Giving and receiving feedback

post by Max_Daniel · 2020-09-07T07:24:33.941Z · EA · GW · 6 comments


  Receiving feedback
  Giving feedback
    solutions – a double-edged sword?
    the difference between feedback and performance reviews [2]

[Based on a couple of years work and volunteering experience. Sometimes people tell me they found my feedback especially useful, and some people told me they found this advice useful. But I haven't gone out of my way to find dissenting views.

I’d appreciate it if people chimed in with their own experiences as well as additional or conflicting advice they may have.]

Suppose you want to invest additional time and care to make feedback you receive or give more useful. Here's some advice on how to do this.

These aren’t iron-clad rules. Suboptimal feedback is often better than no feedback, and it can be infeasible (e.g. cost too much time) to maximally stick to all of the following advice.

Also, feedback varies a lot by type of relationship (e.g. manager-report or among friends) and cultural norms. While I think the below is good advice for many situations, it will be decidedly inappropriate for some.

Receiving feedback

Now and in the future, you’ll tend to receive feedback that’s more useful to you if you …

Giving feedback

Feedback you give will tend to be more useful to the receiver if it is …

Proposing solutions – a double-edged sword?

On the difference between feedback and performance reviews [2]

Ultimately we don't just want to know how well we did in particular instances. It's much more useful if we can evaluate our skills and abilities, and thus predict our future performance at a wide range of tasks, identify which job we might be a good personal fit for, etc.

E.g. wouldn’t it be much more useful to know, say, “I’m bad at giving talks” than just that “Bob didn’t understand what I said in the middle of slide 3 last week”?

And conversely, doesn't this mean that some of the above advice on how to give feedback is misguided?

Yes and no. I suggest to view evaluating generalizable skills and abilities as a two-step process:

  1. ‘Feedback’: Record many instances of feedback on specific behaviors as described above.
  2. ‘Performance review’: For each skill or ability, periodically review all relevant instances of specific feedback (and any other evidence you might have, e.g. number of views your talk has received on YouTube). Based on this make an aggregate judgment about how strong you are at this trait, by how much you have improved, etc.
    1. Crucially, this second step can only be done by yourself (or people you share all your data with, or people who've seen a lot of your work). In the above example, if Bob has seen just this one talk, it'd still be better for him to just say "I didn't follow you in the middle of slide 3" because he simply cannot appropriately make generalizations such as "you're bad at giving talks!".

This can happen at different time scales, and in particular what I’ve called ‘performance review’ need not be a separate conversation with that label. E.g. after having started a new job, you might ask a colleague for feedback after your first week. As that colleague, you may want to convey both feedback on specific events as well as tentative assessments of skills and abilities, all in the same conversation.

But even then I suggest to clearly distinguish between these two types of evaluation, and where possible to ground the assessment of skills and traits in instances of specific feedback. E.g. “I recall that every day this week you suggested a new project idea in the team meeting. I liked all of these ideas, especially the idea of an interactive website you raised on Tuesday. I don’t remember anyone apart from Alice who contributed that many ideas that early. It’s of course too early to say with any confidence, but based on this I’m tentatively quite optimistic about your ability to find creative solutions to problems”.


For helpful comments I'd like to thank Kwan Yee Ng, Nora Ammann, Brad Saad, Eliana Lorch, Will Hunt, and Aaron Gertler.


[1] Thanks to Kwan Yee Ng for reminding me of this important point.

[2] Will Hunt tells me that a distinction similar to my 'feedback vs. performance review' is made in the book The Effective Manager.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Jonas Vollmer · 2020-09-10T09:58:45.169Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Someone recently asked me how to get better at receiving feedback. My response:

I'm not sure I have a lot of very insightful stuff to say, just the "obvious advice":

  • Right before receiving the feedback, consciously adopt a constructive mindset. (I usually do something like this: "What comes might hurt, but it won't be about me as a person in general, just about my behavior, which I can change; I'll try to breathe and relax if the feedback produces this tightening feeling.")
  • If I think that people are being overly negative, I force them to be more constructive by asking questions like "What would you suggest?", "Interesting. Do you have ideas for how to address this?", "I agree this is a concern, but I'm not sure how to solve it, do you have a suggestion?"
  • One thing that usually helps me is asking people whether my work is overall on the right track, and the answer is usually yes, and that makes it easier to take critical feedback. Many people forget to give high-level feedback, but it's usually quite easy to prompt them to do so.
  • If something feels threatening, asking others who I know value my contributions for their take usually helps me put things into perspective. E.g., when someone was negative about me, I asked some of my former colleagues whether they think I can do my new job well, and their take was something like "yeah you probably don't have the type of skill that this person mentions, but I don't think that skill is key to what you're trying to do, and this person doesn't appreciate some of the skills you have, either, so basically they shouldn't complain as much."
Replies from: Jonas Vollmer
comment by Jonas Vollmer · 2020-09-10T10:02:18.625Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The Google Docs commenting feature in particular invites micro-feedback rather than general high-level points. When asking for feedback on a Google Doc, I usually include a template like the following at the beginning (I don't always use all of it):

Epistemic status: …

Giving feedback on this document

I’d greatly appreciate critical feedback, especially about X. Thanks for taking the time, … Your feedback would be most appreciated about:

  • Do you think is broadly on the right track? Did I overlook important points? Do you think my line of argument makes sense?
  • Is the structure and form appropriate? Should it be shorter/longer?
  • In which areas do you think this document needs the most further work?

Please give feedback by DATE.

Replies from: Max_Daniel
comment by Max_Daniel · 2020-09-10T11:41:53.457Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Agree this is a bad property of Google docs. I wonder how much value we're losing because of this ...

EA wants to be the equivalent of the Scientific Revolution for doing good, but instead of a Republic of Letters we have a Cacophony of Comment Threads. ;)

comment by Jonas Vollmer · 2020-09-10T09:51:34.037Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

See also Daniel Kestenholz's How to Give and Receive Feedback.

comment by Khorton · 2020-09-07T08:00:20.880Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

If you're a manager or giving "performance review" type feedback, often good to ask the person what they thought of their performance before starting, so you can start from some shared assumptions.

comment by Khorton · 2020-09-07T07:59:15.663Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Not sure if you mentioned it, but if you are a manager or asked to review someone's work regularly, it's very useful to point out where they improved. You're more likely to motivate change by pointing out positive improvements than always picking out things that went wrong, especially if they really are improving!

If during talk #1, they ran over time by 10 minutes, and in talk #2 they ran over time by 1 minute, it's important to highlight that as an improvement while still discussing the importance of not running over time. If talks 3-6 all run to time, it's good to mention that occasionally, just so the person knows you notice and appreciate their efforts. But if talk #7 runs over by a couple minutes again, I wouldn't mention it - they've clearly already internalised your feedback and they're probably thinking of it themselves.