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REAL TALK

What every manager should know about giving feedback

Jopwell
A good feedback conversation can help people figure out how to close the gap between what they do now and what they hope to do in the future.
  • Heather Landy
By Heather Landy

Executive editor of Quartz

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Years ago, in a bar in London, a friend’s acquaintance regaled a small group of us with stories from the front lines of management. He worked at a consulting firm, where he had recently taken on a handful of direct reports and was expected to critique them when they weren’t measuring up.

My friend and I were arguably well practiced at criticizing other people, but we agreed it was a terrible fate to be put in a job where you had to do this to their faces. We were reporters. We had never managed anyone and had never been exposed to anything resembling management training—and neither, we were pretty sure, had our editors.

The consultant at our table was jazzed about a brilliant strategy he had just learned from a senior manager at his firm, guaranteed to make any criticism go down easy. It was called the shit sandwich, he told us, and it goes like this: First, you compliment the employee on some aspect of their work. Then you draw their attention to this other thing they’ve done, the thing you need to point out was not up to snuff. And finally, to smooth it all over, you say something encouraging, like, “That said, I’m certain you have what it takes to succeed here and I know your next project will be great.”

We immediately saw this as more palatable than yelling at people and rather loved the idea of falling back on a prescribed process for handling difficult situations. But when I finally became a manager years later, it didn’t take long to figure out that this strategy was an awful idea.

The sandwich method may make it easier for managers to deliver criticism, but you’re still slinging shit. You’re just mixing it with a bunch of other signals, leaving employees uncertain whether they’ve just been praised or upbraided. At least with yelling, the message is clear. I’m not a yeller, though. I’m morally opposed to yelling in the workplace. I was going to have to find another way. And eventually I did, with a lot of lessons learned along the way.

Lesson 1

Take a radical approach

For the first few years, my primary strategy was to avoid confrontation and rely on my good fortune to manage people who were pretty great at their jobs. When I spotted mistakes, I would fix them. When I was pleased with their work, I would tell them. When I was frustrated with something they’d done, I would spare their feelings and vent to somebody else.

It was a passive-aggressive form of management that perhaps helped my team but didn’t teach them, plus I wasted a lot of time complaining about behaviors to people who had no chance of changing them.

I should have been thinking more radically.

In 2015, former Google executive Kim Scott went public about the time she was told by her then-boss, Sheryl Sandberg, that she said “um” a lot in meetings and it made her sound stupid. It was an instance of what Scott describes as “radical candor” (she went on to write a book about the concept). Radical candor involves a level of transparency and directness that some people might find scandalous. Ultimately, though, it serves the recipient. When you care about people, and are willing to challenge them directly, you can provide them with the feedback they need to become more aware of themselves.

Not every manager is capable of this type of candor right away. As Ben Horowitz of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz notes, being a leader “requires lots of unnatural motion.” (In the same blog post, he also puts to rest any lingering notion that you might be better off going back to shit sandwiches.)

But even a practiced giver of radical candor can run into trouble if the recipient isn’t equipped to handle it.

Lesson 2

Your feedback can sound combative, even when you don’t mean it that way

Patty McCord, the former chief talent officer of Netflix and author of the 2018 book Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility, is an evangelist for what she calls radical honesty, and it makes radical candor sound like a picnic.

In the workplace, McCord says, radical honesty means being truthful with people about their limits, and about why the company exists. You might call your workplace a family, for instance. But is it? “At Netflix, we decided to use the metaphor of a sports team, not a family,” McCord writes in a 2018 piece for Quartz at Work. “Just as great coaches are constantly scouting for new players and culling others from their lineups, our leaders would need to continually look for talent and reconfigure team makeup.” In other words, managers and employees alike had to be prepared for making moves, whether that meant changing teams or changing employers.

This idea makes a lot of people uncomfortable, McCord admits.

“People tell me, you know, if I follow your way of thinking, all my employees are gonna be afraid, and they’re gonna feel like work isn’t a safe place,” she tells management coach Jerry Colonna on an episode of his Reboot podcast. “And when I dig deeper into what they mean by ‘work isn’t a safe place,’ they mean the promise that I’ll always be here might be violated.”

If that’s true, then even when their agenda is nothing bigger than offering some constructive coaching or pointing out and talking through a mistake so it isn’t repeated, bosses can trigger a primal workplace fear: Is my job at risk? Am I about to get fired?

McCord says this is problematic on several levels, starting with the fact that at most employers, “the premise of the promise [of job security] is a lie.” And this lie is not benign. If you confuse a feeling of safety at work with job security, McCord tells Colonna (pdf), “it puts you in a constant combat zone. You have to protect yourself, right? You have to constantly make sure that nothing bad happens so that it cracks this illusion that you have of safety.”

And when that’s happening, you don’t have an environment in which people are receptive to critical feedback, which makes it all the more difficult to deliver it. What then? Be open with your employees about why you’re providing what might be construed as harsh feedback. And if they still seem bewildered, ask them for feedback on how you handled the conversation so that you can do it better the next time.

Lesson 3

Your feedback can be misinterpreted, even if you feel you’ve been clear

A good feedback conversation can help people figure out how to close the gap between what they do now and what they hope to do in the future. But not everyone is open to that kind of thinking—and even if they are, they might not always be in the right frame of mind for it.

Feedback messages are easily muddled, if not tuned out completely, if the recipient:

  • Doesn’t like when you chose to deliver the message
  • Doesn’t like where you chose to deliver the message
  • Doesn’t like how you chose to deliver the message
  • Doesn’t like the message
  • Doesn’t like you

That’s a lot of variables to keep in mind when you’re crafting a feedback message, and there are plenty others to consider. The key is identifying when you’re being dismissed or misread, and knowing how to steer the conversation back on track.

For instance, some people might have a tendency to counter your criticism with criticism of their own. Their criticism might even be valid. But it’s probably a separate issue than the one you came to discuss with them. Harvard Law School lecturer Sheila Heen, the co-author of Difficult Conversations and Thanks for the Feedback, says the secret to combating this kind of “switchtracking” is “signposting,” where you simply name the two topics.

Heen advises, “Once you notice a conversation is switchtracking, you can signpost by saying, for example, Okay. So it sounds like we have two things to talk about. One is what you are saying, which is that … I made a comment that felt undermining to you.That is important. And the second thing that we should also talk about is how we prepared for that meeting, because I do think it contributed to the problem, and I felt frustrated by it.”

Lesson 4

Feedback needs to be frequent—but maybe not *that* frequent

There’s little debate left as to whether a yearly performance review is sufficient feedback for anyone. But there are plenty of open questions about how much more feedback people need, and how often.

Hedge fund founder Ray Dalio created an intense feedback culture at Bridgewater, where a proprietary app installed on the iPads carried around by employees allows them to publicly rate their colleagues after every encounter.

This level of transparency has its merits. But the idea of racking up ratings all day doesn’t sit well with everyone. A friend who once interviewed at Bridgewater was so turned off by the prospect of constant feedback he decided not to pursue the job any further. When someone in HR called to say the firm decided to go with someone else and wanted to give him some feedback on his candidacy, he politely declined it—and was certain he had dodged a bullet.

At app-connecting software maker Zapier, where co-founder Wade Foster teaches a course on feedback as part of the employee-onboarding process, managers are encouraged to supply feedback in the moment or soon afterward, if it feels appropriate.

The key to in-the-moment feedback, Foster says, is to keep it digestible and observation-based. Just state the behavior, describe the consequence, and ask for the change you want (or, if you’re praising the person, ask them to continue the behavior). For example, you might say, “Hey, I noticed you were 10 minutes late to the meeting. When you’re not there on time, it really throws us off. Could you please make sure you’re on time next week?”

“Everyone is capable” of offering that kind of feedback once they learn how to do it, Foster says. “Getting that in there [during onboarding] helps.”

Zapier, whose 200-plus employees all work remotely, also goes through a review cycle twice a year. These evaluations are facilitated by the “people” team and led by the employee’s manager, and may include input from other departments. The reviews serve as formal checkpoints to make sure people’s individual plans are aligned with the needs of the business, says Foster.

In some management circles, annual reviews fell out of favor several years ago, prompting even some bellwether employers to abandon the practice. But annual (or twice yearly) reviews have some virtue. When you’re properly balancing feedback that’s useful in the moment with more holistic evaluations that you might want to do from time to time, it’s easy to spot inconsistencies in how people are being steered by their managers. A nasty surprise in the annual performance review likely means something in the more casual feedback process is broken.

Whether you’re offering feedback every six months or after every meeting, you might need some help incorporating all this feedback into your workflow. That’s part of the premise of former Google HR chief Laszlo Bock’s new venture, Humu, which developed a “nudge engine” to give people personalized reminders that elicit desired behaviors.

If you don’t have sophisticated HR software, consider just setting reminders for yourself, whether on your calendar or in your preferred messaging app, to spend a few minutes each day commenting on your team members’ work. At review time, if you have one, consider blocking off the necessary hours the way you would for any other type of “deep work.”

Lesson 5

Feedback is everywhere

One of the most interesting ways in which the delivery of feedback has changed in recent years is directional.

It flows now from manager to employee, employee to employee, and employee to manager. It can be rounded up in secret or discussed out in the open. Feedback also comes now from many more places outside the company, whether from satisfied (or dissatisfied) customers on social media or from anonymous critics on workplace-review sites like Glassdoor.

A few years ago, I had an underling openly criticize a strategy I had shared with my team. I disagreed with her position and explained why. My idea carried the day, but I felt utterly weak as a leader. What did it mean that someone so junior to me felt she could question me that way?

Samuel Culbert, a UCLA management professor I happened to be meeting with that very day, helped me reframe the issue. What the open questioning meant, he said, was that my team and I had created the conditions for employees at any level to express their views and engage the leadership. And that, as far as he was concerned, is one of the highest callings in management.

Just be aware that sometimes all that engagement of senior leadership has a way of sidelining middle-managers. When an employee has a sensitive complaint to report about their direct supervisor, you want them coming to senior leadership. But when their issue is more along the lines of “I wish my manager didn’t keep canceling our one-on-ones,” you want them talking to their manager (ideally with that “state the problem, state the consequence, ask for the change” approach that Foster teaches at Zapier).

I made a rule a couple of years ago that if anyone at work came to me with quotidien complaints about their direct manager, I would simply advise them to discuss the issue with that person (and offer any pointers they needed so they could make the discussion a productive one). It’s a way of coaching the employee while having a fellow manager’s back, and it reinforces the type of culture so many of us hope for, where feedback is a kindness and something neither the recipient nor the giver needs to fear.

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