Management One paragraph in a very long story

Feedback is a Mirror

You have an internal storyteller, and they are always telling you a story. Today the story is, “Almost done with all of my bugs. There were ten at the beginning of the week, but now I have two. One of them is hard, but I’ll figure it out. The other, I’m sure, will be a breeze. When these are done, I am going to spend some time working on my prototype for the next release. Can’t wait.”

This narrative serves many purposes. It gives you direction (Here’s the work I need to do), priority (This is what is important), and motivation (And here’s my reward when I am done).

Here’s the thing: this narrative has strong bias. It is biased in your favor and is world-class at focusing you on what is important, interesting, and compelling versus what is boring, hard, or frightening. Go back and read the fictional narrative. What is the inner voice trying to get you to ignore? Two things: the hard bug (We’ll figure it out!) and the unknown bug (I’m sure it’ll be a breeze!).

That hard bug? It’s really hard. In fact, you’ve been dreading it for two weeks because your spidey-sense is telling you it’s the end result of a poor architectural choice you made six months ago. It’s not a bug; it’s feature work. And that it’ll-be-a-breeze bug? Your inner voice literally lies to you here. It’s the last on the list because it’s the hardest. There’s no scenario where it’ll be a breeze.

None of this dialog occurs outside your head. None of this behavior is wrong or weird. It’s just you getting through your stuff today like everyone else, but today of all days, James, a co-worker, is talking with you in Slack and out of nowhere jokingly types, “Yeah, but you always underestimate the worst bugs by 10x. That’s why you’re always last.”

James is joking, but you feel every single word.

One of the many benefits of feedback is that it breaks your ongoing inner narrative. It breaks it. It mentally forces you to stop in your tracks and consider the feedback not because you want to but you are incapable of ignoring it. The feedback is that compelling.

Confusingly, this reaction applies equally to constructive, helpful feedback as well as toxic unhelpful criticism. In each case, your brain stops and cannot proceed until you’ve somehow processed this new bit of information. You see that they see you, and now… you see you.

If it’s constructive feedback, you feel it. He’s right; I avoid the hard bugs because I worry they are critiques of my possible prior poor architecture decisions. In the best scenario, you process and act on the feedback. In the worst scenario, you rationalize it away and leave yourself unchanged.

If it’s destructive feedback, you really feel it. The other person designs the feedback to cut deep. That’s their intent. I’m not going to explain the motivation of these humans, but please note their nefarious intent is to land the sucker punch, and it somehow landed. Amongst their toxicity, there is something you heard. When I am in this scenario, I attempt to push the toxicity aside, look in the mirror and ask myself, “Why do I care?” There is always an unintended lesson.

Here’s one lesson: when constructive feedback stops you in tracks, it feels like your entire world is this feedback. You aren’t this feedback. It’s a sliver. A thread. One paragraph in a very long in-progress story. You are a fully formed human full of skill, will, flaws, strengths, good days, and bad ones, too.

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2 Responses

  1. Claus 3 months ago

    You have a char after “your” in “feels like your entire world is this feedback”.

    Thanks for your writing. It’s gotten me places.