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Engineering Management: How To Give Feedback

I’m currently taking some time away from my job on parental leave, and it seemed like a good time to reflect on the lessons I’ve learned the last few years about engineering management. This is my fifth post, you can see a list of past posts on the series page

Giving good feedback to others is a core piece of any manager’s job, but it’s also one that is rarely taught formally. We all give feedback in some form or other every day: we leave reviews, give compliments, complain, or thank people. But making the feedback effective is a lot harder, and as a manager it is well worth the effort to consider how you can improve. Let’s talk about the why, when and how of effective feedback.

The majority of people-related disasters I’ve created originate with my choice to not say the hard thing. On my short list of critical leadership skills, the ability to “say the hard thing” is right after “delegate until it hurts.” - Michael Lopp

As managers we give feedback because it is the core way we drive improvement. We are not generally doing the work, instead we evaluate the work and give feedback. That means making it clear to the team when we see things that are or are not working with the end product, the process to build that product or the inner dynamics of the team. And it means being clear with individuals what is or isn’t working. Improvement for teams and individuals is a function of practicing the relevant tasks over time with useful feedback loops. Teams will get some natural feedback loops from the result of their work, peer feedback, and self evaluation but those are unreliable and/or slow. As a manager you are responsible for making sure that your teammates have tight feedback loops that allow them to understand quickly when things are going off track and correct them, or when they are doing something well and have an opportunity to do even more.

“if it hurts, do it more often, and bring the pain forward.” - Continuous Delivery by Jez Humble and David Farley

It’s important to understand that feedback isn’t something that should happen only at performance reviews — good feedback is continuous. It’s helpful to have regular times for giving and soliciting feedback like a weekly 1-1, but even those should be a backstop — giving feedback directly after you observe a behavior or impact is often the best time. We want to minimize the feedback loop so that your teammate can respond quickly, and also minimize distance from the event which can often bring skewed memories from both parties. For those who find giving feedback hard or scary, the idea of doing this regularly might seem overwhelming. In this case though we can benefit from the devops principle of doing hard things more often. When feedback is regular and low intensity it can be easier to give and absorb, whereas a mountain of feedback at a performance review can be overwhelming and scary to give. Early feedback also allows for quicker course correction, hopefully making those difficult review conversations less common. Performance reviews should never contain surprises, they should just be formalization of an ongoing conversation.

“Radical Candor” is what happens when you put “Care Personally” and “Challenge Directly” together - Radical Candor by Kim Scott

Radical Candor has influenced my thoughts on feedback more than any other single source, and while the book is worth reading in full, its core idea is easy to summarize: good feedback comes from caring personally about the individual and being willing to challenge them directly. We’ve all dealt with the jerk who is happy to give unfeeling and unwelcome feedback on anything — that’s challenging without caring, what Kim Scott calls “obnoxious agression” in the book. More common and insiduous though is what she calls “ruinous empathy” and “manipulative insincerity” — caring or not caring without challenging and thus simply avoiding feedback altogether. The single biggest antipattern around feedback that I’ve seen is choosing to not give it until it is much too late. People who give good feedback have plenty of empathy and understand the impact of their words — but they also understand how people can be hurt when nobody tells them the truth, so they let that empathy drive them to choose their words carefully and judiciously speak out with courage.

The Situation-Behavior-Impact method is simple and direct: You capture and clarify the Situation, describe the specific Behaviors observed, and explain the Impact that the person’s behavior had on you. Center For Creative Leadership

If you’re struggling with how to express a certain piece of feedback it can be helpful to prepare in advance. I usually benefit from writing down my thoughts and have found the SBI method from the Center For Creative Leadership very helpful here. For any feedback you want to give, frame it in terms of the situation (when and where did this happen — any relevant context), the behavior you observed from the person receiving the feedback (what did they do), and the impact on you or that you observed. This model is helpful in giving a clear way to write feedback as well as avoiding a bunch of potential traps. It leads you away from guessing at anyone’s intent or motivations, grounds the feedback in a real situation and behavior, and makes the severity of the feedback clear. Optionally you can continue to a 4th step — asking the person receiving the feedback what their intention was and giving them a chance to share their thoughts, hopefully leading to a productive 2 way conversation.

Feedback is a gift - Michael Lopp

So far in this piece I’ve focused on giving feedback, but it’s important to remember that feedback is a two way street. Giving feedback well gets easier when we develop an attitude of curiousity and gratitude when we receive feedback. Remember that all feedback is a gift — even if some pieces of feedback are easier to work with and better delivered than others. Creating an environment where others are comfortable giving you feedback is hard — if you’re a manager you will have to work upstream to overcome some natural power dynamics if you want real honest feedback. It means being persistent in asking over time, building trust by proving you care, and being willing to take and be grateful for hard feedback when it does come. Ultimately there is almost nothing you can do that will help you more as a manager than creating an attitude where people are comfortable sharing unfiltered truth with you — you’ll grow faster and be more effective as you learn what is really happening around you, and it is much easier to share hard feedback with people who trust that you’re listening to them. Feedback is a gift. Give it, receive it and value it.

More Engineering Management Posts

This is part of a series of posts on Engineering Management. You can see the whole series here.

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