Hearing you’re doing a good job matters. Like anyone, there have been plenty of times when I’ve felt disinvested from a job, when I’ve lacked motivation or felt disconnected. There are lots of reasons why those feelings can arise in anyone, but one that triggers them often is a lack of feedback.

If someone (your manager, for example) seems uninterested in your work or doesn’t appreciate the effort you put in, then it’s likely to make you feel demoralised. In web development, personally I feel that junior team members are less frequently singled out for praise, as often they are working on less critical tasks, and so the impact of their work is less visible. That’s part of the reason why management or peer reviews are so important, and employees should be encouraged to keep a log of their achievements.

Feedback isn’t just about hearing whether you’re doing a good job though. In the case of giving a talk, for instance, it could be hearing that someone (directly or indirectly) learned from you, or felt inspired enough to apply something you demonstrated to their own work. Sometimes the “feedback” is hearing how something you’ve built has touched someone, or made their lives better. One of the best pieces of feedback I’ve received in response to a piece of work was for a website that enabled parents who have lost children to post a tribute to them online. But it could also be simply hearing that you’ve made it easier for a person to accomplish a task that was previously difficult — like filing a tax return, or claiming a disability benefit. Even just the fact of something you’ve done getting shared a bunch of times on social media — that’s all feedback, and at the very least acknowledges you’ve had an impact on the world.

Feedback doesn’t only need to be based on outcomes either. Good feedback can mean acknowledging that someone has done their job while facing an extraordinary number of obstacles, or difficult life circumstances.

Feedback and conference talks

Feedback drastically changes how I feel about giving talks. I was discussing this recently with a group of friends, and many of us feel exactly the same way: the months and weeks of preparation leading up to a talk are frequently excruciating, with many of us regretting signing up for the talk in the first place. During that time of planning, there is no feedback. It’s easy to get stuck in a loop inside your head, where you feel like you’re saying nothing new. But receiving feedback from attendees after a talk is what makes it all worth it. Knowing you’ve helped someone learn something new, or empowered them to try something out, is a wonderful feeling. Plus, hardly anyone ever tells you when your talk was rubbish, so the feedback is nearly always positive.

Feedback in other aspects of life

One of the hardest aspects of being a parent is the lack of direct feedback. Of course, seeing your child (hopefully) grow into a happy and well-rounded human being is its own reward. But day-to-day it can be thankless, and a full-time, stay-at-home parent is rarely told they’re doing a good job, even though it’s relentless, and you don’t get to clock off at 5pm. Caring for another human is criminally undervalued in western societies, and sadly we have a culture of taking those who do it for granted. This can perhaps be even more jarring for women (and it’s often women) who previously had high-flying careers and were well-regarded in their roles, and find themselves suddenly without any framework with which to measure their success.

Receiving feedback from friends and family, even outside of our area of expertise, can be validating. Let’s not be afraid to tell someone when we think they’re incredible.

Negative feedback

We tend to feel negative feedback far more deeply than positive feedback, and its effects can be difficult to shake off. Badly-framed negative feedback can be incredibly demoralising to the receiver, and paradoxically can have the effect of making them perform worse, rather than better. Many of us will, at some point, have been told to “grow a thicker skin”. While learning to be resilient to fair criticism is a necessary part of life, we are all human, and it’s arguably also the responsibility of the giver of feedback to do so with kindness and empathy. Feedback should be constructive and help formulate a clear path forward for the receiver to improve. This kind of feedback can even be empowering when framed as an opportunity for personal growth.

I’m not a manager, and the idea of having to deliver negative feedback sounds to me like one of the most daunting parts of the job. Lara Hogan has written extensively about giving and receiving feedback, and her blog is full of sage advice.

Types of feedback

The way we give and receive feedback can matter too. Think about how you respond best to feedback. Do you prefer written feedback or verbal? In-person or remote? Direct or indirect? Speaking personally, I sometimes find it difficult to know what to do when someone gives me positive feedback in person, whereas written feedback is something I can process in my own time and revisit when I’m feeling unsure of myself. I get a warm glow from people sharing my work online (or even better, sharing something “inspired by” my work), but tend to feel overwhelmed when a lot of people I don’t know well message me directly with feedback and expect a response. If someone has a valid criticism of my work though, I’d prefer them to message me privately and give me the time and space to process their feedback before I formulate a response.

You might have similar preferences, or yours might be completely different. If you’re responsible for delivering feedback at work, it might make sense to ask your direct reports how they prefer to receive feedback, and take that on board.

In conclusion

Both giving and receiving feedback are skills that few of us are born with. We all need to work on them, and the more we do it, the more it becomes a habit. Part of the reason why I love the web dev community I’m part of is the propensity for sharing each other’s work, spurring on even more creativity. It would be great to propagate that sense of community throughout every part of life, and let people know when we appreciate them. It’s something I’m going to try to do more often.