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Struggling to Deliver Negative Feedback

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16 March, 2021

Sami Touil

Sami Touil

VP of Engineering at Onfido

Sami Touil, Senior Engineering Manager at Spendesk, speaks of his personal struggle to deliver negative feedback to a manager who failed at an important task.

Problem

As a manager, I always had a problem with delivering negative feedback. I am not comfortable when someone doesn’t like me; it is part of my personality. I know how to do it, I know it is part of the job. But still, I find it hard to, as a manager, deliver negative feedback. In my last job, one of the junior managers in my team was responsible for a rather complex migration, and I put my trust in them that they will complete that task without much trouble. Two weeks before the launch date, I realized they failed at implementing a critical part of the project that I repeatedly warned them about. By failing to implement it, they jeopardize the whole project.

Actions taken

I had to separate the problem into two parts and address them according to their priority. First and foremost, I had to mitigate the problem. Then I had to tell the junior manager how disappointed I was by his performance.

The person in question was somewhat of a friend and someone I cared a lot about, which only made things more uncomfortable. I took them into a separate room where we could have a private conversation and told them how disappointed I felt. But, we had to fix the problem before we could discuss their performance. I didn’t leave them in the lurch; we fixed the problem together and ensured that the migration was underway as planned.

Two weeks later, we had our first one-on-one after their failure. I started by asking them to tell me what had happened. I underlined that I warned them timely detailing what they should pay attention to. I was surprised how composed they were and how gracefully they accepted my -- often harsh -- criticism. I was expecting that they would resent me for my criticism while in fact, the complete opposite happened. They came to respect me even more for being straightforward and being patient in explaining what they did wrong. Unlike what I believed, that conversation strengthened our relationship.

Before that one-on-one, I was enormously anxious. I knew how important they were to the company, and I didn’t want them to feel unpleasant. At the same time, I knew I had to do it for the sake of everyone involved in the project and the company. I was forced to do something I didn’t want to do.

I did consider other options too. For a brief moment, I thought I shouldn’t mention it at all; we would fix the problem and move on. But, I immediately grasped what a poor decision that would be. I wanted them to understand that they failed and that they had to do better. Without conveying that message, I wouldn’t be able to trust them, and that would corrode our relationship.

Lessons learned

  • Telling people what they did wrong will not necessarily erode your relationship. It can even result in its polar opposite. I knew that I was able to maintain the same relationship after our frank conversation, but I didn’t know that it could strengthen our relationship. A couple of weeks later, this person approached me to thank me for my candid feedback and share how appreciative they were.
  • People often expect to be challenged in order to improve. Negative feedback is a way of presenting that challenge. It should be stimulating but not humiliating.

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