Give feedback like a Zen Master

I parted ways with a client recently because of the way he was treating my team.

His ability to give feedback was close to zero and he had the emotional intelligence of a barbell. 

And that’s saying something because I really like barbells!

One of my parting notes to him was that the feedback that he would provide to my team was demoralising, at times rude and destructive instead of inspiring and constructive. 

His behaviour in meetings and his inability to provide clear, consistent, constructive feedback created conditions that weren’t conducive to doing great work.

Or being happy.

Side note: at Tank we measure everybody's happiness with a simple and random pulse survey throughout the year. This survey asks everyone who is there on that day, to plot their happiness from 1-10. We have a business goal to achieve an annual average between 80-90% happiness. We’re currently at 72% with a rocket towards our goal.

My team would avoid this client's phone calls at all costs. They would dread picking up the phone and having to deal with yet another insulting and demoralising conversation.

This particular client would argue that they were simply ‘precious creative-types’ — but words like ‘incompetent’ or ‘I know I’ve changed the brief, but I’m doing your job for you’ and ‘are you really as senior as you think you are?’ weren’t really helping when it came down to having our team do a great job or leave meetings feeling inspired.

This is the fundamental difference between good and bad feedback.

Good feedback is helpful. It inspires you to go back and do a better job. If it demoralises you, even when you haven’t done a great job (and let’s admit it, we’ve all been there) then it isn’t great feedback at all.

Bad feedback is poison.

It’s destructive and unhelpful. 

When you receive bad feedback—the kind that leaves you reeling—it feels like you’ve gone ten rounds with Apollo Creed—it’s not a great feeling at all. It’s deflating and an up-hill climb to achieve even a semblance a feeling that everything will be OK.

If you’re considering a more senior role where you’ll be managing and mentoring a team, learning how to give feedback and provide constructive critique of your team’s work is critical.

Irrespective of your job title or the seniority of your role, your value, your effectiveness and your performance as a creative leader is a direct reflection of your team’s output.

That means everything your team produces is because of your leadership.  And if your team isn’t performing, that is a direct reflection on you.

As a creative leader you’re only as good as your team is. If your team produces crap, it’s your crap. If they make mistakes, they’re you’re mistakes too. When they succeed, you succeed and when they produce award-winning work… you get my drift. 

Yes, as a leader you have options to create a high-performing team:

1. You choose who you recruit into your team
2. You choose who to remove from your team, and when you remove them
3. You choose which skills you will train in your team, and which skills you won’t
4. You choose the work your team does
5. You also choose how you mentor and coach your team, and through this mentorship and coaching you’re giving them daily feedback on their work.


Are we on the same page yet?

In the last 25 years of being on either end of the feedback spectrum, I’ve realised there are a number of personas Designers and Strategists seem to take on when it comes to feedback.

Here’s a snapshot:

The Serial Defender

Every time you make a suggestion or provide a point of feedback or critique, The Serial Defender puts up her defences and fires back excuses masked as reasons, thick and fast.

Instead of pausing, listening and asking questions to qualify the feedback, in an effort to better understand your point of view, The Serial Defender won’t take the feedback in without a fight. They’re going to give you a reason why they did something overtime you critique.

The Perfectionist

The Perfectionist is always right. They don’t need to develop ‘three ideas’, because the one idea they’re going to provide to you for critique and feedback is the absolute correct one. It’s so good it’s going to be up on Siteinspire in no time. 

This leaves you with a conundrum or two:

  • Love it or hate it
  • Time was spent on one idea now we don’t have any time left = now it’s your problem
  • Goodbye Perfectionist  

The Chronologist

The Chronologist is the person who never has enough time. Irrespective of the amount of time they have, they’ll always come to a review saying something like “I didn’t have enough time to do that,” or “If we had more time I would’ve…”

What The Chronologist doesn’t know is that they have the power to control time. Yes, the power to control time, because they are given 24hours each day to do as they wish and just like this parallel in life, any given creative brief has a time limitation on it and it is up to them (and you) to decide how they use that time.

The Zen Master

In the words of the great Bruce Lee (yes, I’m a big fan) “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless. Be like water”. 
The Zen Master encapsulates this ideal. They listen to feedback, taking in every word. Understanding the person giving the feedback is just as important as understanding the feedback itself. 

The Zen Master will ask questions if they don’t understand something, heck they’ll even say ‘I don’t understand’ when they don’t understand. (You’d be surprised how many people don’t do this).

The Zen Master walks away knowing they’ve taken all the feedback in, they’ve understood it and possibly even changed it slightly by asking the right questions and having the right conversation with the person who they met with.

Here are some suggestions to help you give feedback like a Zen Master - the type of feedback and critique that is a constructive critique and review of someone’s work; be it design or strategy work.

I hope by implementing some of these ideas you'll be able to take a step towards nurturing a strong creative team.

Trust is earned. So earn it.

No one is going to take you seriously and seek your critique and feedback unless they trust you.

If you haven't earned the trust of the people you're critiquing each day - don't bother trying any other piece of advice. Go out there and earn their trust first.

Trust doesn’t come with a job title, nor does it magically appear after 5-10 years of experience. You need to earn trust through the way you behave, the way you treat people and the way you inspire people to do their best work.

If your team doesn’t trust you — they’re going to walk away from critiques and feedback sessions rolling their eyes and probably wishing they worked somewhere else.

You want them to walk away feeling like they’re about to win an award, don’t you?

Remember this simple thing: Trust arrives like a tortoise and vanishes like a hare.

Time matters

Be timely. Think about when you’re going to be sitting down with your team and giving them feedback on their work. There’s nothing worse than feeling rushed and giving 40% to someone, when you’re expecting them to give you 100% in return.

Create ample time to provide feedback and to answer your team’s questions. If you’ve allocated 30 minutes to giving your team feedback and have spoken at them for 29 minutes, you’ve just created the conditions for bad work.

Make time and allow time for them to have their questions answered. 

You’re allowed to change your mind

I learned this the hard way. I would give feedback/critique of work and after a while come back and switch my thoughts around to the exact opposite of what I had said previously.

This would frustrate and anger many Designers that worked with me. I realised that I wasn’t explaining why I was flipping.

I felt bad for changing my mind and I shouldn't have.

I was allowed to change my mind!

I made it my business to be very clear about the reasons why I had changed my mind and as I was ultimately accountable for the work—I was allowed to change my mind!

Clarity matters.

Remind them of the type of work that inspires them

When a young Designer joins my team I have them create a Pinterest board or a folder on their desktop; and I ask them to fill it every day with work that moves them, inspires them and motivates them to be better.

When they come to me with work that is way below par, I point to that resource and ask them how they think their work holds up against it.

Be specific and strong

There are enough wankers in our industry peddling jargon-filled Keynote decks that mean nothing .

Don't be one of them. Don't beat around the bush and don't (please don't)  say things to make them feel good.

When you’re giving feedback, don’t dodge, don’t duck, don’t weave — be direct and be specific. 
It’s your job to make sure that the other person completely understands what you’re telling them.

Asking ‘are we on the same page?’ is an apt piece of jargon to use at this point in time.

Create safety

Having empathy for the person receiving feedback is critical.

You have to create an environment where they feel safe.

Where failure isn’t feared.

It is your job as the leader to create this safety. Not theirs.

Don’t be cruel

I once heard these words in a critique:

“What the fuck is this shit?”

Can you believe it?

Being in a position where you’re giving feedback on someone’s work (read: effort) in some cases can be mistreated as it is a position of power. And we all know very well that power corrupts.

If you work for someone who says things like this in your feedback sessions, go and find another job.

Here is a link to the AIGA job vacancy page and the AGDA job vacancy web page to help you along.

One issue at a time. No more than three.

I was in a feedback session where a very senior client of an internationally renowned organisation was giving me feedback.

She loved the work yet felt to give her thoughts on areas of improvement. She jumped from one thing to the next, left sentences incomplete and rambled her thoughts in a shotgun style that I hadn’t seen before.

Her team were clearly embarrassed and I was starting to feel overwhelmed.

She made no sense at all.

When she was done, I asked her to consolidate her thoughts in a document and send them through to me.

When you’re giving someone feedback, be clear and focus on one or two issues. Don’t jump around and talk about everything because you’ll end up talking about absolutely nothing.

And people will laugh at you.

Provide a path forward

This is a no brainer. When you’ve finished, give them a path forward. Explain the next steps, what you’re expecting, when you’ll be following up and when you want it completed by.

Follow up

Follow up. Ask them how they’re going. Ask them if they’re OK. Give a shit about what they’re doing and ask them if they need help.

Be a leader.

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