What managers miss about feedback, a.k.a. “The Shit Wave”

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I’ll try to keep this short on effective feedback, because I’ve written about the topic before and I’m not sure anything will ever get any better. I actually wrote a post a couple of weeks about ‘how to give feedback’ with help from nine-time NCAA Champion John Wooden. That post got about 1,500 views — so I guess a few people here and there care about effective feedback. I wouldn’t say it’s an amazing, Kardashian-level topic though.

Here, we’re going to briefly discuss the difference between ‘effective feedback’ and ‘The Shit Wave.’ Ready? Hut, hut, hike. Let’s go.

Effective feedback 101

Partially because I’ve had a series of jobs without much feedback, I’ve often written and contemplated what effective feedback should look like. To wit:

The fact is, very few people — and probably even fewer managers — know what Effective Feedback 101 should look like. It’s uncomfortable to provide guidance to others, whether you use the ‘Compliment Sandwich’ approach or the ‘Scorched Earth’ approach or whatever else. Effective feedback is a challenge, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s hard for a ton of managers. Don’t sweat it.

The key is to avoid ‘The Shit Wave,’ though.

In terms of effective feedback, what is ‘The Shit Wave?’

You’ve all lived this, but let’s run it down quickly.

“The Shit Wave” in terms of effective feedback basically arises from process choking productivity, which is common in many companies. The sequence goes like this:

  • Employee A is working on a project
  • Employee A e-mails their manager a few times with questions
  • The manager responds maybe once, or not at all
  • Employee A understands the importance of deadlines, so they submit the project with a few caveats
  • The manager of Employee A looks at what’s been submitted and throws a ‘Shit Wave’

OK, so what’s a shit wave?

It’s when the manager tosses 92 things back at the employee that are wrong with what they submitted, most of which are process-oriented and irrelevant. For example, “Why isn’t this on Asana?” is a good example of The Shit Wave. It doesn’t matter if it’s on Asana, honestly. You’re reading it and evaluating it. That’s what matters. But many managers forget that because they think a lack of criticism means they’re bad managers.

This is where the ‘Shit Wave’ comes from: it’s all about throwing as many negatives at a project/first draft as possible in the interest of ‘effective feedback.’ OK, yay! I know what to improve!

In all reality, here’s the deal: it’s a total cover your ass move. The Shit Wave means nothing. It’s usually a series of check-box deliverables — “Make the logo lighter!” — concealed in the idea of effective feedback.

Why the Shit Wave is not effective feedback

Many managers miss this, and it’s unfortunate. “Management” is about organic, real-time conversations about something that happened and how it could be better. That’s legitimate, real, true effective feedback.

Here’s a quick story: my wife’s birthday is August 31. Last year, a bunch of us celebrated in early September in Texas. So, the same day as we’re all going out, I had a performance review. Performance reviews are a joke and I get that, but it’s still two human beings have an emotional conversation around what should be effective feedback. Mine was a train wreck and a joke. My boss was bringing up stuff from seven months prior that I had never heard before. Couldn’t we have discussed it at the time it happened? Wouldn’t that have been effective feedback? I wasn’t that surprised: this same org had a head of HR who regularly spent weeks hiring the CEO a new nanny. It wasn’t exactly ‘people-first.’

I go to my wife’s birthday stuff and initially I’m depressed. I’m a big believer in people and relationships and interaction and organic feedback, and I wanted to think that review was effective feedback. Of course, it was a Turd Burger. This happens.

This ties back into The Shit Wave. Here’s the deal with most managers: they ignore you until some deliverable you have is deemed a priority by their manager (“Managing Up”) and then they gget all over your ass about it and repeatedly yelp about “a sense of urgency.” This is Management 101 for most people:

  • “I’m too busy to possibly think about anything until it’s near due”
  • “My boss just claimed this new thing was a priority!!”
  • “I’m gonna screech and bellow at a subordinate about what’s wrong with it and call that effective feedback!”

We’ve all lived this cycle.

So when you throw 17 “hey, could you fix this?” items at a subordinate, that’s not actually effective feedback. That’s just poor management.

Good management would look like this:

  • “This project is a priority for X-reason” (as opposed to “My boss says it is!”)
  • “This is how this project fits into the bigger picture”
  • “These are the goals of this project”
  • “Here’s how I’d like you to proceed, but I welcome new ideas”
  • “After a few weeks/months, we’ll look at this and try to create an effective feedback system for how this went”

Most managers be like:

  • “Gahhhh!!!!!!!!! I have so much to do!!!!!! I’m so slammed!!!!!”
  • “My boss told me this was crucial, so let’s immediately pivot to it with no context!!!!”
  • “You better hit your targets here!!!!!”
  • “I have no time to explain or contextualize this for you!!!!!”
  • “I’m rushing to my 10:15 about Q2 metrics! You figure it out!”

Look at the first set of bullets, then look at the second set. You see where effective feedback could play a role?

What other thoughts you have?

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/hire-freelance-writer-ted-bauer/

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