We’ve been taught about constructive criticism and positive feedback, but there’s another dimension to feedback stemming from a person’s motivation.
You messed up and now your boss asked you to step into her office. What’s going through your mind right before you step in? What do you think she’ll say?
In my first non-academic job, I worked for a great boss named Jon. As the most junior person on the team, my job was to create the software build. While this is now done through a series of automated tools back then it was done by hand. I automated what I could, but there were still manual steps, and it took 20-30 minutes to create it. Every few days we’d create another internal build, a packaging up of the recent changes for it to be manually tested by some team members.
One day I made a mistake in the build and so the compiled software didn’t run. Not knowing this I sent out the email saying it was ready. A number of people each wasted a few minutes trying to get it to run. I wasted their time, albeit accidentally.
Jon was a good manager. He knew I was still relatively fresh out of school and taught me the concept of a smoke test (also known as a sanity check). After I built the software, I should make sure it runs. I’m not testing everything; I’m just making sure others can test it. The equivalent would be, making sure the car turns on before you toss the keys to some and say, “take it for a test drive and see how it handles.” The whole point is that I don’t send everyone to a file that doesn’t work. I don’t have to test that the changes fixed all the bugs, that’s what everyone else is for, just that they can run it so they can then figure out if the bugs got fixed. Basically, it was testing to make sure I built the code correctly.
I went back and smoke tested the next few builds. Unfortunately, about three weeks later I was in a rush and didn’t smoke test the build. You guess it, that’s the build that was broken. A few minutes after I sent out the email, I saw the replies saying they couldn’t run it, and then came the email from Jon, asking me to come to his office.
If you were Jon, what would you say to me? Think for a moment. This was the second time in a few weeks where I made the same mistake and he already corrected me once!
I expected him to be furious. He taught me what to do, he knew that I knew what to do, but I made the same mistake. I wasted people’s time, again.
Instead of chastising me, he calmly and politely pointed out that we had spoken about this before and that I needed to do better. That was it. I wasn’t just relieved, I was motivated. I never wanted to let him down again. Not just with the builds, but with everything, I wanted to do a good job and make him proud of my work.
But that’s me. I’m less motivated by money than I am by the quality of my work. In this case I was also motivated by the opinion of someone I respected very much. Everyone is different. There are people and relationship dynamics for which that motivation doesn’t work. Sometimes yelling may be the right answer. Sometimes it’s tying a bonus to a project or success metric. People are motivated differently and the type of motivation that works applied when giving feedback.
Even when and how to give people feedback can vary. If someone gets very embarrassed by negative feedback, perhaps the end of the day is better, so he can leave the office and put it behind them. For complex issues some people may want to discuss it while getting the feedback; others may need time to reflect before having that discussion.
For better or worse, there’s no one answer. When you look at your team, think of each person individually. You may default to yelling, or to carrots and sticks, or to support and empathy, or to something else. Likely you do that because it’s your style and that’s what works for you. But you’re not trying to motivate yourself, you’re motivating others. As you’re bringing someone into your office, ask yourself, what motivates this person and try to use the right motivational approach for that individual.
When buying presents, we need to match the gift to the person. A bottle of scotch, a spa day, and a video game are all good gifts, but not equally good to everyone you know. The mismatch of giving the wrong gift to someone can even create a bad experience. The same is true of how we give feedback; there’s no one size fits all.
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