, both at work and in my personal life. The best way to get feedback is to be very specific when you ask. The goal is that you take ownership of the feedback, so that they don't have to do all of the work for it. When I'm asking for feedback, I never ask for it generically. Instead, I point out something specific, and ask if it was received in a certain way. If I was in your specific situation I would ask something like this

Hey, when I asked what they didn't like about the feature, did I sound defensive or annoyed?

This gives them a very easy yes or no situation that they can quickly make a judgement on and give you the feedback that you desire.

The setting

Start by asking the single person that you trust most. Since you are remote, it is probably best to do it in a direct message or on the phone. I would start by finding the person on the team that you trust the most. Early in my career, and even still some today, I will always ask a specific person for feedback because I trust them. Since we work in the same office, I usually reserve a conference room or ask that we go to a local coffee shop. The point of this is that the conversation is private, and none of the other coworkers will hear it. This lets both parties be comfortable enough to truly be honest with each other.

An important thing that you can take away from this conversation is ideas for feedback to ask from the other coworkers. If you aren't completely satisfied after this conversation and want more feedback, you've now gotten some practice talking about this specific situation and you can reach out to your other coworkers individually to ask for their feedback.

Also ask for solutions

Giving and getting feedback is great, but it doesn't do any good unless you learn from it. I like to get all of the "what went wrong" parts of the feedback done first, because then I get to move on to the more fun part, which is "how can I do better". After you've exhausted the questions of "did I sound upset", "did I do this/that/the other", it is time to ask how to do it better.

*An interesting note: By using the techniques that I've laid out here, my relationship with one team member went (over the course of about 2 years) from being very uncomfortable in terms of feedback exchange, to her being one of the people that I trust and am most comfortable asking for feedback.

  • I'm actually in the same office as the coworkers who brought it up, so I could ask them in person :) How do you make ask a coworker to a private chat for the first time? I do grab coffee with some people regularly but it's always in a group setting. – Em C May 28 at 16:24
  • @EmC I will usually send them a slack message to the effect of "hey, do you have a couple of minutes that I could ask you about something". That's usually the signal that a private conversation needs to be had, if I have a question that isn't along those lines such as with my code, I generally just ask. It may depend on how you commonly interact with them for other things – Rainbacon May 28 at 16:27
2

I used to have this issue with people a lot. I wasn't in text interaction only situation, but I have a flat affect and a droning voice. I've had people tell me I could give Ben Stein a run for his money. (I couldn't - too much public speaking required.) Also, my surname does not help.

My ex-wife suggested that I should be more forthcoming with 'thank you'. If somebody gives me feedback on my code, and it helps me make the program better, I should thank them, verbally, by acting on their feedback in an expedient manner, and by trying to apply their feedback on future code. She also suggested that I spend more time soliciting feedback.

This has worked for me. I did need some verbal coaching on exactly how I said thank you, as my ex asserted that my natural thank you sounded like it was painful for me to say, which wasn't at all the case. I do understand that it may require some additional nuance to convey it properly over chat, and unfortunately, I don't think I can help you there.

Now, the vast majority of the time I ask for feedback, I don't get it. But the goal is to present myself as somebody who values feedback, because I do, I just wasn't good at showing it. And by being someone who routinely asks for feedback and demonstrates appreciation of it, I don't get people asking me if getting feedback makes me angry any longer.

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