Things to Figure Out as a New Manager: Part 4, Feedback

danbo hiding in a shoe
Credit: Flickr / Daniel Lee

There are two things we should talk about before talking about feedback.

First is the idea that feedback is just when you tell someone they screwed up in some way or need to do better. This makes us dread giving feedback (well, for those of us who aren’t sociopaths who enjoy tearing people down), and it means people dread receiving feedback too. It’s noticeable that we more often qualify “positive feedback”, because the default is negative (aka “constructive”).

Obviously constructive feedback is necessary, and something we need to get comfortable both giving and receiving. But we also need to get comfortable with the idea that feedback is just observations of another person’s behavior reflected back to them – ideally it’s normal, and not some big event.

Secondly is that feedback is often a very gendered experience. My friend Camille once observed to me that women get too much feedback, and men get too little. Women have often had the experience of receiving a lot of low quality feedback, which they then have to filter through to the pieces that are useful. Men are often not used to receiving feedback at all. Whilst this is not universally true, it’s worth thinking about how your own experience can affect your expectations.

Regardless of the baggage we bring to giving feedback, we can learn to be good at it. Step one is understanding where we are coming from.

Receiving Feedback

Implicit Feedback

Implicit feedback is feedback you observe rather than receive. It’s something I particularly look out for in communication. For example, when I communicate a complex topic to people, I always pay attention to see what they say about it later, because this tells me a lot about what they took from whatever I said. If what they are saying doesn’t fit with what I intended, then it’s a sign we need to talk about it more – and that I need to be more clear.

Other places to look for implicit feedback include: velocity, morale, and collaboration. For instance if you start doing standups, and it seems to improve team (or individual) effectiveness – that would be an example of implicit feedback.

Explicit Feedback

An important behavior to model as a lead is the act of listening and acting on information – including things that make you uncomfortable (e.g. “constructive” feedback). Bear in mind that it’s really hard for people to give their boss feedback, and that feedback more than ever is likely be based on partial information.

E.g. Someone gives you feedback that you’re not managing poor performance well, but what they don’t know is the context of that poor performance (e.g. events in someone’s personal life).

Or, someone gives you feedback that you’re not sharing information, but what they don’t know is that your boss isn’t telling you things, and you found out in the same meeting they did.

Or, they complain that you’re not involved enough in the day to day of the team. But what they don’t realize is that you’re spending most of your time being a shit umbrella.

Feedback that lacks context helps you understand what the person is experiencing, even if it doesn’t (shouldn’t!) inform what you are doing. Say thank you, highlight what you are doing, and be honest about what you’re not going to do – for example something you’re going to consider more before acting on.

Owning Up

Because people are less likely to give their boss feedback, it becomes all the more important for you to give yourself that feedback to them. To own when you screwed up, and apologise. To acknowledge what you learned and what you would do differently. To recognize implicit feedback, and make it explicit between you.

Giving Feedback

Positive Feedback

People often talk about building a relationship where you can give people constructive feedback and they’ll listen, and mention positive feedback in that context. Yes, it’s important to build a relationship where you can give constructive feedback. Yes, positive feedback helps with that. No, that’s not the only reason to do it.

In general, people like to be appreciated and recognized. Noticing what someone has done really well, or worked really hard on, is not a very arduous thing to do. It’s part of your job as a manager to recognize what people do well, and not just at performance review time, but continually. It’s good to recognize what specifically was good, in order for your feedback to feel personal, and not bland (and meaningless). Aside from this being a worthwhile endeavour in and of itself, it’s a safe assumption that people want to be successful, and telling them what’s appreciated is a way to get them to do more of that.

Pre-emptive Encouragement

This is encouraging people to do things they’re unsure about or a bit uncomfortable with, especially things that will result in positive feedback if they do them (or “constructive” feedback if they don’t). For example, at work, we have an internal blog, and I want to see people posting on it more. One thing I do to encourage that is to ask people questions about things they’re working on – their support rotation, or a project. Then, I listen to them. If they seem engaged by the topic, or I learn things from the conversation, I suggest to them that would make a really good blog post – and offer to help with that, e.g. proof reading it.

Constructive Feedback

There’s a lot written about giving constructive feedback, and I don’t feel much need to add to it. A couple of points.

Firstly, this is something that we often put off in some misguided idea of kindness, but mainly because it makes us uncomfortable. It’s not kind not to tell someone that they will eventually discover. For example, finding out that they didn’t get promoted because of something you didn’t tell them six months earlier. These conversations are hard, but not having them is harder.

Secondly, it’s important to ask yourself why you want to give them this feedback. Are you trying to make your life easier, or them better? People will often realize your motivations. Often the people I’ve learned the most from are also the people who have stressed me out the most. My life might be easier if they pushed me less – but neither of us would be better off.

This is part 4 of a series aimed at new engineering managers. Part 1 was about figuring out your schedule. Part 2 was about social support. Part 3 was about communication. For help and support, you can also ask for an invitation to the New-ish Eng Manager Slack.

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