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Feedback is a gift

When I started at Facebook, one of the company values they taught us was “feedback is a gift”. You give and receive formal feedback twice a year, from peers and managers alike. This feedback decides your performance “grade” for the half and the resulting promotion… or performance improvement plan. With so much riding on the feedback, it feels less like a gift and more like the ugly-sweater-your-aunt-bought-you-and-your-mom-made-you-wear-to-say-thank-you.

Back in college, I took an experimental economics class with a dozen other students and my favorite professor ever. The organization of the class was fantastic— we learned about behavioral and experimental economics, we pitched experimental designs, ran the experiment, and wrote a paper on it. With such a unique class structure, Professor Hoel threw one last curveball at us. The grades for the class would be determined via peer feedback.

That class was far more intense than most classes so emotions ran high after long days. Or rather, my emotions ran high after even short days. I am lucky the students in that class graded each other mostly on competence. If they had factored in personality, I surely would have failed.

For most of my college years, I was angry. I had a chip on my shoulder, an aching hunger to prove something. I was bitter about not being able to pursue my dreams of a PhD with the weight of my family’s finances on me. The result was I was extremely unpleasant to work with. I snapped and scoffed at questions I deemed “stupid” (they were not stupid). I insisted on doing the work myself because I didn’t trust others to do it to my standard (they could have, probably even better than me). I was aware of my righteous anger, but I felt it justified and did not attempt to change it.

The feedback I got from my classmates and Professor Hoel changed my life. I was shocked. It was gracious and kind. Quite frankly I expected people to write about what an asshole I was. They didn’t. They merely expressed regret that they could not help me more. I remember sitting in Professor Hoel’s office couch as we talked about the class and the feedback. She was equally sympathetic as my peers, but firm on the need for change. I don’t recall the exact words of this conversation, except that I had tears in my chest the whole time.

I don’t know when I was finally able to let go of that anger, but I know that was the turning point for me. People I had been rude and mean to, with the power to decide my grade outcome for that class, showed me sincere kindness. They showed me that you don’t need tough love to grow. Good ol’ fashioned regular love was more than enough. They gave me the gift of feedback.

These days I have to write feedback pretty often. Whether its for mentees, interviews, or our performance cycle, I’m constantly being asked to give feedback.

While gifts can be fun surprises, feedback should never be a surprise.

Ultimately, I want to give feedback that will genuinely help people. I try to understand from their perspective and then give another inch of grace before writing. Most of the time I don’t need to find kind things to write— they write themselves. More often the struggle is finding something for them to improve upon.