Ensuring your team members get the right feedback at the right time is one of the most important things you can do for their development. It’s essential to being a good manager.
But it can also be complicated.
No feedback is given in a vacuum. What starts off as a useful tip to help someone’s career can sound very different to the receiver once it’s been filtered through the context of an organisation, workplace politics and individual relationships.
So we’re here to try and make it simpler for new managers. We won’t be able to cover off all possible situations, but we can give you a good foundation to build from.
We’re going to cover:
Let’s get started.
It’s really, really important.
It can also feel like a weighty topic to discuss. What’s your immediate reaction when someone says, ‘Can I give you some feedback?’. It’s probably slightly apprehensive. It shouldn’t be.
When we say ‘feedback’, what we’re really talking about is guidance and advice. It’s potentially lost some of that softer meaning because the word is linked to performance reviews, ‘360 Feedback’, improvement plans and many other HR processes which drain you of the joy in life.
Let’s try and forget about those for a moment. Instead, let’s remember that regular feedback is a vital part of how you develop your team and when done well, a deeply rewarding part of being a manager.
This guidance is the main way that your team members find out whether their work is any good, and how they can improve. Without others’ perspectives, they would have to rely solely on their own experience and mistakes, which is not only a demoralising way to work, but makes it much slower to progress.
So yes, it’s really, really important to think about ensuring your team gets the right ‘feedback’, or whatever you want to call it.
So this is the key question.
At this point in articles like this, you usually get a series of bullets about being ‘specific’, ‘timely’ etc. Now don’t get us wrong, those are coming later. But there’s a few things we need to talk about first, so we’ve split this section into three, each with their own tips.
The objective of this whole exercise is not to ensure that you give effective feedback (although that’s part of it). It’s that your team member receives the feedback they need to improve. Your job as a manager is to create the right structure and context for that to happen.
Now, in a situation where you’re the only person who manages your team members’ work, you’re best placed to provide advice. So how effective your feedback is will determine how much they receive (and you can probably skip to Part Two of this section).
However, there’s lot of team arrangements where you might be only partially responsible for your direct reports, and others work more closely with them day-to-day. This often happens in workplaces which are arranged into project teams, where groups of employees will be brought together for a period of days/weeks/months to complete an assignment under a project manager (who isn’t their manager).
In these circumstances, if it’s just you giving feedback when you check-in every week or two, it’s unlikely to be regular or relevant enough to be most effective. Others are better positioned to provide it. If you focus too much on just your role, you’ll miss this.
Instead, if you frame the question as, ‘How do I make sure my team receives regular, effective feedback’, you can begin to work on structuring their working life so it happens.
In the case of a project team, that might be working with the project manager to understand their feedback mechanisms and make sure your team member is getting the right guidance. Or it might mean collecting comments from others’ who are working with your team member for you to discuss when you see them.
If you’re looking to collect comments from others on a team member’s work, Kommon makes it easy. Just select ‘Gather Feedback’ on that team member’s profile, choose who you’d like feedback from by entering their email addresses, and enter the topics you’d like comments on. You can come up with your own, or choose from our set of templates on some common situations.
So much of what makes your feedback effective happens before you even open your mouth.
Just being someone’s manager doesn’t automatically mean you get to deliver effective feedback. It depends on your relationship. This can take months to build.
Think about the times you’ve received feedback or advice that you didn’t take well, or wasn’t particularly meaningful. In a significant number of cases, we’d bet that the reasons for that were not due to what was said, but who said it and why.
For feedback to be most effective the receiver needs to believe:
If these two statements are true, your team members will listen when you say ‘Can I give you some feedback’, because they trust your opinion and that you’re acting in the interests of their professional development.
If not, well we’ve all been on the end of feedback from someone who we believe has an ulterior motive or whose opinion we don’t respect. It falls on deaf ears.
Just to make it even more challenging, it also depends on the topic. The more complex and personal an issue (e.g. your management style, personal performance), the higher the level of trust required for you to give effective advice. For more routine work (e.g. how you delivered a presentation), the trust stakes are much lower.
This dynamic can be challenging, particularly for new managers, as building trust takes time. Our practical tips below outline some of the things you can do whilst your relationship develops.
Ok so finally we’re here! The bit where you actually give some feedback.
It may seem like we’ve taken the long way round, but by now we’re really starting to set your team up to receive the right advice. You’ve ensured they’re getting regular feedback in their day-to-day work (of which you’re a part), you’ve considered the state of your relationship, and now you’re ready to offer some advice on a particular topic.
(A quick disclaimer, whilst this advice is cribbed from lots of places and our own experience, the relevant chapters in Kim Scott’s Radical Candor are excellent on this topic).
So for it to be most effective, your feedback should be the following.
As much as possible, give feedback soon after the relevant event occurs. And when we say soon, we mean essentially immediately, whilst the circumstances are fresh in everyone’s minds.
In some cases you’ll be commenting on a trend in behaviour rather than a one-off occurrence so you may not want to raise it after one instance. But as soon as you notice the trend, you can step in.
One of the worst approaches is to ‘save it up’ for formal performance review processes, rather than giving it in the flow of work. This is always a disaster, as the employee feels blindsided, and let down by colleagues who didn’t offer their opinion earlier.
‘If you wait to tell somebody for a week or a quarter, the incident is so far in the past that they can’t fix the problem or build on the success.’ Kim Scott, Radical Candor
General feedback, whether good or bad, is always unsatisfactory. ‘You were great today’. ‘That project wasn’t good’. ‘Kommon’s content needs work’. Specific feedback enables people to understand which areas they’re strong in and which to improve.
The ‘Situation’, ‘Behaviour’, ‘Impact’ framework is useful for providing feedback to people which is specific enough to help them improve, and focuses on actions rather than individuals, so as to avoid becoming too personal.
This is also applicable when talking about trends in behaviour.
‘Although it was hard to hear it was really powerful to me because it was feedback on specific behaviour, on a thing that i’d done’ Kommon Customer Interview
In most cases, always give feedback one-on-one, not in a group setting. Even positive feedback. Whilst praise in front of a group is worthwhile, you’ll have more space to dig into the details together and demonstrate why you really thought someone did a good job.
For critical feedback, group settings are clearly a disaster.
In terms of how to deliver feedback one-on-one, the more personal the better so you can read the other person’s reaction. We accept that for critical feedback, the reason you might be tempted to use a less personal method is to avoid the person’s reaction, but please try not to do this).
That means something like the following hierarchy of communication methods:
In a world of remote work, it can be easy to relegate feedback to Number 5, but really try not to.
The exception to this is where you might want to make sure some feedback is in writing, in addition to delivering it verbally. This usually happens when things are going really well, or when things are really not going well.
When the feedback is exceptionally good, you want to make sure it’s on record so you’ve got the detail for when you may find yourself advocating for the team member’s promotion. Conversely, if a team member is underperforming, it may be important to keep a written record of their feedback for the purposes of a performance improvement plan, or similar.
If you want to give some feedback in writing to one of your team, Kommon makes that easy too. Just select ‘Give Feedback’, jot down what you want to say, and your comments will be sent to them and stored in the ‘Feedback’ section of their profile.
You can demonstrate to your team that you’re invested in their professional growth by making it clear how your advice will help them progress.
Sometimes that’s self-evident from the topic you’re discussing. ‘I’m giving you this feedback on improving your sales technique because as a salesperson you need to improve your sales’ is… not helpful.
But in other cases, it may be worth making it clear that addressing a certain area is important because it’s fundamental to hitting a goal/earning promotion etc.
If someone isn’t used to receiving feedback, it may initially seem like a big event, but it shouldn’t be. Over time you want to get to a point where giving and receiving feedback, for the most part, is a quick and informal process that just happens in the flow of work. It ensures people receive feedback constantly, and avoids the dreaded building up of feedback which has to be dealt with all at once.
Kim Scott again:
‘Try thinking of it as brushing your teeth instead. Don’t write it in your calendar; just do it consistently, and maybe you won’t ever have to get a root canal.’
Across the five areas above, we also have a few further tips:
Even with all this advice, we understand that giving advice might still feel like an awkward thing to do.
Where does this discomfort come from? Usually from being worried about how the other person is going to react to what you have to say, particularly if it’s critical.
First thing, it’s ok to feel uncomfortable. You’re right, people often don’t like to be challenged, and can react badly to it. So what to do?
We’ll return to Part Two above. Assuming your comments are factually accurate, a lot of the time people react badly to feedback is because they:
Now you know, hopefully you can manage some of these issues before delivering your comments (see Practical Tips elsewhere).
‘When I started to give people critical feedback on my first engagement, it was quite interesting, because people felt I was absolutely tearing them to shreds, and i was like no, I care about your development.’ Kommon Manager Interview
The good news is there’s nothing too special about giving tough or difficult feedback. All the lessons we’ve addressed above should set you in good stead.
Often the reasons feedback is ‘tough’ have nothing to do with what’s being said but with other dynamics we’ve discussed.
Perhaps you’re trying to have a complex conversation when you haven’t taken the time to build up the requisite trust? Or perhaps expectations weren’t set properly, so the ‘blame’ for a lack of success is shared. Or perhaps no-one gave the team member feedback in ages, so there’s a lot to discuss. All these situations are avoidable.
The bad news is that there are still some specific traps people fall into when delivering ‘tough’ feedback, so we’ve tried to help you through these in our tips below.
If you’ve read part one, by now you’ll know the first part of the answer to this question… it’s not about how often you give feedback, but how often your team members receive it. So how often should they get it, whether from you or others?
Pretty much every piece of work someone does - every report they write, every presentation they give, or every piece of code they commit - is an opportunity to let them know strengths to build on and areas to improve. In practice, this means people should be getting task-based feedback most days, if not every other day. The effects of feedback compound, so the more people receive it, and the earlier they get it, the faster they can improve.
In addition to feedback in the normal flow of work, you may choose to take a longer-term perspective and give your team members feedback on trends you’ve seen in their work. This usually occurs on a fortnightly/monthly/quarterly basis, whenever you have a valuable observation to make.
We think feedback’s so important that if you use Kommon to manage your team, we’ll let you (and the team member) know if someone hasn’t had any feedback in a while. So when it comes to the end of the year, you’ve got a great record of everyone’s progress.