Focusing Feedback

Jenn DerySince I love stories, I’m going to start with one that I heard recently from a judge friend. We were chatting about reviews (surprising, right?), and he mentioned a review he’d gotten from someone recently that said something like this (paraphrased, a lot):

“You seemed really down during our draft on Saturday night. You should work on cheering up.”

Needless to say, my friend was pretty upset that a sentiment about an after-hours, off-site, for-fun thing made it into a review.

I started thinking about the ways that the feedback culture of the judge program can get in the way of its own goals. There’s definitely pressure to provide feedback to the people that we’re working with, and that leads many of us to comment on whatever we can find, especially if we’re struggling to fill that Areas for Improvement box.

I can see how someone would think to mention this in a review. It is specific. It is actionable. Those are two things that we prize highly when it comes to feedback. But it’s not relevant. It’s not appropriate. It won’t help my friend be better at working events in the future because it’s about something that has nothing to do with his work.

This story was a catalyst for me. It left me thinking about the ways that we can work on improving our feedback culture. One of them is by striving to make sure that our comments are relevant and meaningful in addition to being specific and actionable. Here are three of my strategies:

Focus on Goals.
Most of the people that we’re working with at an event have goals. Sometimes they’re simple, like not making mistakes; and sometimes they don’t want to share them for any number of reasons. When I judge events, I usually put a post up in the forums a week or two before the event so my staffmates can post their goals for the event. There are many reasons for this, like encouraging people to think about and share their goals, but my motivations also run deeper.

I want to know how I can help others achieve their goals, and I want to know what kinds of feedback they’ll find most helpful. If someone’s working on their ruling delivery, I know that shadowing their calls is probably going to be a better use of my time than shadowing someone whose goal is to take enough notes to write a good tournament report after the event. For that second someone, my feedback is probably better saved for their report when they post it.

Knowing what someone’s goals are, whether they’ve asked you specifically for feedback or not, is probably the best way to focus our feedback so that it’s meaningful. Remember, providing feedback isn’t about us or our experience or our goals. It’s about the event and the people around us. Take the time to learn what they’re trying to accomplish, and try to put yourself in a position to notice when they’re working on it. That might mean asking to be assigned to someone’s team or paired with them so you can stay close together on the floor. It might mean helping them process their thoughts about the event after their shift is over, or helping them with reviews or reports when you both go home. Almost always, it means providing your observations on their work, things they might not have the perspective to see.

Focus on Qualities of Level X.
Sometimes we don’t know what our friends’ and colleagues’ goals are, and sometimes we notice something that needs to be said anyway. Sometimes, we forget to ask for specific feedback before the event starts, and we ask our my teammates at the end of the shift if they have any comments for us. What then?

The benchmarks for judge levels provide a reasonable way to focus our observations from the day into useful, meaningful feedback. The [O] Judge Levels page lists expectations and requirements for each level, and tying observations and suggestions to those can be a helpful way to maintain focus, rather than just dumping everything we see on our unwary feedback recipients.

Gathering thoughts and observations and fitting them into this kind of specific framework might take a couple minutes, and spending that time is worth it. It helps filter out the observations that aren’t particularly useful and allows more time to figure out which observations are worth highlighting and discussing with them. Keep in mind, though, that using their current level might not be the best way to approach this. If someone wants to advance, you might want to focus your feedback toward the expectations of the level they want to achieve, rather than their current level.

Using their event role as a framework works, too. Is this your team lead? Someone working as a head judge for their largest event ever? Feedback can focus on the ways they succeeded or almost succeeded or didn’t succeed at their tasks for the day.

This is probably the way that I see feedback given most often, and it’s my fallback strategy if I can’t comment on a judge’s specific goals. I also tend to use it if I notice someone really overperforming or really underperforming for either their role or their level.

Focus on Awesome Things and Not Awesome Things.
I like stories, so I’m going to tell another one. It’s more of a Not Awesome story, but it has a sweet outcome, so bear with me.

I was scorekeeping an event. Around my computer, a kind of pedantic rules question had come up, and one of the sides leads snapped. It was something that was really, really out of character for this particular person, and I suspected that part of it was because we’re friends and he felt like he could just cut through the wordplay and nonsense that tends to come up around these conversations. But it happened at the stage with other judges and stage staff around, and it was unprofessional. When I had a few extra minutes, I found that judge, and we went for a stroll around the edge of the room. I explained how it looked from where I sat, and I asked him what was going on. It turned out that his day had been particularly bad. Staffing assignments kept getting switched around, the main event leads weren’t communicating, and he felt like he had to scramble to make things happen, all with a fairly aggressive event schedule.

With that knowledge, I could work on addressing the underlying problem. Sometimes things transcend goals and levels and roles. Those things are either really good or really bad, and they deserve notice. Bringing up Not Awesome Things can be hard, especially with your friends. Telling people that they made a huge mistake doesn’t help much–they probably already know. What does help is focusing on their experience of events instead of yours.

Talking about Awesome Things, on the other hand is much easier. The Exemplar Program is an official channel for the Awesome Things part, though not all Awesome Things get recognized. They should, even if Exemplar isn’t an option. The only tricky thing about Awesome Things is remembering to talk about them–it’s far too easy to notice the things that we’re doing wrong instead.

What does help is getting to the bottom of why these things are happening, and, hopefully, having some insight or guidance to provide. We can do more good and invite more growth by focusing on the whys and hows instead of the whats.

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