11 mins

Providing feedback is a skill. Like all skills, it is one that you can build upon and grow as part of your leadership tool kit.

Everyone should hone the skill of feedback. However, it is especially important for leaders to cultivate this ability as it closes the loop between action and impact. On top of that, it’s crucial in building trust in a team.

Feedback opens up blind spots and communicates that you care about a report and want to see them fulfill their potential. It can also help bring up that you have noticed something is off and want to resolve the underlying issue.

In short, feedback is a very concrete example of powerful communication. Used well, it can unlock potential and point to areas that need improvement. Used incorrectly, it can cause confusion, or worse, damage relationships between people.

Why is feedback so hard? 

There are two main reasons why feedback is difficult: fear of consequences and fear of nothing changing.

On some level, all communication takes work, and lots of different factors play a part: cultural norms, the amount of trust shared between the people communicating, the amount of trust a person has in themselves, language barriers, how strongly we link work with our identity, and the level of comfort (or discomfort) someone has with awkward conversations or praise. 

Largely, there are three key hurdles to face when it comes to communication and feedback: 

  • Working within a remote setting – This adds an extra layer of difficulty. By working remotely you lose some of the ability to read someone’s body language.  
  • The right vs. wrong scenario – If we disagree with a teammate’s feedback and we’re not careful, these conversations can spin off into a discussion about who is right, or a negotiation to try and find a middle ground that doesn’t exist.
  • The “big talk” myth – Feedback doesn’t have to fall under the category of being a life-changing revelation, a piece of constructive criticism, or a conversation around finding a solution to a problem. It’s more about insight and input. Sometimes, all that’s necessary is giving the space to say the smaller things, like feeling dismissed or overlooked. Feedback is a tool that has the biggest impact in small, frequent doses over a long period of time. 

Now that we have covered the drawbacks of feedback, how can we strive to give higher-quality feedback? 

It starts with receiving

During a 1:1 years ago, a direct report told me something that made me pause. They said, “I gave feedback to Alex (not their real name), and they took it really badly. Honestly, I won’t be doing that again.” Here, I felt there had been a wasted opportunity for Alex to get insight into what they might not have seen otherwise.

Feedback conversations have a high chance of touching on our BICEPS needs: belonging, improvement, choice, equality, predictability, and fairness. And as many of us attach our identity to our work, feedback on that work can feel like an attack on us.

As someone on the other end of feedback, you have a few choices available to you, both in dealing with the conversation itself and in handling the information you receive.

Before (and at any point during) the conversation

Feel empowered to say if it doesn't feel like the right time for this particular conversation, or even, “I appreciate you taking the time, but I’m not looking for feedback on this topic right now.”

During the conversation

  • Listen. This can look like staying quiet and truly taking in the information. It can also take the form of asking open questions to dig more into the person’s perspective. Remember, they’re most likely coming into it with the intention to help.
  • Notice what’s coming up. This may be emotions bubbling to the surface or lightbulb ideas brought forth by a moment of inspiration; it’s all game.
  • Thank them for their time and feedback.

After the conversation

  • Take time to download and process. This is particularly important if the information you received felt odd or loaded in the moment.
  • Decide what you act on and what you leave. The most unfortunate outcome is immediately ignoring the entire thing, forever. More often than not, you’ll have gotten a bucket with segments of gold mixed with particles of dust. The answer is not to throw everything out, but to sieve through it and intentionally pick what you incorporate into your work.

If you’re in a position of receiving feedback as a leader (especially from a direct report), whether you’re hearing something that’s uncomfortable or not, you’re modeling the right way to receive feedback. Listen and thank them for their time too. Later, process and do something about it.

On unsolicited feedback

Unsolicited feedback has a mixed reputation, but I think it can be the most useful type of information to inform growth. It can be a great way to see areas for improvement that you wouldn’t otherwise have been able to catch, or significant blind spots. 

Giving feedback

There are two ingredients in giving good quality feedback: listening and caring.

Get your basics right

  • Always in private. Make sure feedback is provided without anyone listening in, especially if it’s constructive, and especially-especially if they report to you or you’re their senior in some way.
  • Prepare. Before going into the conversation, take a moment to think over your piece of feedback and why it matters. Be careful not to over-edit and sugarcoat; you’re speaking with an adult that you respect, so being direct and truthful matters.
  • Separate the observation from the person. This can be a trap, especially for recurring themes or points that have been left to fester. A very useful exercise to help you here is practicing what you’ll say, and then seeing how frequently you use, “You’re so X,” or “You always do Y.” Consider replacing them with, “I noticed a pattern of X,” and then offer concrete examples. 
  • Intent matters. “I mean to help” does not give you the right to say whatever you want. But it does set a foundation of trust and helps clear up the perspective you’re coming from. Make it explicit! For example: “I had some feedback on the presentation that might help convince the other team to prioritize the features we need from then.”
  • Frameworks can help. There’s tons of research and advice on how to format your feedback (some of which has been disproven, such as the notorious sandwich method). Frameworks like SBI, ASK, and Radical Candor are some great examples. Go with whichever works better as a prompt for you and feels most authentic. What’s important is not so much the right framework, but being honest and respectful to the other person – which is one of the reasons the sandwich method rarely works.
  • Give them agency. Ask if and when they’d be open to talking. Let them know as soon as you notice something so they can act on it if they choose.

What about bias?

Like any human interaction, there’s bias involved in both the giving and receiving feedback. That might be confirmation bias of a preconception, including privilege-driven ones like “women are not technical”, or a bias motivated by a need that the feedback giver holds, such as wanting a project to succeed.

You won’t ever reach a level of totally bias-free feedback, but you can work with your report to get to the crux of the issue hidden behind any subjective opinions. Here, it will be down to you to figure out what’s useful and what might be discarded.

Feedback can also be a great way to address more problematic bias-driven views. Working with your report, you can face these thought patterns and alter them for the better. 

Bias hides in the vagueness; and so, a good way to counteract it is by driving for specifics.

  • Use examples to refine general judgment into concrete observation. “You mentioned you don’t see my contributions as technical. Can you share a couple of moments where you felt that way?”
  • Create a common frame of reference. This can be: “I noticed you gave feedback that I was not tackling technically complex projects. Can you share what you perceive to be technically complex?”
  • Bring your assumptions of underlying reasons to the table, then the person has a chance to confirm. “When you drop the ball, I think it’s because of X. How accurate is that observation?”

Working with defensiveness

It’s not uncommon to receive a defensive reaction to feedback; especially if it’s critical or unexpected. As a manager, you have a couple of tools available to you:

  • Acknowledge and, when the time is right (during or after the fact), dig into their reaction. Get curious about how the feedback may have landed on their end, and work with them to process, frame, and clarify. One way to navigate a defensive attitude is acknowledging it in the moment while providing the option to go through it with the other person. For example, you may say, “I’m noticing this is not landing with you, would you like to talk more about what's happening? It can be now or later.”
    You may want to take time out of your next 1:1 with this report – once the dust has settled – to dig a little deeper into their initial reaction: what triggered them? Do they have any follow-up questions? What are the next steps? 
  • Get back to your original intention: to help. Make it clear that your only intention is to help. You can achieve this by not only stating it but also listening to them and working with them to figure out the next steps. 

While feedback to your team as a leader is useful, there are limits to how far and how impactful it can be when coming from you. The ultimate way to make it a sustainable practice is to make it part of your team culture.

Baking feedback into your company culture

I’ve always believed that you can tell a lot about a company’s culture from how they view and practice feedback. It’s interesting to observe: who is it acceptable to give feedback to? How frequently, and how much unprompted feedback gets given? Is it a performance review thing only, or something that happens little and often?

The best way to make feedback an integral part of your team’s culture is to invite and model it often. The more it is demystified, and the less of a big event it is made out to be, the more it will happen. 

One-offs vs. broad feedback

In a manager role, you’ll likely find yourself providing feedback in 1:1s, as well as more broadly collecting feedback from the wider team on your report. They’re both important. Ultimately, you’ll be making decisions regarding your team’s performance, so it’s key that there are no surprises. At the same time, ensuring that your team gets a holistic view of their growth from various perspectives is important too.

Connecting feedback with goals and company reviews

One of the key ways to multiply your feedback’s impact is to connect it to each team member’s career growth.

  • Reviews are the sum of your feedback conversations. Yes, there will be new additions every now and then, but if a review is a complete surprise, that’s a surefire sign that something was left unspoken for too long.
  • Use their career goals to identify next steps. Whenever you offer feedback to your team (or are co-navigating feedback that they received), link it to their personal and professional goals. This too is a continuous discourse, but make sure to have a longer-term goals conversation with your team after quarterly or annual reviews. This way you close the loop, turning that piece of feedback into growth. 
  • Giving feedback on the feedback. When cultivating leadership skills in people on your team, this is key to focus on. The same way you’d offer feedback on their decision-making, execution, and craft skills; help them grow their own feedback skills.

Generally, the more you think of feedback as a loop, the more you’ll see it connect current impact with growth.

Final thoughts

Remember, as long as you start from a place of caring about the other person, and as long as you remember to listen, the rest will fall into place – whichever seat you’re in. Now go schedule that feedback conversation you’ve been meaning to have. Good luck!

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