Performance reviews – 5 principles for giving feedback

#57, Apr 18, 2024

Once upon a time, in a tech org not far away, there was a leader…

A tech manager is preparing for the next performance review cycle.

As the time for giving feedback at work gets closer, the tech manager starts to feel nervous. He knows what he needs to say about how people are doing at work, but he’s unsure about the best way to say it.

Talking about performance can be hard, and he’s worried about finding the right words to be clear and kind. He’s also afraid that people might be upset if what he says doesn’t match what they expect to hear about their work.

He wonders about the best ways to handle these talks.

Hi 🙂 Hari here.

/* It’s a Thursday morning and I’m sitting in the kitchen writing this, as always 🙂 I’m smiling as I see a few emails sent overnight confirming several people have renewed their subscription of the first products we launched 1 year ago. The first soft skills pills 🙂 */

Today’s tale is focused on how to give feedback with ease, especially negative feedback. This continues to be a challenging topic for a lot of leaders in tech.

After the last tale on how to set high standards on your team, I got several questions on how to deliver feedback in a direct, but empathetic way. So, I thought I’d go deeper on the topic with today’s tale.

/* A spontaneous idea from me to celebrate 1 year of the giving feedback pill and for you to have a sandbox environment to practice the principles below.

Get a 25% lifetime discount if you buy the pill today.
Just use ALT-GIVING-FEEDBACK-25-LIFETIME code during checkout. */

Why your feedback doesn’t work?

There are thousands of ways to screw up when giving feedback. Especially when it’s negative.

Your desire is for the other person to change their behavior as soon as possible. And the most common mistake I see is rushing.

When delivering the feedback, I see leaders putting barriers instead of removing them.

Your goal is NOT to just say what’s on your mind.
Your goal is for the other person to act upon your feedback.

That’s why you need to understand what stops the other person from hearing your feedback.

There are four barriers you should overcome:

  1. Listening: is the other person listening to what you’re saying?
  2. Understanding: are they understanding you correctly?
  3. Accepting: are they accepting the feedback?
  4. Changing: are they acting upon your feedback?

Let’s focus on the common pitfalls and how to handle them.

Avoid using generalization words like always, never, often

Imagine my partner seeing the dishes in the sink and saying in frustration:
You never take care of the dishwasher!

What do you think happens in my mind?

The listening barrier is immediately raised at the word never and I start thinking of counter-examples. I’m thinking how to defend myself.

She’s continuing to say something important, to give me feedback, but I’m not listening. I’m just waiting. I have the perfect response.

That’s not true! Remember after New Year’s Eve? I was the one who took care of all the dishes.’ – I say proudly 😀

Generalization words are rarely telling the truth.

You want to use them to empower your argument.

What happens though is that you trigger a more powerful defense.

What to do instead?

Be specific

If my partner says:
Hari, remember this weekend when our neighbours were at home…’ – I’m listening.

After that, you went to take a shower…’ – I’m still listening.

And then you went to bed…’ – I’m still listening.

And I took care of the dishwasher’ – damn… I’m still listening.

You see – when you’re specific, they will follow your thought to understand you. They might be expecting something negative, but they’ll still listen.

Being specific brings so much more though.

It’s one thing to say ‘Your code is like spaghetti!’

It’s another to say ‘Your code is not formatted in the way we’ve agreed in the team.’

The first one allows more interpretation.

Your job when delivering feedback is to leave no interpretation gaps in their mind.

Beware of the power of the word but

Talking about spaghetti code, imagine you have to deliver feedback that has both a positive and a negative message.

The natural structure for most people is:
Positive message, but negative message

Although natural, this structure has a negative effect.

I think Hemingway was the one who said that if you have a long paragraph in a text that contains the word but – just read the text after the but as the one before doesn’t matter.

When the beginning of your statement is positive and you use but to give negative feedback – the but deletes the first statement.

What to use instead of the but:

  • and – this connects the messages;
  • full stop – just stop after the first message, take a breath and continue;
  • on the other hand – a coin has two sides – on one hand it’s the positive message, on the other hand it’s the negative message; both are true;
  • at the same time – both messages are valid: ‘You are great with building the architecture. At the same time, your code looks like spaghetti.

I’m not saying to always avoid but.
It’s great for emphasizing a message.
But you should use it consciously.

Labels can ruin your feedback

Labels are a great communication shortcut.
You say little and people immediately get you.
But they could also put the acceptance barrier between you and them.

/* by the way, positive labels like ‘you’re so smart!’ could also have negative effect */

But why are labels not a good option?

Because they focus on the person.
They create the illusion that the person will always be this way.

You should focus on the behavior (or the work result) instead.
This allows the other person to accept the feedback and to change.

It’s one thing to say “You are not proactive”.
It’s another thing to say “Yesterday, during our planning meeting, you did not speak up at all.”

One is a label.
The other is a behavior.

Don’t assume, be factual

Similarly to generalization words, when you state your assumptions as facts, you’re falling into a pitfall.

I recall one situation with a tech manager giving feedback to a senior engineer.

It was a Monday and the senior just did a demo of the product in front of a potential customer. The demo did not go well.

It was the engineer’s responsibility to prepare a good presentation.

After the meeting, the tech manager said to her:
You should have prepared more for this meeting!’

Sounds about right?

If the engineer had invested more time, the demo would have gone better?

Little did the manager know that the engineer invested 16 hours over the weekend for this presentation. 16 hours of her own free time.

What do you think the engineer thought when she heard the feedback?
This is not true!’ would be my first guess.

As human beings, we’re wired to connect the dots.

Poor result means poor effort.
Someone not speaking is shy.
Someone talking all the time is dominant.
Someone not coming to team events is not a team player.

These are not facts.
These are assumptions.

When giving feedback: share specific observations, not your assumptions.

Ask me anything

Giving feedback is a topic our gang has been focused on for the past 15 years. So I could ramble on and on on the topic.

Yesterday, I shared 25 principles I use in a post on LinkedIn. But there are so many details to this. So, just reply to this email if you want to ask me something and get my guidance.

As a final note, I’ll give you 3 more learning materials:

Giving feedback pill

Use it as a sandbox environment to master your feedback-giving skills. Don’t forget about the 25% discount you get today.

68 mins podcast

Listen to more tips from the conversation I had with Lisa from the SIXCOMMS podcast on how to give feedback with ease.

Feedback to your boss

An example if you give feedback to your boss – how to give feedback to Elon Musk using the XYZ approach.

How to give direct and empathetic feedback

(the checklist)

  1. Avoid using generalization words like always, never, often
  2. Be specific and leave less room for interpretation
  3. Use the word but consciously, especially when you contrast positive and negative feedback
  4. Use labels rarely – don’t focus on the person, focus on the behavior
  5. Don’t assume and be factual in order not trigger objections and put barriers between you

… and the team lived happily ever after.

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