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When it comes to feedback, start with yourself

Good management is difficult to master, and managers have the particularly difficult responsibility of providing significant feedback. These are guidelines for effectively giving and receiving feedback, as well as guidance for when feedback alone is insufficient.

I wrote this to be a general guide, but I want to note that I approach it from an engineering management perspective within the tech industry. I think there’s a tendency in engineering-driven organizations to ignore the complexities of human behavior, because it’s very different from interacting with computers. If you give a computer a command, it just does it. Humans are much more complex. This should be obvious, but I observe a prevalent lack of understanding and respect for good management practices in the Internet-era tech companies and startups, which I believe stems from an overarching focus on technology rather than on people.

Good management is difficult to master, and managers have the particularly difficult responsibility of providing significant feedback — to reports, to peers, and to their manager. Learning how to effectively give and receive significant feedback is the foundation for personal development and growth as a leader. These are guidelines and resources for effectively giving and receiving feedback, as well as guidance for when feedback alone is insufficient.

Start with Yourself

Before giving any feedback, it’s important to understand that every relationship is two-sided. If you’re having interpersonal issues while working with someone, it’s just as much on you as it is on them to change, in order to get to a better working relationship.

It’s far easier to change yourself than it is someone else.

As the manager, model the behavior you want to see by proactively asking for feedback, and not only that, acting on it. You may not agree with feedback about your behavior, but this is when you want to dig deeper to understand where that feedback is coming from. Then you can choose how you want to address it. Get people to articulate the problem they’re seeing rather than jumping to a solution (that you may not agree with). You need to be sensitive to problems on your team even if it’s not articulated that way. If you’re having difficulty with someone, sometimes it will be that individual’s behavior that is problematic, but first check yourself.

One of the hardest parts of becoming a better person and a great leader is developing self-awareness. You are a leader because you have many strengths. However, it is also those same strengths that can be a source for blind spots. Our blind spots are the biggest hindrances to personal development, because they’re literally areas we cannot see. Which is why it’s all the more important to be open to feedback (even if you don’t agree with it) that you may need to change your behavior and the way you interact with others.

Changing yourself leads to change in others.

If you’re open to changing how you interact with someone else, you’ll find that others will change their behavior in response. There is a lot of research that shows the way someone is treated drives their behavior, e.g. students whose teachers expected them to do better, did better, a lot of psychology experiments have been discredited because of expectations set by the researcher conducting the experiment, e.g. even experiment of rats’ behavior was shown to be manipulated by the expectations of the person running the study. As a manager, it is essential to be thinking about how you may be treating people differently. While unconscious bias is unconscious, being open to the idea that you are introducing bias in how you treat people, is the first step to addressing the problem and developing more self-awareness.

Your expectations drive other people’s behavior.

Examine whether your expectations of others are setting them up for success and helping them achieve your team’s goals. When it comes to diversity and inclusion, the reasons why women and men and non-binary folks, or people from different backgrounds, or mothers and fathers, etc. achieve statistically different outcomes especially at work, is due to the way they are treated differently in the workplace, not due to some fundamental difference between how men and women are, or people of different backgrounds are (which are statistically negligible).

Be explicit and specific when setting expectations, e.g. “I want you to own task X and I think it will take Y time,” and invite the other person to add their expectations, e.g. “Do you think it will take longer? I know you also have project Z on your plate.” Work with them to get to a shared understanding of expectations and goals. It’s much easier to give feedback later when you have agreed on expectations beforehand.

Giving Critical Feedback

Once you’ve examined yourself and the situation, you may need to give critical feedback. Giving critical feedback is a key management function, but often difficult to do well. It can feel like you’re criticizing and making someone feel bad. However, telling someone about the problematic behavior you have observed is an essential first step to addressing it at the root. If they don’t know their behavior is causing problems, they don’t have a chance to change and correct it. Giving this feedback can feel very uncomfortable, but the discomfort you feel in the moment is much more preferable than dealing with significantly bigger issues in the future due to avoiding giving feedback.

An axis square of radical candor, with Care Personally at the top of the vertical axis and Challenge Directly to the far left of the horizontal axis. On the top left axis is Ruinous Empathy, on the top right is Radical Candor, on the bottom left is Manipulative Insincerity, and on the bottom right is Obnoxious Aggression.

The Radical Candor framework by Kim Scott is useful here. The tech industry, and more broadly American businesses, generally tend to veer towards obnoxious aggression — being brutally honest without regard for how people may feel. Yes, you can still achieve results, but at the expense of many people suffering unnecessarily.

A degenerate form of obnoxious aggression is manipulative insincerity — not caring about people and not being direct. If you find yourself under a manipulative manager or in an organization where manipulative insincerity is rampant, I would recommend changing managers or jobs as quickly as you’re able.

On the other end, ruinous empathy — caring a lot about people and being extra nice — is counter-productive, because people are not telling each other what’s wrong, for fear of making each other feel bad. Ultimately, ruinous empathy can be even worse than obnoxious aggression, because people don’t hear the feedback they need to, in order to improve. The organization stagnates, and eventually declines as high performers leave, because there is no growth.

Don’t be nice, be kind — Being nice is to be agreeable, to please others. Being nice is glossing over difficulties to avoid making people feel uncomfortable. Being nice could even be seen as selfish — to spare oneself the discomfort of doing something difficult, and say nothing at all. In contrast, you cannot be kind by doing nothing. Being kind necessitates benevolent action, and this may require being disagreeable. Telling someone who is failing that they are failing is undoubtably uncomfortable to say and displeasing to hear. Coupling that feedback with helping them understand why and how to overcome this challenge, is a great act of kindness.

Don’t do “The Sandwich” — Do not put critical feedback in between layers of positive feedback in an effort to make someone feel better about the critical feedback. This sends mixed signals instead of being direct. At worst, the recipient doesn’t hear the feedback at all, and instead thinks they are performing even better than they thought, and your feedback backfired.

Don’t jump into problem solving — When you see a problem with someone, don’t start problem-solving right away, at the expense of skipping giving necessary feedback. Give the other person space to hear your feedback and decide what to do. Similarly, if people bring you problems, you don’t have to come up with a solution right away. Take time to digest the information, and then decide what to do.

We want to strike a balance between telling people directly the problems we’re seeing with their performance or behavior, and doing so in a kind and caring way. As a manager, you have a responsibility to help those you manage to develop and improve — their careers are directly affected by your actions and inaction.

Preparing to Give Feedback

This grid, created by a cognitive psychologist LeeAnn Renninger, is a useful framework that walks you through preparing to give feedback. For significant feedback, consider using this framework to write down what you want to say, before delivering it.

A grid depicting examples of feedback, such as Micro-Yes: "Do you have 10 minutes to talk about the meeting we just had?" Data Point: "I. noticed that when I proposed an idea, you said 'that'll never work.'" Impact Statement: "I mention it because I feel hesitant to share my thinking with you now." Question: "How might we best get our ideas out during meetings?"

Create Space for Giving Feedback

While you should deliver feedback early and often, for significant feedback, you should deliver it in person during a scheduled time, such as your 1-on-1, and ensure that you have enough time to cover the amount of feedback you have. In the meeting, before you’re about to deliver the feedback, give the receiver a heads up that you’re about to give feedback, e.g. “I have some feedback for you”. Also check in with yourself to ensure you are in a good mental space — you’re not feeling defensive, you’re calm and receptive. If the receiver is defensive or not taking the feedback well, continue to practice active listening, re-focus the conversation on shared goals, and ensure that you do what you can to create a safe space for this conversation.

Make Feedback Concrete

Focus on actions and behavior that you’ve observed or what you have verified based on credible feedback from others. Provide explicit examples. Start statements with “I” not “You”. For example:

  • “This is what I have observed…”

  • “Let’s talk through when you did …”

  • “This is input from people who have worked with you…”

  • “This is how I think you did on …”

Don’t personalize — Do not assign interpretation to the other person’s behavior. For example, if person X didn’t do something, do not interpret that to mean person X doesn’t care about doing that thing. Just ask person X why they didn’t do it, when you expected them to. (This is where having predetermined shared expectations is very useful!) Invite person X to share why. Maybe they didn’t understand your original request, or thought you meant something different, and you could have made your expectations more clear.

Do not “label” someone — For example, if person X consistently doesn’t do Y, and you keep telling them to do Y, do not label them as “person X is a careless thoughtless person.” Try to understand why and dig deeper. (See Deeper Feedback section.)

Do not use “blur” words — Blur words are words that need to be defined further. For example, don’t say “You didn’t run the meeting well.” Well is a blur word. What does a well-run meeting mean? Instead, say what specifically you didn’t you like about the meeting — did it go off topic, was there lack of preparation, were necessary people not invited, did you fail to get to an outcome, etc. Another example, “We need more clarity on the roadmap.” What about the roadmap is not clear? When preparing to give feedback, you need to do the work of getting specific on what it is you’re giving feedback about. Don’t expect people to read your mind.

Connect the Behavior to the Bigger Picture

Connect your feedback to how their behavior is affecting the team or the team’s ability to achieve its goals. Painting a broader picture of impact helps the receiver to digest and enact changes. If you cannot get them to agree to shared goals, then you may have done a poor job of setting expectations and aligning the team beforehand, or there is a mismatch between the person and the role you want them to play on the team or at the company. (See Deeper Feedback section.)

Don’t Make it About Being Right or Wrong

It took me a decade to learn that relationships, including professional relationships, are not about proving how right you are. I think this comes from the heavy mathematics influence on computer science as a discipline, that there is an objectively correct answer to everything. In the real world, that’s almost never the case when there is disagreement between two people. Whatever you do, don’t make giving feedback about you being right and them being wrong. You’re providing your perspective, what you have observed, and what you want to achieve together. Then you want to create a space for them to bring their perspective and align on shared goals.

Continuously Deliver Feedback

After you have given feedback, continue to give feedback and reinforce. Do not think that because you’ve told someone once, it’s mission accomplished. Your job is to ensure the feedback is not just said, but heard by the other party. You need to reinforce your feedback in and outside of 1-on-1s, and include recognition of changes they make in response to your feedback.

Repeat yourself — You may feel like you’re repeating yourself, but if a person is coming from a different place where they’re very used to doing something a certain way, they are going to need to hear it multiple times to change that behavior.

Give feedback early and often — When you start seeing a problem, even if it’s small, bring it up. You don’t want to wait so long that someone becomes really surprised by the quantity of feedback. At worst, your relationship could deteriorate to a point where they no longer trust you, and any feedback you give is ineffective.

That said, you may also want to observe behavior for a while, to establish a pattern. It is better to target a root behavior that causes many effects, than to target many small things to correct.

Deeper Feedback

People do things a certain way for a reason, because they think it’s how something should be done. Instead of focusing feedback on what to do, e.g. a lot of small corrections of “stop doing X”, “do Y this way”, etc., you can be more effective by understanding the reasons behind their behavior, the why.

In the absence of having a PhD in human psychology and behavior, being able to identify a behavioral pattern is useful too. Helping the other person connect those dots better equips them for how to address the feedback themselves.

A chart of concentric circles. The outermost ring says: WHAT: The behavior you see in the outermost ring. The middle ring says: HOW: How they think it should be done in the next. The center circle says: WHY.

In some cases, you may uncover a personal issue that’s affecting their work. Instead of changing their behavior, you may need to change their circumstances, e.g. provide time off, change their responsibilities or work environment.

In other cases, you may discover a core misalignment in motivation or ability— the work is not aligned with their larger goals or there is a fundamental mismatch in expectations and their current skillset. In these cases, you need to start thinking about a change in role if possible. Sometimes people who used to be a great fit no longer are, because both the organization and the individual have changed in incompatible ways. Helping someone find another position that better matches their skills and goals could be better for both parties.

Limitations of Feedback

Many behaviors are deep-rooted, and a person doesn’t change simply because you have told them to. As a manager, if you observe that a behavior isn’t changing after repeated feedback, you may need to consider supplementing the feedback with a process, more support, or a structural or organizational change. Finally, if you’re unable to deal with an issue within your team with the tools you have, escalate it to your manager. If you suspect something could be a deeper issue, giving your manager a heads up in advance is a good idea even if it’s not actionable for them right away.

Going Beyond Feedback

When you want to change behavior at a team level, it’s insufficient to just tell people to behave differently, maybe they will for a short time, but then they will revert to their previous behavior.

A curve graph showing how expected behavior spikes after feedback, then returns back to current behavior.
The same curve graph, but showing how PROCESS can help sustain expected behavior.

To reinforce the behavior you want to see, create processes and use tools to make the desired behavior into a habit. An example from engineering is we want engineers to think about shipping in smaller increments. Ways to enforce that is to always break down large tasks into small chunks during planning, by limiting the size of pull requests, to have tools that make continuous delivery possible, etc.

Giving Praise

Just as important as giving critical feedback is giving praise to reinforce positive behaviors, actions, and impact to the team and company. In practice this is generally easy, giving praise feels great! There are some guidelines here also:

  • Check how the person likes to hear positive feedback. Some people don’t like it in a public setting and may feel embarrassed. A personal note may be more appropriate.

  • If a person is under-performing, and you haven’t been able to effectively deliver critical feedback, don’t give them public praise in an effort to make them feel better. This can backfire, especially when the person hears the critical feedback, they will lose trust in you.

  • Align your positive feedback to what the other person values in their work.

  • That said, they may not realize a strength they have, because it’s natural to them. Positive feedback can highlight their strengths for them. Even better is providing them opportunities that play to their strengths.

Just acquiring the skills to be a good manager is already hard. Being a great manager requires even more — a big dose of self-awareness, which is very difficult to achieve. Remember that giving feedback sometimes says something about the other person, but it always says something about the person giving the feedback. Introspect yourself first, and then give feedback.

Resources

What Self-awareness Really Is And How to Cultivate It

What Most People Get Wrong About Men and Women

Crucial Conversations — if you only read one thing, make it this book. People have told me this book changed their life after I recommended it to them. I first read this book to improve my personal relationships. The lessons here apply widely in both personal and professional contexts.

Radical Candor (Caveat: how the book talks about men and women at work is a bit problematic, for the reasons discussed under Setting Expectations)

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There —read this if you want to understand better how your strengths are simultaneously the source of your weaknesses

Thanks for the Feedback

Written by


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Alicia Liu

Vice President of Engineering

Alicia Liu was the Vice President of Engineering at Nava. Before joining Nava, Alicia served as CTO at Coach.me and held various leadership roles at early-stage startups.

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