I distinctly remember a time when a feedback conversation blew up in my face.
I was managing a team of personal trainers at a recreation center on my college campus. During a shadowing session with a newer trainer, I sat down with them to go over some suggestions I had. In my gut, I knew this wasn’t going to go well.
Immediately, the trainer grew defensive. Instead of listening to what I had to say, we were arguing back and forth. Firmly entrenched in my own viewpoints, I argued back. The conversation didn’t get out of hand, but it was clear we weren’t making any progress. Both parties were set in their own thinking and showing no signs of budging.
Perhaps you’ve been in this exact situation—approaching a new teammate with some critical feedback. You want desperately for the conversation to go well. In many ways, that first feedback conversation sets the tone for the rest of the relationship. Recovery from a bad start is possible, but it’s uncomfortable and difficult for everyone involved.
Starting a cycle of feedback on your team is equal parts important and delicate. The trick is to not start with direct, critical feedback but rather progress that direction over time building a relationship along the way. Here’s a step-by-step progression for moving from 0 to “This could be better” without burning bridges.
Ask for Feedback First
Like any other major change or shift within a team, leadership should be the first ones onboard. Feedback is no different. Starting a culture of feedback starts with you, the leader.
Taking the first step of asking your team for critical feedback does two things. First, it establishes a culture where teammates are comfortable giving one another critical feedback in the first place. Building this kind of culture is tricky to do, but this is the first step.
Second, you set the tone for how the feedback should be received. If you get defensive when faced with critical feedback, why should your team react any differently? This is your chance to demonstrate how to gracefully receive and act on critiques.
How exactly do you ask for feedback? This is the tricky piece. The phrase “speak truth to power” can indeed be a problem. Teammates might only give positive praise leaving out the critical bits. Your job is to make them feel comfortable giving you critiques as well. Here are three ways to ease your team into giving you critical feedback.
Ask this question in every one-on-one.
First, ask for it in one-on-ones. In general, I prefer to receive critical praise in public (more on that in a second), but one-on-ones are often an easier place to start. They’re more intimate in nature, and you can tailor the conversation directly to the person. In Radical Candor, Kim Scott suggests having one default question that you default to within a one-on-one:
Is there anything I could do or stop doing that would make it easier to work with me?
This is just a starter question to get the conversation going. Ideally, you’re looking to suss out more than one thing. I try to ask that question during every one-on-one in some variation—often going with “What’s one thing I could do differently or start doing that would make your work easier?” Don’t let teammates off the hook with this question. Press them to give you an answer no matter how small. Be okay with awkward silence during the conversation. If they can’t think of anything, ask them to meditate on the question and come with a suggestion next time.
Ask for feedback on a team level.
Second, ask for it on a team level with a hint of anonymity. I’m a huge fan of using leadback surveys to gather feedback from your team (I learned about this concept from my colleague Simon). I set them up in Google forms and make them anonymous. I drop in a few questions, some in short answer form and others with a simple 1-5 scale.
Each leadback survey focuses on a handful of areas I think are most important at that particular time. I’ll often use one leadback survey to get a baseline level of how my team feels about a specific area (career opportunities, direction of the team, etc) and then reuse some of the same questions later on to gauge progress.
Once the survey is finished, I read through the responses and then share my takeaways, some direct quotes, and next action items with the entire team on a blog post visible to anyone in the company.
Share your performance reviews.
At Automattic, many teams lean on a performance review framework called a 3-2-1-Oh. You can read more about the process here, but in practice, it acts like many other performance reviews. You’ll leave with some wins and areas for improvement.
I do these with each member of my team every 4-5 months, but I also do them with my lead within the same timeframe. I publish my personal 3-2-1-Oh recap for anyone on the team to read. The goal again is to say “I’m open to this kind of feedback. I’m always looking for ways to improve.” By sharing what I’m working on and areas for improvement from my personal evaluation, I’m creating an atmosphere where critiques are welcome. To share a quote from Scott again in Radical Candor:
You [as the leader] are the exception to the “criticize in private” rule of thumb.
Start Giving Positive Feedback
The knee-jerk reaction is to jump from asking for feedback to giving critical feedback to teammates. “Here, look. I’m open to it. You should be too.” You’ll want to start with positive feedback first for two main reasons:
- Positive feedback is easier for you, the leader, to give. Many leaders aren’t comfortable giving critical feedback at first. Positive praise is a way to ease into it.
- Even though team members are comfortable giving you critiques, they might not be open to receiving them just yet. Positive feedback is a great way to steer their actions in the right direction while also laying the ground work for critical feedback down the road.
I’d contend that when delivered correctly, positive praise can help to shape action just as much as critical feedback can. “Delivered correctly” is the key though. Generic comments like “That presentation was amazing” aren’t helpful. For positive feedback to be beneficial, it has to be actionable. Here’s a general rule of thumb (adapted from this episode of the Radical Candor podcast) that applies to both positive and critical feedback:
If the action or behavior you’re describing can’t be repeated, it’s not good feedback.
“That presentation was awesome” doesn’t give me any repeatable actions that I can carry forward to my next presentation. On the other hand, “I thought the way you broke down the problem on slides 3 and 4 was very helpful” gives me a solid takeaway.
Don’t wait for one-on-ones to tell someone about their great work. If you see it, drop by their office to let the know or drop them a note in Slack depending on your work environment. Again, make sure it’s actionable. For example, the other day, I noticed a teammate took initiative on a specific project without anyone asking them to. Instead of a generic “Thanks for doing that!” I said “Thanks for taking initiative and making __.” The specific praise I wanted to get across was the act of taking initiative so I made sure to include that in the comment.
Lean Into Critical Feedback
After asking for critical feedback from your team then moving through positive feedback, we can move into giving teammates critical feedback. Still, moving too quickly can make teammates defensive and create a “You vs. Me” situation.
Have your teammates ask for critical feedback.
I originally raised this point in a post titled “The precursor to giving feedback.”
Giving feedback is akin to giving a gift. If you walk up to a stranger on the street and hand them a wrapped box, you’re in for an awkward interaction. There’s no relationship established. This person has no idea who you are. Why in the world would they accept a gift from you?
The key is to set up a situation where feedback is expected. For example, let’s say I was working with a customer support team, and I wanted to give everyone some critical feedback about their customer interactions. I could approach it one of two ways.
First, I could randomly dig through some of their interactions, make notes, then present those notes during my next one-on-one.
Or, I could ask them, “I’m trying to find some tricky customer interactions so I can better understand the holes in our product. For our next one-on-one, do you think you could bring 3-5 interactions that we could talk over?”
The second approach will lead to more success down the road. The teammate is walking into the conversation expecting to get some feedback on how to handle the interactions. They feel a bit more comfortable because they’ve helped to set the stage.
This is the easiest way to get your feet wet with critical feedback. Set up a scenario where teammates are expecting it and give them some control over the situation. (Another easy example: When doing performance reviews, always have the teammate do a self-review and send it over beforehand.)
Don’t bring conclusions.
Critical feedback is often thought of as a conversation where one party lists out all the areas for improvement. Instead, think of it as a discussion and recognize that you have complete blind spots you’re not aware of, meaning despite your best attempts you won’t fully understand a situation you weren’t part of.
Instead of approaching a critical feedback session thinking “I’m going to let them know what they did wrong,” approach it as a conversation: “I’m going to listen to their point of view, and together, we’re going to figure out what could have gone better.” The difference involves starting with curiosity (I want to understand the situation better) instead of conclusions (I know what’s best here).
It’s a subtle switch, but it makes a world of difference.
Feedback is one of the toughest parts to leading a team. Kickstarting a culture of feedback, particularly when the team is new, is difficult. New relationships are fragile so barreling in with critiques can set you off on the wrong path. Start with the progression mentioned above: Ask for critical feedback -> Give positive praise -> Give critical feedback. It’s a better system for backing into critical feedback without damaging relationships from the start.
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