How to ask for feedback that might be hard to hear

Recently I’ve been giving a talk on impostor syndrome. As part of that, I discuss strengths and shortcomings.

An approach to recognising shortcomings should be a good thing. Without recognising your shortcomings we will never truly recognise our strengths.

When we are able to see both, the resulting growth is incredible.

Failing to provide vital feedback

As humans, we find it hard to look introspectively. For many, self-awareness is a fluffy term that we shy away from.

Generally, the normal British way to provide feedback is to only provide the good bits. We fail to deliver vital pieces of information that might be hard for the other person to hear. We shy away to not hurt a person’s feelings.

By not being honest behaviours continue. These lead to a bad working environment, broken relationships or worse.

Giving permission

My belief is that we must reframe our thinking on giving and receiving feedback. We have to break the cycle which has continued for years in the workplace. We have to provide feedback that might be hard to hear.

We must give permission.

And it’s hard.

As much as it is hard to provide, it’s also hard to receive that type of feedback.

There’s an open-mindedness required.

Here’s the generalistic normal way a person may think about it…

What if they give me bad feedback and I have to let my manager know? I’ll get marked down or my performance will be stopped.

Here’s the re-framed version…

If I give them permission to provide me with feedback that I might have usually found hard to hear, can I use it as a strength? There may be things I can work with or on to make me a better person, a better colleague. I can use it to ask for help and support that I might not have recognised.

How to ask for the feedback

You can ask for this feedback at any time, you can do this with friends, family and colleagues. In work, mid-year or end of year reviews can be a good time to do a peer review.

As part of my teams mid-year reviews, I’ve nudged them all to ask for feedback that may be hard to hear. There’s a way to do it which also gives permission for the other person to feel comfortable about doing so. To help, I wrote out a message for the team to use as a baseline and you can use it too.

Hi X,
I have my mid-year review coming up and I’d like to get feedback from my peers. I’m really looking for honest feedback and need it to make sure I can continue to progress. I’m looking for all feedback, no matter what end of the scale it is, I give you my permission to send this directly to me and I won’t take it personally.

We then go through the feedback and I ask each member to give me their thoughts on the feedback they’ve received. It’s always interesting to see how they take the feedback and what they’re going to do with it.

This whole process is constructive. It will enable you to become better and you will see your personal and professional growth speed up.

Creating a mentor programme

The back story

Throughout my career I’ve advertently or inadvertantly acted as a mentor for someone. That’s 13 years of caring and nurturing many different personalities.
In the last two years I have broken through my impostor syndrome. I finally had room to accept that I had a mentor, even if they didn’t know it.
In the past I’d have tried to become that person thinking that if I was them, then I’d be as good as them.
That’s the wrong way to think about it. As humans, we’re unique in own right. We have different skills, different strengths and different short-comings.
If I could use my mentor to help develop my skills and evolve my strengths I would be in an excellent position. And if they could help me recognise any short-comings my growth could be interstellar.
I became a sponge.
Watching and listening became more key and these were skills I was already good at. My development has increased ten-fold. I fulfilled my own user needs.

Creating the programme

I had been the guinea pig. So now to focus on the people in my charge.
The personal and professional development of my team is paramount. I’m proud to say that I know each member of my team well enough to know what makes them tick.
One afternoon I sat down and made a 3 column table.
  • Column 1 – names of the people on my team
  • Column 2 – the skills, strength and short-comings I’d recognised
  • Column 3 – names of people who could suit as being a mentor to the team member
There were two simple rules.
  1. The mentor must be in a different area or department of government to that of the mentee
  2. The mentor must be at least 1 if not 2 levels above the mentee’s experience

Contacting potential mentors

I knew the people I was contacting. We’d likely have crossed paths somewhere in government or I’d had coffee with them. That isn’t to say that these people weren’t already mentors or had the time to do so.
The initial contact was made over Slack or email and went something like this;
Hi X, I mentioned I was setting up a mentor programme for my team. I’m on the hunt for mentors and you were on my list. Is it something you’re doing now, would think about doing or willing to do? I think it could be something like a 1hr hangout every six weeks with the mentee?
The response was better than expected. Everyone wanted to get involved.
There was something interesting about contacting the potential mentors. A couple replied back saying they were unsure if they had anything to offer.
I became a mentor again.
I jumped on the phone to guide and explain the process and my vision of what a future could look like. I’ll take you through that in a future post.

Can you set up a mentor programme?

Of course you can. I’ve shown how simple it was.
I will say that you may have one challenge. The matching.
If you don’t know your individual team members well enough the idea will become unstuck.
If you don’t know the potential mentors well enough the idea will become unstuck.
Take it slow, it’s a bit like a chess game.
If you have any questions, drop me a DM or an email.

Geek Mental Help Week 2017: Newcastle

I am organising Newcastle’s first Geek Mental Help Week event. It will take place at the Mining Institute in Newcastle on 3 October 2017 at 6pm.

What is Geek Mental Help Week?

It is a week-long series of articles, podcasts and events about mental health issues. We’ll hear stories from those who suffer as well as those who care for us and find out how to help.


Mental health is still a taboo subject. It’s often thought that because we ‘work behind computers’ that our jobs are not stressful. Mental health affects everyone from all walks of life. No one is immune.

Geek Mental Help Week gives people a voice. More importantly, it starts the open communication the topic needs.

Over the past couple of months I’ve been touring the UK giving a talk on Impostor Syndrome for that very reason.

Who will be speaking at the event?

The event is being supported by Colin Oakley, a Front-end Developer at DWP Digital in Newcastle. Colin co-organises Frontend NE. I’ll be hosting the event and have invited a few people to speak:

Register for a place

The more we talk about mental health, the more we can break down the stigma that surrounds it. By attending you can add your voice to the conversation or simply listen to what others have to say.

If you’d like to attend, register for a place.

The day that Ben left

Today, Friday, is the day that Ben Holliday leaves the Department for Work and Pensions.
In one way, it’s a sad day. Ben will be a huge miss within the team, but also a miss within the wider realms of government. An influential voice with experience to match. His work and effort has had a positive impact on the whole design community whether they know it or not.
For my last two years in government, Ben has been a strong leader, mentor and friend. He spent time supporting me at my lowest, and pushing me at my highest. I spent time watching him work, learning how to articulate the thoughts in my head to a larger group of people. He helped me figure out the maze that is government and where to focus my energy. He left the department after making me a better, stronger, more experienced person than I was.
And as much as it is sad, there is also a bright future ahead. There have been some strong personalities who have left Government since I joined. It is often said that this could cause huge repercussions. It never does. Yes, we will miss those people, but we should treat it like a changing of the guard.
As long as there are enough of us left to pick up the flag and keep making our line in the sand, we’ll be ok. We will keep moving forward.
Thank you, Ben. A million times over.
For the rest of us, we have much work to do, let’s #keepgoing.

2 years ago

2 years ago I started my first day working at the Department for Work and Pensions. It’s been a wild ride with no sign it’s slowing down.

I’m enjoying every minute.

For the first 10 days of my time in the department, I made a point of posting some thoughts and observations in the form of a tweet per day. I kept them and thought this was a better time than any to take a look back.

Day 1: 1st Day was great, topped off by catching up with @csswizardry over Thai food.

Day 2: 2nd day at @DigitalDWP, there’s a tremendous amount of people that really care and strive to make a real difference for users.

Day 3: There are no ego’s in Government Design teams, everyone cares and shares. #ofthegovernment

Day 4: The need to make Gov Services better doesn’t stop with Designers. User Researchers, Product Owners, FED’s and more work in cohesion.

Day 5: Proud of working as part of a multidisciplinary team who aren’t just passionate but they’re emotionally invested. #ofthegovernment

Day 6: Iterate. #ofthegovernment

Day 7: You can’t set an assumption in stone unless you’ve done your research on it. It’s also ok to have assumptions.

Day 8: It’s not just your team and service, Government Digital teams communicate A LOT to build a better digital service. #ofthegovernment

Day 9: No matter how simple *you* think something is, user research will always inform you of a reality. #ofthegovernment

Day 10: Proper design challenges, stuff that matters. #ofthegovernment

To sum it up

Day 10 sums it all up. I’m two years in and we still have ‘proper’ design challenges on ‘stuff’ that really matters. More now than ever.

There’s a lot of hard work ahead of us. We’re only just getting started.

I’ll be hiring soon.



Service Goals

A little under two years ago, I joined Government at the Department for Work and Pensions and began work on the Get your State Pension service.

The team had just finished their discovery work. Anna had done some excellent user research and clearly presented the user needs for the service.

Based on the user needs we could see that people needed to be prompted or nudged, they needed to be authenticated to make sure they were getting ‘their’ pension, they needed to give us the right details (change in marital status matters) and then they need to do something like submit their application/request.

It sounds quite simple, but not everything is simple in Government. That’s our problem, not our users. For them we want to make it easy and seamless and most importantly fullfil their need.

Our Goals

At the time and as a multi-disciplinary team we created service goals to make sure we always had focus. These were;

  • It works – it doesn’t crash and the end result happens as expected
  • It’s simple – users can navigate through with ease
  • It’s trusted – users believe the data they see
  • It’s not a long process – when we need to confirm details we don’t make the user feel it’s a massive thing

How has it worked out?

Over the last six months as I began to manage and lead the interaction design team at DWP, I stepped further away from the service team but still keeping an eye on the outcomes.

I’m proud to say that the goals have been realised. The service is in private beta and whilst a lot has changed, overall the service is still simple to use and the analytics show that it’s not a very long process at all.

Catherine Hope has started a series of articles talking about using analytics on the Get your State Pension service.

What is the hardest part of running a design team?

This was cross posted from Quora where I’m answering questions on design leadership.

I don’t think anything is ‘hard’ per sè. There are various challenges of running large teams and then even more for running large teams in different locations.

It all boils down to communication.

If you’re an effective leader, with solid communication skills and are focused on making your team better than you are then you’re well on your way.

Create a community

This should be the base of your role, everything stacks on top of it. Get the right balance of bringing the team together face-to-face and virtually. Make sure they’re open with their work and are also effective communicators

Remove blockers

Your team can’t do their best work when they’re constantly embattled with silly processes

Get a seat at the table

Sell/Preach the value of your profession up the chain, these days in any organisation, design should have a seat at the table

Develop your team

To develop your team you have to know them. Know them well enough so the personal and professional development becomes easy for you to support them with.

Listen to your team

They’re on the front line, often working with other professions and personalities in multi-disciplinary teams. Support them.

Remember your role

You’re not supposed to be there until you retire. You’re there to let everyone in your team have the chance at taking your job at some point in their career.

Hope that helps. If you want to know more, send me an email.

Complaining is nothing without action.

Complaining is nothing without action.

If you’re passionate enough to complain, then you have an equal amount of passion to lean in, engage and make something better.

Your greatest supporters WILL NOT be the ones helping you to complain or the ones listening to you complain.

Your greatest supporters WILL be those helping to channel your passion and enabling you to succeed.

So, the next time you want to complain, ask yourself if it’s worth complaining, and if it is, use that passion, lean in, engage and put a dent in the universe.