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How to effectively give significant feedback as a leader

This post lists the key insights from this article, by the editor of Counter Intuition, Alicia Liu

Good management is difficult to master, and managers have the particularly difficult responsibility of providing significant feedback. Learning how to effectively give and receive significant feedback is the foundation for personal development and growth as a leader.

Start with Yourself

Before giving any feedback, it’s important to understand that every relationship is two-sided. If you’re having interpersonal issues while working with someone, it’s just as much on you as it is on them to change, in order to get to a better working relationship.

It’s far easier to change yourself than it is someone else.

As the manager, model the behavior you want to see by proactively asking for feedback, and not only that, acting on it.

One of the hardest parts of becoming a better person and a great leader is developing self-awareness. You are a leader because you have many strengths. However, it is also those same strengths that can be a source for blind spots. Our blind spots are the biggest hindrances to personal development, because they’re literally areas we cannot see.

Changing yourself leads to change in others.

As a manager, it is essential to be thinking about how you may be treating people differently. While unconscious bias is unconscious, being open to the idea that you are introducing bias in how you treat people, is the first step to addressing the problem and developing more self-awareness.

Your expectations drive other people’s behavior.

Examine whether your expectations of others are setting them up for success and helping them achieve your team’s goals. It’s much easier to give feedback later when you have agreed on expectations beforehand.

Giving Critical Feedback

Giving critical feedback is a key management function, but often difficult to do well. It can feel like you’re criticizing and making someone feel bad. However, telling someone about the problematic behavior you have observed is an essential first step to addressing it at the root. If they don’t know their behavior is causing problems, they don’t have a chance to change and correct it. Giving this feedback can feel very uncomfortable, but the discomfort you feel in the moment is much more preferable than dealing with significantly bigger issues in the future due to avoiding giving feedback.

1. Radical Candor’s framework

The Radical Candor framework by Kim Scott is useful here. The tech industry, and more broadly American businesses, generally tend to veer towards obnoxious aggression — being brutally honest without regard for how people may feel. Yes, you can still achieve results, but at the expense of many people suffering unnecessarily.

A degenerate form of obnoxious aggression is manipulative insincerity — not caring about people and not being direct. If you find yourself under a manipulative manager or in an organization where manipulative insincerity is rampant, I would recommend changing managers or jobs as quickly as you’re able.

On the other end, ruinous empathy — caring a lot about people and being extra nice — is counter-productive, because people are not telling each other what’s wrong, for fear of making each other feel bad. Ultimately, ruinous empathy can be even worse than obnoxious aggression, because people don’t hear the feedback they need to, in order to improve. The organization stagnates, and eventually declines as high performers leave, because there is no growth.

Don’t be nice, be kind — Being nice is to be agreeable, to please others. Being nice is glossing over difficulties to avoid making people feel uncomfortable. Being nice could even be seen as selfish— to spare oneself the discomfort of doing something difficult, and say nothing at all. In contrast, you cannot be kind by doing nothing. Being kind necessitates benevolent action, and this may require being disagreeable. Telling someone who is failing that they are failing is undoubtably uncomfortable to say and displeasing to hear. Coupling that feedback with helping them understand why and how to overcome this challenge, is a great act of kindness.

Don’t do “The Sandwich” — Do not put critical feedback in between layers of positive feedback in an effort to make someone feel better about the critical feedback. This sends mixed signals instead of being direct. At worst, the recipient doesn’t hear the feedback at all, and instead thinks they are performing even better than they thought, and your feedback backfired.

Don’t jump into problem solving — When you see a problem with someone, don’t start problem-solving right away, at the expense of skipping giving necessary feedback. Give the other person space to hear your feedback and decide what to do. Similarly, if people bring you problems, you don’t have to come up with a solution right away. Take time to digest the information, and then decide what to do.

2. Preparing to Give Feedback

This grid, created by a cognitive psychologist LeeAnn Renninger, is a useful framework that walks you through preparing to give feedback. For significant feedback, consider using this framework to write down what you want to say, before delivering it.

3. Create Space for Giving Feedback

While you should deliver feedback early and often, for significant feedback, you should deliver it in person during a scheduled time, such as your 1-on-1, and ensure that you have enough time to cover the amount of feedback you have.

In the meeting, before you’re about to deliver the feedback, give the receiver a heads up that you’re about to give feedback, e.g. “I have some feedback for you”. Also check in with yourself to ensure you are in a good mental space — you’re not feeling defensive, you’re calm and receptive. If the receiver is defensive or not taking the feedback well, continue to practice active listening, re-focus the conversation on shared goals, and ensure that you do what you can to create a safe space for this conversation.

4. Make Feedback Concrete

Focus on actions and behavior that you’ve observed or what you have verified based on credible feedback from others. Provide explicit examples. Start statements with “I” not “You”. For example:

  • “This is what I have observed…”
  • “Let’s talk through <scenario> when you did <behavior>…”
  • “This is input from people who have worked with you…”
  • “This is how I think you did on <recent work>…”

Don’t personalize — Do not assign interpretation to the other person’s behavior. For example, if person X didn’t do something, do not interpret that to mean person X doesn’t care about doing that thing. Just ask person X why they didn’t do it, when you expected them to. (This is where having predetermined shared expectations is very useful!) Invite person X to share why.

Do not “label” someone — For example, if person X consistently doesn’t do Y, and you keep telling them to do Y, do not label them as “person X is a careless thoughtless person.” Try to understand why and dig deeper. (See Deeper Feedback section.)

Do not use “blur” words — Blur words are words that need to be defined further. For example, don’t say “You didn’t run the meeting well.” Well is a blur word. What does a well-run meeting mean? Instead, say what specifically you didn’t like about the meeting — did it go off topic, was there lack of preparation, were necessary people not invited, did you fail to get to an outcome, etc. Another example, “We need more clarity on the roadmap.” What about the roadmap is not clear? When preparing to give feedback, you need to do the work of getting specific on what it is you’re giving feedback about. Don’t expect people to read your mind.

5. Connect the Behavior to the Bigger Picture

Connect your feedback to how their behavior is affecting the team or the team’s ability to achieve its goals. Painting a broader picture of impact helps the receiver to digest and enact changes. If you cannot get them to agree to shared goals, then you may have done a poor job of setting expectations and aligning the team beforehand, or there is a mismatch between the person and the role you want them to play on the team or at the company. (See Deeper Feedback section.)

6. Don’t Make it About Being Right or Wrong

Whatever you do, don’t make giving feedback about you being right and them being wrong. You’re providing your perspective, what you have observed, and what you want to achieve together. Then you want to create a space for them to bring their perspective and align on shared goals.

7. Continuously Deliver Feedback

After you have given feedback, continue to give feedback and reinforce. Do not think that because you’ve told someone once, it’s mission accomplished. Your job is to ensure the feedback is not just said, but heard by the other party. You need to reinforce your feedback in and outside of 1-on-1s, and include recognition of changes they make in response to your feedback.

Repeat yourself — You may feel like you’re repeating yourself, but if a person is coming from a different place where they’re very used to doing something a certain way, they are going to need to hear it multiple times to change that behavior.

Give feedback early and often — When you start seeing a problem, even if it’s small, bring it up. You don’t want to wait so long that someone becomes really surprised by the quantity of feedback. At worst, your relationship could deteriorate to a point where they no longer trust you, and any feedback you give is ineffective.

Deeper Feedback

People do things a certain way for a reason, because they think it’s how something should be done. Instead of focusing feedback on what to doe.g. a lot of small corrections of “stop doing X”, “do Y this way”, etc., you can be more effective by understanding the reasons behind their behavior, the why.

Helping the other person connect those dots better equips them for how to address the feedback themselves.

You may discover a core misalignment in motivation or ability— the work is not aligned with their larger goals or there is a fundamental mismatch in expectations and their current skillset.

Limitations of Feedback

Many behaviors are deep-rooted, and a person doesn’t change simply because you have told them to. As a manager, if you observe that a behavior isn’t changing after repeated feedback, you may need to consider supplementing the feedback with a process, more support, or a structural or organizational change. Finally, if you’re unable to deal with an issue within your team with the tools you have, escalate it to your manager. If you suspect something could be a deeper issue, giving your manager a heads up in advance is a good idea even if it’s not actionable for them right away.

Going Beyond Feedback for a team

When you want to change behavior at a team level, it’s insufficient to just tell people to behave differently, maybe they will for a short time, but then they will revert to their previous behavior.

To reinforce the behavior you want to see, create processes and use tools to make the desired behavior into a habit. An example from engineering is we want engineers to think about shipping in smaller increments. Ways to enforce that is to always break down large tasks into small chunks during planning, by limiting the size of pull requests, to have tools that make continuous delivery possible, etc.

Giving Praise

Just as important as giving critical feedback is giving praise to reinforce positive behaviors, actions, and impact to the team and company. In practice this is generally easy, giving praise feels great! There are some guidelines here also:

  • Check how the person likes to hear positive feedback. Some people don’t like it in a public setting and may feel embarrassed. A personal note may be more appropriate.
  • If a person is under-performing, and you haven’t been able to effectively deliver critical feedback, don’t give them public praise in an effort to make them feel better. This can backfire, especially when the person hears the critical feedback, they will lose trust in you.
  • Align your positive feedback to what the other person values in their work.
  • That said, they may not realize a strength they have, because it’s natural to them. Positive feedback can highlight their strengths for them. Even better is providing them opportunities that play to their strengths.

Just acquiring the skills to be a good manager is already hard. Being a great manager requires even more — a big dose of self-awareness, which is very difficult to achieve. Remember that giving feedback sometimes says something about the other person, but it always says something about the person giving the feedback. Introspect yourself first, and then give feedback.

10 min​ read

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