8 mins

How do your reports respond to feedback?

As managers, it’s our job to grow the people we work with. This is how we build a bench, and scale ourselves and the organization. Of course, this is easy to say and hard to do, and we’ve all encountered a spectrum of people: those with whom it’s easy to accelerate and have a real and lasting impact on, and those where the lasting impact is the relief we feel once we no longer work with them.

Often, the difference between the people who accelerate and those that don’t is their coachability. However, a person’s coachability is not immutable. As individuals, we can work on trying to be more coachable, and as managers, we can try and work to understand how to build a relationship of coachability and work with our teammates to not just support their growth, but support their ability to grow.

We all have situations where we fall short of that and it’s worth taking time to understand why that is. Are there certain things we struggle with? Situations we don’t want to improve for whatever – maybe even subconscious – reasons? Having that empathy for ourselves can help us when we encounter other people; when someone is seemingly inexplicably resistant, why is that? If you can believe that people want to be successful, you’ll be in a much better place to help.

The more coachable someone is, the more they can grow, and the more quickly they can grow. Someone with low coachability can find it so hard to do anything outside of their expertise that it is understandable when managers focus their energy on the people they can help and grow instead. Outside a management context, my personal rule is that I will try and help anyone once, but the people who get my help on an ongoing basis are those who do the most with it (both for themselves, and for paying it forward to the people they support). Within a management context, I’ll try harder for longer, and some of the people who I’ve seen the most growth from were the people who I had been, at some point, the most discouraged about.

Coachability is made up of two factors: someone’s receptiveness to feedback, and how highly actionable they are (what they do with it).

What makes someone highly receptive to feedback? We can easily identify people who aren’t – they:

  • Respond defensively
  • Blame others, and are reluctant to take any responsibility (everything is someone else’s fault)
  • Discount the value of the input or person giving it

In contrast, people with high receptiveness to feedback:

  • Listen and work through what the feedback is
  • Are self-aware and prepared. They can fit the feedback into their mental model and adjust it accordingly
  • Believe they can learn from everyone

Similarly, we know exactly what people not acting on feedback looks like. People who are low actionable in response to feedback:

  • Make minimal changes or adjustments
  • Make any changes they do make, slowly
  • Are very literal (apply the same feedback to other situations without nuance)

But what does highly actionable look like? People who are highly actionable in response to feedback:

  • Experiment, iterate, and change behavior (both in response to explicit feedback and implicit feedback, and also because they are continually looking to try things and improve)
  • Return to those interested with things they are trying/have tried and solicit input on how it’s working.
  • Seek out other perspectives and information to learn more.

You can think of these two dimensions as a quadrant.

By paying attention to how people seek out feedback and what they do with it, we can make an informed opinion about what quadrant someone is in.

It’s worth noting that we should be in different quadrants with different people. High-trust-high-respect relationships will be further up to the right, and low-trust-low-respect relationships will be down on the left. This is understandable, and to a certain extent, healthy. While we can always learn from feedback, even that given in bad faith or with an agenda, we need to consider some input (from low trust sources) more carefully than we do from people who we know care about us and want us to be successful. As managers, it is our goal to move people – as much as possible – up and to the right with ourselves and the organization generally.

When considering how to approach coaching people, we can adjust our approach to the quadrant.

High actionability and high receptiveness 

This might seem like the ideal, and on some level it is, but taken too far these things can lead to someone over-indexing on what everyone else is thinking. This can make them too reactive and appear a bit chaotic or inauthentic. This is the quadrant with the least friction, so giving feedback in this quadrant should feel, and be, really minor and contain a lot of affirming or validating feedback that what the person is doing is working. Take a curious mindset and encourage self-reflection; support them in thinking critically about what feedback means and what they want to do with it.

There are two ways for someone to be in this quadrant. The unhealthy way, as a people pleaser, with associated resentment and chaos. In a healthy way, everything feels very clear. It’s easy to fit feedback into their mental model, and adjustments feel natural and build on what they are currently working on. This comes from having a good idea themselves about what is happening and how they think they can improve.

High actionability and low receptiveness

You have to really work to get this person to take feedback, but when you do, they do so much with it that it makes it worthwhile. Work on understanding why this is: are they scarred by too much bad feedback in the past? Do they struggle to trust your opinion or that you have their best interests at heart? Work on building that trust with them. Try asking for their opinion and show you value it, in return. 

People in this quadrant can be struggling with fitting feedback into their mental model, often because it conflicts with some part of their identity. If it did, they’d act on it, but it conflicts with the other information they have. The first step to moving forward is to reconcile that conflict, so look for ways to make the feedback less threatening. 

Low actionability and high receptiveness

This can be frustrating. It seems like they’ve taken the feedback well, but then, nothing happens. Dig into why that is. Are they overwhelmed? Do they not know what to do? Make sure you set time to follow up post feedback, agree on concrete steps, and follow up on them regularly.

Being in this quadrant means a person feels a bit stuck. The feedback makes sense and feels clear but they just can’t act on it for whatever reason. Look for ways to make actions feel straightforward and concrete, and ensure they have space for them (i.e., they aren’t completely overwhelmed).

Low actionability and low receptiveness

Coaching people in this quadrant is like banging your head against a brick wall. Generally, it’s a place where I try not to spend my time, and is one reason why I am fanatical about checking how people respond to feedback as part of any hiring process – to avoid hiring people like this. If it’s too late, be very direct and concrete in what you want to see. Focus on getting them to 1x your feedback (by which I mean, make a single concrete change you request), and accept that they may never do more than that.

This quadrant is mostly populated by people who are delusional about their own capabilities. Occasionally, you find someone in this quadrant as the result of the situation they are in.  The two ways I’ve seen people fall into this quadrant are:

  • Being completely in over their head, maybe because they are so lacking in capability for whatever situation they’re in (e.g. they were overpromoted)
  • They’ve been bullied

If someone’s in too far over their head, your option is supporting them to another role where they can be successful (assuming you can). If it’s not possible for you to help them (e.g. they are a peer, especially one in a different part of an organization), you likely will not be able to do anything, so focus on limiting your exposure and documenting as much as you can.

If someone’s being bullied, that’s the situation you need to address. Remove (ideally fire) the bully, and help that person rehabilitate and thrive.

Final thoughts

If you uncritically take feedback, you let everything be defined by other people. It’s also rarely the goal – and rarely possible – to be liked by everyone. To make something people love, you also make something people hate. To be willing to have the hard and necessary conversations, you need to accept that not everyone will like you all the time, and that it’s more effective to work on being respected in the long term. If we over-index on complaints, we incentivize blandness – but if we don’t pay attention at all, we don’t learn things that we need to know.

My coach once spent two hours breaking me apart on something that really mattered to me, and that I was trying really hard at but failing. While it was a painful process, it created the space for some real and necessary honesty, and resulted in a dramatic improvement in something that I had been close to giving up on. Because I cared so much and was trying so hard, I was being resistant to anything that implied otherwise; until I could accept what was not working, I could not begin to address it. Having someone I trusted who was willing to take the time and break apart my resistance was a gift.

Coachability doesn’t mean the person agrees with you all the time, it means that they take the input and learn. Remember that some resistance to feedback is healthy. Our job as managers is to understand and reduce that friction as much as we can through building trust (not by sanding people down!). With some people, we won’t be able to achieve this, but when we can, we may transform someone’s career and trajectory. What’s better than that?

How to grow your engineers through continuous feedback
How to grow your engineers through continuous feedback
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