Life at Jama

The Evolving Art Of Feedback

Megan Bigelow | November 4, 2016

Getting feedback is very, very hard. My first memory of professional feedback was when I was 16, working at the drive-thru window at Burgerville. After only an hour of working away from the fryer and direct with the customer, my manager whisked me aside to tell me I had a bad attitude and needed to be friendlier. I was mortified, angry and ashamed. Me? Bad attitude?! I couldn’t afford to lose my job — I had to pay for gas money after all — and the thought of being relegated to the deep fryer for the remainder of my high school years was horrifying. I had no choice but to be “friendlier.” I did, and a funny thing happened. I went from hating my job to loving my job. You couldn’t peel me away from the drive-thru window!

While I was too inexperienced to realize that feedback was going to be a crucial aspect of my growth, I was lucky that I accepted it and moved on. It wasn’t until many years later that I finally realized how important feedback was. About three years ago, I was working for a San Franciso-based company out of the Portland area. All of my leadership was based in San Francisco — which meant I rarely saw them — and my only regular connection back to the mothership was 1:1s with my direct manager. One afternoon, on a regularly scheduled call, he dropped the feedback that changed my life. It went something like this:

Boss: I recently spoke to our Director (his boss, my boss’ boss) and he mentioned that you had a “sharp edge” in one of our meetings with executives.

Me: What does “sharp edge” even mean?

Boss: I’m not sure.

Once the call ended, I sat in a conference room and cried. I felt completely helpless in the face of a phrase that I had no idea what it even meant. I had no examples, no frame of reference, nothing to help me learn or understand where the feedback had come from. Nothing. I kept hearing the words ring through my head the rest of the day. I was sure, since it was my boss’ boss that was saying it, that my career was over. That night, I was able to get my mentor on a call. I should explain that my mentor, who is still one of my mentors today, is an accomplished, experienced, executive from the Bay area. His direct choice of words is both refreshing and earth-shattering. I recounted the story to him while driving the long commute home. After all my words and tears, he said to me: “Feedback is a gift. You may not like it or agree with it, but it is a gift, and be thankful for it.”

How to give feedbackTo be honest, I felt even worse after hearing that. Since I trusted he knew what he was saying, though at the time I didn’t believe him, I decided to sit with his words. In time, the pang of the words “sharp edge” faded and I realized what he meant. When you have the opportunity to hear what people are saying about you, your work, or anything you are involved with, if you listen, you will gain invaluable insights into what is working and what isn’t. The gift is that you can only improve, iterate and learn when you have information to guide you. Granted, some feedback is more actionable than others and some feedback is just plain not true. The beauty lies wherein it is your choice to accept the feedback or not. Pro tip: If the words strike a nerve, use it as a sign to sit with them and find out why.

This experience also taught me the importance of giving feedback. I never want anyone to experience the “sharp edge feedback” effect based on words I have said about them to someone else. It takes courage to give someone feedback and a tremendous amount of courage to listen and provide gratitude to feedback given to you.

In case you are wondering, I never did learn what “sharp edge” meant or why those words were used to describe me.

So what does this have to do with PDX Women in Tech? Everything! Take a look at the picture below from the PDXWIT August Happy Hour. What do you notice? When I saw it for the first time, I was struck by my smile. A truly authentic and proud smile.

How to give feedback

One of our photographers, Meghan Lewis, managed to capture me at a moment where I felt authentic pride, happiness, and comfort. The reason? It was because our August 2016 Happy Hour at CorSource was a culmination of many things, all a result of voraciously asking for feedback, sometimes giving and mostly receiving.

These are some of the successful changes to PDXWIT that have happened as a direct result of feedback…

  • The announcement of our official 501c3 status: People had been telling me for years I needed to do this. I finally listened.
  • Lightning Speakers: Again, people had been asking for years to have speakers at our events. While we had been doing this for a few months, August felt like the first time we treated it formally and it was exceptionally well-received.
  • We announced that the Mentorship Program had over 350+ members. As I mentioned in a recent guest blog for TAO, the only reason this program exists is due to survey feedback.
  • We launched our History Spotlight featuring Ada Lovelace. This was based on a combination of having attended the United State of Women Summit and being repeatedly told by members that they were looking for a deeper connection with the context of where we are and how far we’ve come.
  • We finally placed the food separately from the beverages. Yes, while this sounds minor, it created a vibe and flow like I’ve never experienced. After months of receiving survey feedback stating that the events were too loud and crowded, we started receiving feedback on how amazingly easy it was to navigate and hear in a crowd of 167 people!
  • The Welcoming Committee, a group we established after receiving feedback the events were too intimidating due to the size, transitioned into the role of event experience, welcoming people, engaging the wallflowers, and managing noise during the speaking segment. The next phase of this includes networking themes to make it easier for people to start conversations with one another.

Everything we do with PDXWIT is based on feedback from our community through surveys, coffee meetings, phone conversations and emails. This continuous cycle of feedback can be traced back to the words “sharp edge.” Without that painful experience, I wouldn’t have learned to treat feedback as a gift and thus learned to seek it out rather than wait for it. Without it, PDXWIT may still be the small community-based group meeting monthly at no-host bars, instead of the non-profit organization that is changing the lives of Portland women in tech.

Oh and if you have feedback, I urge you to reach out to me or one of our board members. We’d love to hear from you.

PS. I should also add that this article started out very differently on a totally different topic. Before publishing, I requested one of my trusted advisors to review it and based on her response, you can see below that her feedback is what got me thinking about writing about feedback.

How to give feedback

This article was originally published on Medium.