When Feedback Comes as a Surprise

Trevor White

Head of Engineering at Reforge



"I will never forget the first time that I gave somebody feedback and it came as a complete surprise to them. I think this has happened to many leaders (it certainly has in my career), whether it was you giving the feedback, or you witnessed it happen to someone else while sitting in on a performance review. I, in fact, experienced it again during a joint performance review with a person who was transitioning onto my team. The review really consisted of the person saying 'I didn't realize any of this was a problem, and it is coming up now. Why didn't I know how bad it was?'"

Actions taken

"Few situations are more uncomfortable than this. There are many moments in management where you are on cloud nine and you can celebrate the successes. I would say that this circumstance feels like the complete opposite, and it feels super challenging. I have thought about these conversations and, in hindsight (and now looking forward), I always want to make sure to check in with the person facing the challenge and make them understand the gravity of the situation and its importance to their career development and progression. For example, when a manager lets me know that they have communicated certain feedback to a particular person and that they are sure that that individual heard it, I will follow up. I'll lean in and have a conversation with the individual personally to make sure that we are all on the same page. Sometimes it's clear the feedback has been communicated and understood right away, and other times it's a longer conversation where they state that their feedback really does surprise them and that maybe they didn't internalize it the first time. It's these types of situations that make having these conversations important. Without these follow-up conversations, ignorance ensues and the challenge remains. The other people on the team feel the burden, the individual feels concerned, and as a manager, you might feel a little better because the feedback was given and it seems like you solved the problem, but in fact, the underlying problem still exists. So, to avoid the circumstance of surprise, correct it by having really transparent conversations. Even if you think there is alignment, ensure there is by having follow-ups."

Lessons learned

  • "Feedback is a gift. Our role as leaders is to always give people brutally honest and transparent feedback. Relate to individuals how they are performing relative to expectations. Express the challenges that might exist. Disclose their ability to collaborate. Report on the way they choose to communicate. Let them know how their peers see them. Any and all feedback is incredibly important."
  • "If you are a social manager it can be very difficult to give this type of feedback and follow-ups. There are camaraderie and friendships with your team similar to that of a coach that you don't want to disrupt. But remember you are accountable for the complete success of the team, not just a coach. You are there to provide guidance, root for the team, and make sure they deliver on-time and on-scope."

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Trevor White

Head of Engineering at Reforge

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationLeadership TrainingPerformance ReviewsFeedback TechniquesCareer GrowthCareer ProgressionIndividual Contributor RolesLeadership & StrategyTeam & Project Management

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