The problem behind some feeling disrespected and others not on an engineering team might be rooted in different understandings of the word “Respect.”
Building a framework and culture for continuous feedback
Continuous feedback is crucial to team growth and performance. Here are some key learnings to help you deliver feedback effectively.
Tal Joffe is a web development director at Nielsen, where he is also a co-organizer of the "Big Web Theory" meetup group, editor and writer for the Nielsen Tel Aviv tech blog, and champion of design best practices, functional programming, and clean code. Tal combines his passion for technology and methodology to create happy, effective teams that deliver great results.
(I wrote about this topic here in more detail.)
As engineering managers, we are often focused on leading and making decisions on technology and projects and not as much about people.
Since we cannot do everything ourselves, we have to rely on our people to do things for us, plan, deliver and make decisions. Without giving feedback, we have almost no control over the outcome of their work (unless we tell them exactly what to do in each step which we don’t want).
This entire framework for feedback only works if you have trust between yourself as the manager and the team. It’s important to communicate that feedback is being used to help build each person in your team and your team’s best interest. I encourage you to provide some context by sharing your resources with your team and your feedback.
Speaking of helpful resources, I want to shout out to Manager Tools. I learned a lot from their programs, and you can find free podcasts and resources on their website.
With that being said, I want to highlight some key learnings about delivering feedback that I’ve learned from other resources and personal experiences.
Here's what we'll cover today:
- 5 rules when delivering feedback
- Building feedback culture
- Delivering positive and negative feedback
- When feedback doesn't work
- Delivering remote feedback
- Final thoughts
5 rules when delivering feedback
So how should we deliver feedback? And how does feedback look in a remote environment (I touch on this topic more later in this article)
Our feedback should follow these simple rules:
- The recipient must be willing to accept it (at the moment of feedback)
- Feedback should describe an action (and not a feeling)
- Feedback should describe the outcome of the action (one is enough)
- Feedback should ask the recipient for input on how they plan to continue their actions or do something differently
- Deliver all feedback pleasantly and quickly (don’t frown and don’t beat around the bush)
Here’s a scenario in which I practiced rules 1-5.
I once had a direct report who appeared demotivated for several reasons before I joined the team. I noticed repetitive behavior where he seemed to be in a sour mood, and as a result, I gave him feedback that his emotion was negatively affecting the team. In response, he claimed that he “wasn’t demotivated,” and I was placed in a position where my feedback could be disregarded. Instead of focusing on his emotions, I decided to describe the current action and provide suggested actions he should implement differently. I also focused on one action and not multiple actions. Communicating the observable action allowed the recipient to respond to the feedback more accurately.
Here’s how the exchange of feedback went:
I described an observable action directly and pleasantly (Rule 2 & 5):
“When you come into the office, and you don’t communicate with anyone, or you don’t acknowledge anyone else…”
I moved to communicate the outcome of the observable action (Rule 3):
Note: The description of the outcome may differ for the same exact behavior depending on the individual receiving feedback. For example, a “people-person” may understand your feedback better if you relate to how their actions hurt team morale. Meanwhile, feedback has more impact for a “task-oriented person” if framed by communicating how their actions increase team friction and delays a project.
“It makes people feel like they aren’t a part of the team”.
Lastly, I give the recipient the responsibility to decide how they should respond or change their action to feedback (Rule 4):
Note: Provide the recipient the opportunity to decide “how” or “what” they should change about their behavior to increase “buy-in”. It’s now the recipient's responsibility to decide how they change their behavior.
“Can you do something about it?”.
With regard to this scenario, I provided continuous feedback over the course of 6-9 months in different areas, but the developer decided to move on from my company. He made an effort to make changes, but he had been burnt out by previous managers, and couldn’t commit to improving. The lesson here is that even with well-defined and consistent feedback, it ultimately comes down to a recipient’s buy-in.
Building feedback culture
If you’ve never given feedback before, start with an introductory statement about why and how you will start giving feedback. The last thing you want to do is suddenly start with multiple feedback points a day. I would then begin with positive feedback and be transparent about where your feedback methods are coming from. Feel free to share your resources for your style of feedback, as it helps provide your team with context.
With that being said, let’s dive into building a feedback culture on your team.
General feedback guidelines
Aside from the five rules mentioned earlier, there are other variables to consider when building a feedback culture within your team. I recommend you start by sharing these general guidelines to promote healthy feedback between teams, peers, and departments.
Our feedback, in general, should be:
- Timely - best right after the fact and no more than a week after
- Mostly positive - build trust, celebrate small wins, encourage positive actions
- Constant - there is always something to give feedback on. It doesn’t have to be big things
Maintaining a list of general feedback guidelines helps keep your team on the same page. With feedback expectations set early, you can start building on that foundation.
Starting from ground zero
If your team isn’t used to feedback, it can be jarring for the team to dive into a weekly cadence of feedback suddenly. With any new process or recommendation, it’s best to ease into the culture of feedback by following these steps:
- Start by establishing trust. Use weekly 1:1 sessions for that
- Once there is some trust, start by only giving positive feedback
- After you and your people feel comfortable, you can begin introducing negative feedback
Every team starts somewhere. If your team isn’t incorporating feedback in some shape or form, I highly recommend you start building a feedback culture soon. If you’ve already started building a feedback culture, let’s look at some finer details around delivering positive and negative feedback.
Delivering positive and negative feedback
Building on top of these helpful ways in starting feedback, it’s important to note the finer details around providing positive and negative feedback. That being said, when describing a behavior, choose between giving positive feedback or negative feedback. For example, If something was mostly positive, ignore the negative feedback. If something was mostly negative, then ignore the positive feedback. Let’s go over some general tips for each type of feedback.
Delivering positive feedback
Just do it. As managers, we are accustomed to looking for defects, but people should mostly do good work (otherwise why did you hire them?) If we only focus on the negative, people are less likely to respond, improve their performance, and continue what they are doing well.
Don’t provide positive feedback to provide negative feedback later down the road. Building on my earlier statement, in choosing between negative or positive feedback, you never want to give off an impression that you’re “sandwiching” your feedback. Eventually, people notice a pattern when you’re giving positive feedback only to provide negative feedback, which leads to a disregard for your positive feedback in anticipation of negative feedback.
Lastly, our job is not to look for blemishes but to promote success. It’s highly unproductive not to provide positive feedback, as you won’t build trust between you and your teams.
Delivering negative feedback
No one feels comfortable giving or receiving negative feedback, so it’s important to acknowledge that discomfort for both parties involved, then work to mitigate the negativity surrounding negative feedback. Note that negative feedback should feel like an “ask” and not an “order” because they trust your judgment.
Let’s start with the tone of voice and emotion. My tone of voice between negative and positive feedback has the same tone. By treating both types of feedback the same, there’s an underlying communication that positive and negative feedback are not emotionally charged but grounded in action.
Deliver negative feedback promptly and don’t procrastinate feedback. In the past, I was anxious about delivering negative feedback and worried about whether the recipient would receive the feedback well. Pretty soon, too much time had passed. When too much time passes, feedback becomes less effective and can seem like a bigger deal.
Never wait until performance reviews. During performance reviews, your reviewee should never feel surprised by anything. If a performance review is the first time someone receives feedback, it becomes ineffective. They’ll feel upset, and question “why or why not” you haven’t mentioned this feedback before, and now the feedback is communicated in an official context.
Ultimately, negative feedback should help grow the other individual. Just as you provide others with negative feedback, keep yourself open to negative feedback by setting a good example.
When feedback doesn’t work
When feedback doesn’t work, don’t bother arguing. When people are defensive during feedback, they won’t change their behavior because they’re arguing over whether the feedback is valid. I usually take the stance of saying, “maybe I misunderstood the situation.” When you give people the same type of feedback multiple times, there comes the point where they can’t argue.
What happens when feedback doesn’t work?
- If the feedback recipient gets defensive or doesn’t accept the feedback, don’t argue. Just say something like “you know what, nevermind” and end the conversation.
- If the same behavior (same feedback receiver) repeats, give feedback again for the current case.
- If someone argued about the feedback but corrected their behavior, we got what we wanted, and no other action is needed.
- If this behavior of not accepting the feedback and not correcting the behavior persists, it’s time to give a different, more serious kind of feedback.
Suppose feedback isn’t accepted and the behavior persists over time. In that case, feedback should have a more serious nature and communicate that if the recipient cannot accept feedback, we can no longer work together, and we as managers expect that to change. Fast. This type of feedback should rarely come but is important and should not be avoided.
I had a circumstance where I had to be more firm about feedback because I’ve noticed the behavior multiple times. I had two different scenarios where I initiated the conversation with, “I don't like this conversation, this isn’t an ordinary circumstance, but I need you to change your behavior. I’m expecting significant changes starting now, and I’m willing to help guide you in the right direction.”
One person responded with, “You know, you’re right. I accept the feedback,” and they made an effort to change their behavior.
The other person responded with, “No, I won’t change my behavior.” In that case, the employee had to be let go. Remember that this happens on rare occasions and should only occur if all other methods have been exhausted.
Delivering remote feedback
With companies worldwide implementing remote work practices, it’s helpful to consider how feedback should work in a remote environment. I’ll share some general tips for remote feedback.
General tips for remote feedback:
- Weekly remote 1:1 is a good place to deliver feedback if not able to provide between 1:1s
- Feedback is best-delivered face to face
- Zoom calls are best in a remote setting
- If Zoom calls are not possible, messages can be used to send feedback
- Delivering text feedback is better than nothing but could be read differently than intended (Try to be short and crisp and use emojis to explain your tone better)
When it comes to text feedback, I usually give feedback with some type of smiley face or “grimacing face” to lighten the feedback and add a different dimension to the text. Emojis can express negative feedback so that you’re not trying to make a big deal. This advice is more intuitive as the emoji has to match your tone behind the feedback. Like verbal conversations, describe the behavior, describe the content you observed, and provide some feedback to change it.
There’s no silver bullet, like all things in management. Both parties involved should understand that feedback should be taken casually, commonly, and consistently. Find a balance between providing positive feedback and negative feedback that works best for your management style. In all scenarios, when someone changes their behavior, be sure to give positive feedback to acknowledge their efforts in responding to your negative feedback.
It’s a team effort to create better growth and performance for the team. Giving the best feedback can feel intimidating, but overthinking the right tone, cause, and delivery doesn’t always bring better results. From my experience, I’ve found it better to give more feedback that’s less thought out because overthought feedback becomes less casual or less relevant when too much time passes.
Lastly, keep track of the feedback you provide with a date and topic of feedback. Keep things simple and have your process. Don’t worry about a fancier process or tool if it changes your feedback framework. I use my one-on-one notes or apple notes if it’s a more casual moment of feedback, while text feedback over messages also acts as my repository. As you build a catalog of feedback scenarios, you’ll notice your progress in improving feedback and have a helpful storage of information handling various scenarios. Let me know what pieces of advice helped you the most and what feedback tips you’ve learned over the years. Talk soon.