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The Problem With Not Giving Negative Feedback

Underperformance
Feedback
Internal Communication

5 June, 2018

Erik Barbara

Erik Barbara

Engineering Director at Duo Security

Erik Barbara explains the importance of providing negative feedback quickly and openly so that your direct reports can grow and change.

Problem

I inherited a new team, and before taking over as a manager, I went through a briefing session with the team's prior manager. He told me that one of the team members had had a couple of occasions where performance was an issue, but it wasn't brought up in the meeting that it was a serious problem for this direct report. I started managing him and started to find that every couple of months there would be an incident where a bug or defect was found in his coding. These were typically problems that were brought to me by other engineers or other managers in the company.

Actions taken

My response to that was to initially give him the benefit of the doubt and to ignore the problems that were occurring. I was scared of what he would think of me and that he would like me less as a manager if I gave him honest, brutal feedback. However, the problems continued to progress until the point where I was receiving feedback every week from people about his poor performance. At that point, it was very clear to me that I had not done my job as an engineering manager. I had failed him. My response was to get HR involved, as I thought he needed to be put on a performance improvement plan. They recommended that I have a very serious conversation with him first. I did this, but, unfortunately, in my conversation with him, I was not very clear about objective criteria or cases where he had performed badly. I had to go back to all of the cases where individuals had provided me with feedback, and gather these cases up into a document I could show him with an outline of times he had made mistakes. This allowed me to show him cases where he had not been receptive to feedback from his peers. He explained that these had been cases where he thought he was just sharing ideas with people, but others had perceived it as him not being willing to listen to ideas or feedback. I then put him on a 30-day performance improvement plan, as advised by our HR department. But, providing him with objective feedback allowed him to change his behaviors and communicate better that when he replied to his peers he wasn't dismissing their ideas, he just wanted to have a discussion. This then allowed his peers to understand he wasn't ignoring them or being uncollaborative, he just wants to understand more. Eventually, I was able to take him off of the plan and several of his peers followed up with me to tell me that his behavior had dramatically improved.

Lessons learned

Provide feedback regularly and consistently to your direct reports instead of waiting until you have really bad news to share. However, when giving feedback, do so objectively and provide details. This gives your reports the best possible to chance to grow and improve.


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