Friday, December 2, 2011

Turn Up the Feedback

Americans are never shy about giving feedback. They will tell you their opinions on everything, from whether you should have an abortion to how they rate your driving skills. I grew up in this environment where feedback, both positive and negative, was continual. Obviously, when one is a student in school, feedback is ongoing. But this climate of feedback continues even into adulthood and on the job in the US.

At my previous employer, in Michigan, we were practically required to send complimentary e-mails to our co-workers whenever they did something great, and we were supposed to copy the whole department. Here is an example of an e-mail my boss received from one of my co-workers during that time.

“I just want you to know how impressed I was when I was proof-reading Mary’s Office XP document. I asked her if she used verbiage and/or text from other documents and she said that she did the research herself and composed the whole thing herself. That is quite amazing and that makes her an excellent resource to this department.”

This is just one typical example of about 100 such e-mails I received while working in that department for four years. Of course, I sent just as many e-mails to co-workers and their bosses myself. It became a habit.

On the soccer field in my women’s rec league in Michigan, we always had new gals joining the team who had never played before. While I would be lying if I said that the more experienced players’ frustrations never surfaced during games, I am being honest when I say that these new players were generally overwhelmed with the amount of positive feedback. It was as if we experienced players focused on finding all the positives in what the newbies were doing on the field and only commented on that, or made sure we mentioned these accolades before we got into any gentle constructive criticism.

One persistent theme of this blog has been that the Canadians I’ve encountered seem to keep to themselves more. They don’t advertise their political beliefs on their car bumpers. They don’t ask lots of personal questions. When I was in Girl Scouts and we learned about using pocket knives, we were taught to extend our arm out from our side and make a 360 degree turn with our arm outstretched to make sure we had a “safety circle” so that we would not be in danger of accidentally injuring anyone with our knives. I feel as if most Canadians are constantly keeping a figurative safety circle around them. Sarah claims that this is an example of the British influence in Canada, that the British behave in just as standoffish a manner, if not more so. I always wondered why Sarah’s family makes fun of me by imitating me saying “good job!” I guess that’s a phrase I use often, and with good reason because I never pass up an opportunity to tell someone I think they’ve done well.

In my current position at the insurance company in Canada, I have sent several e-mails to my colleagues and their managers when I feel written praise is warranted. This type of communication is great to save in your personnel file for the end of the year review. And, I think a boss should know when one of their reports is doing something especially well. Much to my surprise, on almost every occasion, these e-mails have only led to stunned silence.

In one case, after sending such an e-mail to a manager, she replied to me, copied my own boss, and chastised me for not copying my own boss on the original message. This came as a surprise because my own boss was in no way involved in the interaction. There was no “thanks for the feedback” or “yes, I agree Cristina is an asset to the company.” Instead I was roundly reprimanded and I felt as if I had breached corporate etiquette.

On other occasions, I have sent the e-mails to colleagues only to get no reply at all, and once I even got a reply from the co-worker in question—she was embarrassed that I had sent a complimentary e-mail to her boss. Additionally, I have never, in over three years in the Canadian workplace, received an e-mail anything like the one I quoted above.

I began to wonder if it was just the corporate culture where I work, but then I started thinking about one of my greatest frustrations since I’ve moved to this country—playing hockey.

Playing ice hockey is not easy. It has been a constant challenge for me, as someone who did not grow up playing hockey or even ice skating. I learned to ice skate when I was 34. I started playing hockey at 35. I still am learning and still have a long way to go. Every game is a massive challenge for me physically and emotionally. After most games, I feel useless and as if I’m just making a fool of myself. I can feel myself getting ever more frustrated, but until recently I couldn’t pinpoint why. I thought about all those newbies who used to play soccer with us in Michigan, and then I recognized the difference—feedback.

The feedback I’ve had during hockey has been mainly limited to the rare “MJ, what position ARE you playing????” and “stay with your point” and “keep your stick on the ice” and “don’t pass on the blue line.” The feedback I do get seems to center on either what I’m doing wrong or how I’m confusing my teammates. I do remember a time when it was a struggle for me just to skate down the ice without falling. Even though I am past that now, and I suspect I’ve improved a great deal, I have little evidence other than my own perceptions and Sarah’s comments (and she’s no hockey expert either). Every once in a while, someone will tell me how much I’ve improved, but I can’t remember the last time anyone in hockey told me anything specific I was doing correctly during games. Have I improved just because I don’t fall as much?

So far, knock on wood, my performance reviews at work have all been stellar. Yet, this is always a surprise to me as it is annual feedback. I really have no indication throughout the year how my performance is perceived. I would imagine that if I should get a negative performance review at work, that would come as just as much of a surprise.

And, yes, I know that I can always just ask those around me for feedback. But, as someone who comes from a climate where feedback is constant and unsolicited, asking for feedback seems just as unnatural to me as giving feedback seems to the people with whom I work and play here.

This coming Monday, my company launches a new internal site that is designed solely to provide a forum for giving positive feedback to co-workers. I find it interesting that this site has been created when such feedback could just have been given through e-mail or verbally all along. I remember how awkward I felt the first time I stepped onto the ice rink in my skates and hockey gear. I wonder if this is how some of my colleagues will feel when they attempt to use this site to praise a co-worker. One thing I can say for sure is that my goal is to be the first one to use the site, and I plan to give positive feedback to those co-workers of mine who are most deserving—so much so that the site crashes on its first day online!

1 comment:

MJB said...

Update--so, on the first day of the co-worker appreciation site, I have sent 13 notes of appreciation. The system hasn't crashed yet, so I guess I shall send more!