What Seth Godin's altMBA taught me about tough feedback

The internet is awash with content on productivity. How to do your work. When to do. How to organise your when to do. Why you procrastinate. How to stop. Morning routines. Evening routines... Here are my main lessons from Seth Godin's altMBA about doing vs reflecting.

The problem with endless focus on productivity is that it's about quantity over quality. This low effort/high reward habit changes everything.

The internet is awash with content on productivity. How to do your work. When to do. How to organise your when to do. Why you procrastinate. How to stop. Morning routines. Evening routines...  

The problem with endless advice on productivity is it’s about doing as much work as you can.  It’s not about doing that work better.  


Consistently delivering higher quality work is how you get to be the best version of yourself.  And that's what makes getting consistent feedback a powerful habit. Feedback gives you priceless self-awareness and self-awareness helps you reach your potential.

"I think self awareness is probably the most important thing towards being a champion." - Billie Jean King

So why are companies low feedback environments?

It's odd that feedback isn't part of day-to-day life in business when it has potential for rewards far beyond the effort required to get it, and for far greater impact.  

Sports are the obvious comparison. Athletes at all levels have feedback baked into their habits because they have coaches. Coaches give feedback. That feedback creates self awareness and enables the athletes to improve their performance. It's part of the culture.

"A good coach can change a game. A great coach can change a life." - John Wooden

A professional athlete trains most days of the week and gets feedback most days of the week.  While in business, we work most days of the week and get feedback what - once or twice a year in our annual and half yearly performance reviews?

A surgeon in the US, Atul Gawande, considered this and started getting a mentor to sit in on his operations to provide detailed feedback after each one. See a snippet of his TED talk here.

It makes no sense that most companies spend most of their time focussed on the performance of the business (conversions, revenue, market share...) but not on the performance of the people who create the business performance!

How can companies be focused on delivering more profit without first delivering more feedback?

Getting your head around the feedback mindset

Unfortunately, most people fear feedback (including me), which explains why they avoid it (guilty!). The fear makes it feel difficult and unnatural.

Dig a little deeper and it becomes clearer that it's not the feedback itself we fear. It's really fear of the unknown, fear of failure and possibly, fear that we're repeating a past mistake...

You do it to yourself, you do
And that's what really hurts
- Radiohead, Just
Fear of the unknown

One of the scariest things for our minds to deal with is uncertainty. And one major thing we can't control is what other people think. Combine them together and you've got a recipe for our lizard brain to go crazy at the freak-out circus.

Worrying about what other people think, and then asking them to tell you what they think, can seem paralysing. Our brain sometimes even sees feedback as a fight-or-flight event. But the reward is priceless self-awareness.

Does an athlete care that their coach told them to improve their passing shot, or toughen up mentally? That they’re capable of being better? No! They welcome it. They know it's what will help them get better, so they can win. Even if it's uncomfortable at times, it feels safe because it's familiar. It's part of the culture of their environment.

Fear of failure

Ah, the classic. Fear of what might (but probably won't) happen. Fear that causes a retreat to "safety". Where we can't be hurt. But where we're actually hurting ourselves because we're stunting our own growth.  

Imagine if your parents never took the training wheels off your bike at age 6. No bloody knees and no scar tissue, but one hell of a boring (and heavily ridiculed) adult that gets around on a tricycle. Without the falls, without the failures, without the short-term pain, there can’t be long-term gain.


Fear from past experiences

If you've been on the receiving end of bad feedback - or feedback badly given - you'll remember it. Sadly, you're not alone and chances are the scars are holding you back.

Have you ever stopped to think though that all feedback is subjective?  

It’s delivered to us in a box wrapped uniquely by the other person. Enveloped in their words, their motives, their own views of the world.

That doesn’t mean it’s worthless, it just means that it isn’t all true. It’s only an opinion. Your job as the receiver of feedback is to expertly apply a filter that casts aside the crap and galvanises the gold.

The gift of self awareness

All improvement starts with awareness: Awareness of how things are now versus how we want them to be. Knowing how we want things to be enables us to put in place a process that will lead to the results we're seeking.  

For me, the gift of feedback is the gift of self awareness. Seeing what others see; identifying and pushing past my blind spots.

Self improvement never ends, so putting in place a system that creates a habit of feedback is a way to guarantee that I'm always improving.  Getting a little bit better every day and every week makes for huge improvements over time.  

Whatever you want to achieve, feedback is an accelerator to help you get there.  

In the business world, good feedback well-received can be a competitive advantage. Reid Hoffman's podcast interview with the founder of Eventbrite, Julia Hartz, is a great example of how customer feedback can fuel success.

People can use feedback in the same way. The more effective the people, the more effective the company.

And the tide is turning. In a 2015 survey of 1,000 Millennials, over 840 wanted more frequent performance conversations with their manager.

Culturally, it makes sense. Millennials are used to giving and receiving immediate feedback, as they have with their friends pretty much every day since they started using a mobile phone. Feedback is part of the Millennial identity. Like most things in life, how you think about it makes all the difference.

Survey of 1,000 Millennials by Trinet

And since Millennials are already the largest part of the workforce, businesses with Gen-X ways of operating are going to struggle to drive profitability if they’re focussing wholly on productivity and not on feedback.

Ready to give feedback a go?

The good news is that using feedback to improve your performance is a low effort / high reward strategy, particularly in low feedback environments.

The trade-off is that you might be dealing with people who aren't very good at giving it. So when you ask them, what you hear back might not be entirely helpful. Inevitably, it will say as much about them as it does about you. And, if you look for it, the gold nuggets will be there :-).

Remember that those who share something constructive with you are the most generous. They're the ones who you should thank because, as scary as it may seem in the moment, they're the ones who make you better.  

Make feedback a habit

Like most habits, little and often is the best approach. Taking cues from James Clear's Atomic Habits, here are some tips on how to do it and make it work.

1. Make it obvious

Start by 'stacking' feedback onto another, preferably enjoyable habit. Then make a commitment to when you will do it by making that habit your trigger.

For example:

I will send an email to 3 people I've worked with each week immediately after my lunch break on Fridays.  
I'll set a 15 minute recurring appointment with myself in my calendar as a reminder.
The email will include 2 questions that will help prompt them to give me useful feedback:

Q1: What one thing did I do this week that impressed you the most?
Q2: What one thing this week could I have done better?  Please tell me so that next week I nail it!

You could knock on their door, give them a call, or send them a Slack message. In fact, you can ask them however you like. But you might find that putting it in writing first, and giving them time to respond thoughtfully (rather than putting them on the spot) gives you a better outcome.  

Emailing your feedback request also gives you a chance to preface your questions by saying how you'd like them to be answered honestly. Without your express permission, they may default to saying something nice and generic that you can't use to improve.

2. Make it easy

Spend your 15 mins of feedback time this week thinking of some questions you'd like to ask people and save them as a draft email.  

Having a question bank prepared serves two purposes:
- You can ask the same questions over a few weeks to get a spectrum of feedback from different people. Then you can track how the feedback changes over time as your self awareness improves.
- When the calendar reminder pops up, it'll take you less than 2 minutes to cut, paste and send out the questions you’ve already drafted.  Easy!

3. Make it satisfying

You know the rewards will be worth it, but that alone doesn't solve procrastination.  Reward yourself for taking action.

If you usually treat yourself to a sweet snack or a cup of coffee on a Friday afternoon, don't let yourself have it until you've requested feedback.  If you don't usually have an afternoon treat, invent one for yourself for doing this!  Maybe even offer a reward to your buddies for giving constructive feedback?

Download a free copy of the above book here (normally £7.75 on Amazon).
4. But know that it will be hard
"The best feedback is what we don't want to hear." - George Raveling

Feedback is an emotional experience. That's why it's hard at first, and why the results are so rewarding.

I'm used to getting (and giving) feedback. I work for an HRTech company that specialises in it. And it's hard, even for me.

Recently in our company’s 360 degree feedback cycle, I received 41 generous, thoughtfully written comments. 31 were positive, 7 were neutral (a mix of positive and negative), and 3 were constructively negative.

Guess what?! Only the 3 negative ones stuck with me.  

My first reaction on reading them was to tense up. Later that day, I was quite upset. It took me a week to get past feeling defensive about them, to accept and be grateful for them. And only then did the encouragement from the positive comments break through.

Where am I now, as a result of that feedback? Self-aware enough to know where I can do better. And encouraged to keep going!

Where will I be in a year's time?  I don't know. But I'll certainly be further ahead of where I am now, following ongoing, regular doses of feedback-driven self awareness. And light years ahead of where I'd have been if I'd kept my head in the sand.

5. Reflect on what you've learned
“It turns out that people who are getting feedback - and a better way to think about it is ‘advice’ - from trusted, respected peers, outperform everybody else.  So that’s worth practising.” - Seth Godin

I recently did Seth Godin’s altMBA. Feedback followed by reflections on that feedback are a core component of the learning.  

The reflections have given me some truly golden breakthroughs, skyrocketing my self awareness. While I’ve discovered more about how I think and act, I’ve uncovered some realisations about others too. How my work is affected by, and can influence, their worldviews, motivations and choices. And how, in that work, I can make change happen.  

This article is a result of one of my feedback-led reflections. I’m seeking to plant a seed that may change you to become more open to feedback, while encouraging myself to continue with the feedback habit. Hopefully, it’s a win for us both!

If you use a journal, write about how the feedback you receive makes you feel and ask yourself why it makes you feel that way.  Are you being honest with yourself? You might choose to disagree with the feedback, but chances are there's a grain of truth in it that will help you, if you take the time to reflect on it.

Want to make the feedback habit even easier?

"Automate your habits. Invest in technology and onetime purchases that lock in future behavior." - James Clear

Howamigoing is a beautiful online platform for giving and receiving professional feedback. Use it for everything from company-wide 360 degree reviews to private feedback you can request from anyone at any time.  

Better questions result in better outcomes, so Howamigoing is pre-loaded with a question bank, designed by us with behavioural psychologists, to make it even easier to get great feedback from your peers. And to make sure good deeds don't go unnoticed, we've also got a "Good vibes" feature where you can publicly praise the good work of others, and allow others to see and comment on it.

Much easier than sending an email after Friday lunch!