There is a recent post making the rounds called “On Being a Bad Manager” reminding us that we are bad at most things by default and as a starting manager we are beginning again because the role draws little from the previous one as an analyst. You need practice as a manager and when you practice you are already on stage.
Though many government workers will have experience in giving comments on written documents, when I was promoted, I found I was really lacking in skills to review written work comprehensively. I also lacked a clear path to training myself up and could see that the stakes were very high. I’ve taken the cue from other disciplines like editing, and ten years along as being a manager, I am now at the stage where giving feedback has been something I have been praised for and this has surprised me.
The surprise is not because this work is effortless but because this work is often enjoyable because my feedback from a place of genuine interest in the work people are doing. I approach the exercise with the frame that I want to understand what the author is trying to express and to support them in crossing the finish line. I chose the title of this post from a poem by William Blake which I like it because it hints at the idea that a friend would invest in helping you improve a piece but would do it with an even hand.
The mindset is important given how feedback givers often come across: Critics come onto the battle field after the battle is over and shoot the wounded. Rather, you could come at truth and not as to conquer your opponent. “You don’t always have to chop with the sword of truth. You can point with it too”.
I find specific feedback can often set at two uncomfortable extremes starting with people who believe they have nothing to say. Sometimes when I delegate reviews, I am met with the worrying reply “Looks good.” Usually something gnaws at my stomach when I hear that and I dig deeper. I am not the only one: “when editors breeze through I worry that they have not undergone the agonies requisite to launch one someone’s words into eternity.”
At the other end of the spectrum are people who have too much to say, believing the question “Any comments?” should be taken literally. There is such a thing as adding too much value:
- Using track changes to completely re-write a document without providing any cross-walks to higher level concepts that would help the writer understand what you are trying to do; or
- Giving feedback to make a document “sound right” without asking yourself critically if you are just re-writing it into your own style (making the document different but not better).
There is also feedback given with such a devastating tone that it is difficult to receive in letter or in spirit. Too many times for comfort, reviewers at all levels do these things:
- Use sarcasm (which is often mixed with hyperbole to devastating effect) to tear down people’s work if not people themselves; or
- Frame feedback in a way that may feel like confrontation or accusation.
When I am delivering feedback, I have my feet in two very different spaces; one that I consider my essential work and the other that requires more nuancing. First, I am speaking from a subject matter area where I want (with my team) to fact check and support an accurate, well-reasoned product for the Department. Second, I want to give feedback as a general reader from a gentle common sense perspective to advance a strong Departmental product.
What I am trying to do when I give feedback it is a tricky mix which starts with a huge gulp of humility before I embark, realizing that I am not the expert in this document (nor much else in my life on any given day including the answer to the sometimes vexing question “Where exactly is the can-opener?”):
- I am generous in my assumptions and presume that people have worked hard and may have been limited by time or limited information.
- I try to start with praising what is right with a document and what is worth protecting and preserving. If you think that affirming what is working well is a waste of time, consider that letter carriers are more likely to get recognition than your colleagues. People who receive explicit thanks are more productive and expressing thanks makes you more relaxed and productive. Things that might be worth praising:
- The facts are correct
- The document is the appropriate length and tone for the audience
- The options are credible
- The document reads well and has a good flow
- I approach with questions to support or replace direct feedback. I might say: “I don’t know if you realize that these two stats seem to contradict – you may with to clarify” “Did you mean X or Y when you used this technical term?” “I like this point. Do you think it merits more airtime with the audience?” “All of the points in the background are valid but I think the key one is X and you might benefit from spending more time on the options than the other points in the background.”
- I try to “show don’t tell” so that no one has to just guess what I am getting at. I may suggest different phrasing or refer the authors to other documents to review or to true experts to get the information they need.
- I look for elements that may confuse the reader and cloud the message understanding that: Many good people write bad prose because: “Every human pastime […] devolves an argot to spare its enthusiasts from having to say or type a long winded explanation when they refer to a familiar concept in each others company.
- If the document is an especially hard read (perhaps produced under tight time frames or perhaps hasn’t had sufficient circulation at the lower levels), I might give a few general comments and ask to see a next draft or offer to discuss further in a meeting.