Providing Constructive Feedback
10 May, 2018
VP, Technology at ThoughtWorks
There have been many instances over the course of my career as an engineering leader where I have been faced with giving feedback. Critical feedback can be really difficult on both sides of the table. It's hard to articulate in a way that doesn't offend the listener and it's usually difficult to hear if you're the one on the receiving end. Additionally, most engineering organizations don't invest in teaching people how to give (or receive) feedback effectively.
When giving feedback, I usually start by sharing with the individual that I'm invested in their growth and that's the reason for the feedback. I share that I believe they can overcome these items and I hope to be a partner in helping them do so. I also start by being vulnerable as a leader and sharing some stories about myself where I have failed or made mistakes and where taking on feedback has helped me to grow. The next step is to start with positive feedback. I share with the individual what I believe to be their strengths and areas where I think they've really excelled. When listing strengths, I encourage the individual to focus on them; brainstorming about how they can amplify them even further. Often people will focus on their weaknesses, but it's really important to be able to amplify our strengths. It also boosts confidence for the tough part coming up next. I then move on to providing critical feedback by sharing areas of possible improvement and clear examples of instances where the individual could have chosen a different path, decision, or action. I find it important to collect detailed data points and provide crisp examples to support the critical feedback. Additionally, I often try to give examples of how I've made similar mistakes in the past in order to show my own vulnerabilities and help them to visualize a path to improvement. Once this has been done, I get confirmation from them that they have heard the feedback and look to determine whether they are aware of and/or agree with the feedback. I usually also give the receiver a moment to articulate their perception of the feedback and any feelings they have as they are hearing this. Momentary silence is ok, as I find it's important to give people the time to digest and reflect on what I have said. Finally, rather than suggesting ideas on what they can do better, I brainstorm with them about potential paths for change. I employ a coaching approach of asking questions instead of a suggestive approach of telling them the answer. This helps them to think through the problem critically.
It's important to share with people that you're invested in their growth and to explain that is why you are having the conversation. Be vulnerable as a leader sharing your own stories as a thought partnering mechanism. Follow-up between feedback sessions. If you only approach the receiver at feedback time then you won't be seen as a long-term improvement partner.
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