The most memorable moments in a career are often marked with difficult, constructive feedback.
Before joining Slack, I was a senior security engineer at a major social media platform. While working on my first project there, I was in awe of a senior engineer who wasn’t delivering. By the time I gave my own manager visibility to how behind schedule we were, he was rightfully dismayed. I was letting another team’s dysfunction become my problem. I was at risk of failing alone.
My manager showed me how to take control of the situation. It was painful but necessary. There were daily meetings, extensive status reports, the over-communication of micro-deliverables—you get the idea. The whole exercise lasted nearly two months, but I learned so much from my manager’s constant attention, and by putting myself under the spotlight. Feedback, and progress, came rushing in.
Difficult feedback like this changes you. It should change you. Feedback unlocks an opportunity.
Today, as Slack’s interim chief security officer, I manage teams that rely on constructive feedback to perform at their best in high-stakes situations. Here’s how we not only encourage feedback, but make sure it’s a tool that’s used early and often.
Creating a constructive feedback culture
In an ideal workplace, peers, supervisors and direct reports all share their work early and often. They ask for feedback. In work environments where people don’t feel respected or cared for, this doesn’t happen. It’s for this reason that a healthy feedback culture starts at the top.
“Your vulnerabilities are opportunities for your team to learn.”
Leaders should invite feedback. Ask for it, accept it gratefully and offer feedback about yourself. For instance, I recently admitted to my team that I’d been too focused on operational issues and would let strategic thinking lapse as a result. This started a collective conversation about the team’s vision and strategy. As a leader, your vulnerabilities are opportunities for your team to learn.
In addition to modeling humility and vulnerability, I’ve learned several best practices for encouraging bottom-up and peer-to-peer feedback:
• Ask your teammates if they’re looking for corrective and/or congratulatory feedback. It’s important to check with individuals about this. Some people only want corrections. Others want their triumphs celebrated.
• Consider individual and collective feedback. Individual feedback has to be tuned differently for each member of your team. Collective feedback should be integrated into the system that you are trying to improve.
• Pay special attention to people who are starting something new. They need to know that you’re with them. Feedback is a great way to show support. If you pretend to not notice when they are struggling with a new challenge, they might feel abandoned. This is when they need your empathy the most.
• Make feedback a habit. After each project, ask yourself what worked, what didn’t, where did we get lucky and how can we do better next time. Project retros are a great tool. The key is to find an attentive moderator who asks curious questions and someone else who takes diligent notes.
• Create a dedicated, safe space for sharing lessons. For example, my team has an hourlong weekly meeting, during which everyone gives a five-minute deep-dive about something they’ve learned in the past two weeks.
In the engineering world, peer review of code is a common way to create this type of culture. Peer review is a feedback loop born, in part, of the agile development process. It not only protects the speed and stability of the development process, it forces knowledge sharing and healthy interdependence among coworkers and teams. No matter which department you’re in, if you set the intention that iteration must happen quickly in your org, you’ll be forced to operationalize feedback loops. And you will reap the benefits too.
Another methodology that encourages feedback loops is the RACI matrix. Identifying the responsible, accountable, consulted and informed personnel on a project gives everyone clarity on whom to request feedback from and at what stage.
How to prepare for a tough feedback conversation
Delivering corrective feedback can be difficult, especially if you’re expecting the recipient to react turbulently.
Before any tough feedback conversation, I write down everything I might say if there were no consequences. This helps me discover any unknown feelings and process them before I’m in the middle of a difficult discussion. I also make a mental list of all the responses I might receive and make sure I’m emotionally and tactically prepared for each. Then, I find a trusted partner for role play. Even five minutes of playing out the scenario is beneficial.
“There’s nothing more demoralizing than experiencing the same dysfunctions over and over. Let’s make new mistakes.”
When we feel threatened, it’s only natural that we take a defensive posture. Unfortunately, that posture undermines the vulnerability we need to make the most of the gift our colleague is giving us. Here are steps you can take to mitigate a bad reaction:
1. Lay the groundwork. Before you have meaningful feedback conversations, the recipient should already know that you are on their side. I take time at the start of every feedback conversation to reinforce the strength of the existing relationship.
2. Start and end with the goals, not the issue. What do we both already agree is true? Check for goal alignment with the feedback recipient in the area of concern and look for differences you might have been unaware of. If the goal alignment is not there, it’s a different conversation.
3. Direct, specific and non-threatening. One of my first managers taught me this 25 years ago, and it still holds true. Don’t beat around the bush. Name the behavior, result or ability that is missing. Be detailed and give examples of how the issue is affecting the recipient’s ability to meet the goal. Don’t threaten, but do be clear when you’re expectations aren’t being met.
4. Brainstorm. The feedback conversation is about helping the recipient get to a better place. You’ll know the input has landed when the recipient is providing ideas for resolution and improvement. Figure out how you should participate. Ask how you can help, and suggest how you’ve addressed a similar issue in the past. Be sure the recipient wants your input. Maybe the recipient only wants a sounding board. Follow their lead, and make a follow-up plan.
5. Circle back. If the conversation doesn’t progress to solution-finding, something is wrong. Perhaps the recipient doesn’t yet see a path forward or thinks you’re asking for something impossible. If you can’t get the recipient to truly engage on the feedback, end the discussion and ask for a follow-up. Give a little space, but don’t wait too long to come back to the conversation.
Don’t wait for the perfect moment to give feedback. If something needs to be addressed and the circumstances aren’t right, at least mention you have some thoughts you want to share at a better time. There’s nothing more demoralizing than experiencing the same dysfunctions over and over. Let’s make new mistakes.
A manager’s top job is to attract, retain and grow great talent. That can be hard to do in today’s competitive job market. Remember that, for good people, getting better is the greatest reward, which means that great feedback is a key retention tool for your star performers. That’s why building a team with a strong feedback culture will help everyone do the best work of their lives, including you!
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