Manager's Guide: Mastering Feedback Communication

7 min read

A single yellow flower with green leaves growing in a field of rocks
I’ve always struggled with employee performance coaching, especially with communicating feedback. This created a big tension for me as a caring, empathic manager. I saw feedback as a critical part of my role, but whenever I gave corrective feedback I felt like I was scolding someone when I should be supporting them. Through years of trial and error (mostly error) managing people as a CTO, I’ve finally uncovered a concise set of principles that allow me to both fulfill my duty as a manager and feel good about it!

Effective feedback starts with intent. In this post, we’ll discuss how to prepare for feedback communication. With careful reflection, you can create a meaningful feedback conversation that supports employee growth.

ACE Your Feedback Communication!

You’ll approach the feedback communication conversation in three phases:

Ask. Always start with a question. ALWAYS๐Ÿ‘ start๐Ÿ‘ with๐Ÿ‘ a๐Ÿ‘ question!๐Ÿ‘

Connect. Guide the conversation by linking observations (not judgments) to their words.

Expect. Be clear about outcomes.

To prepare, you’ll create a list for each phase, likely bouncing among the three as you go.

  • Questions for the Ask phase
  • Observations for the Connect phase
  • Expectations for the Expect phase

Questions Set The Scene For Growth

Change begins with awareness and acceptance, and a belief that change is possible - aka a growth mindset.

Growth mindset is a safe, expansive, creative mindset. Criticism puts the employee in a defensive mindset: an unsafe, constrained, fall-back-on-existing-strengths mindset. It’s critical to approach feedback from a growth perspective.«not quite right yet»

Starting your feedback conversation with a question builds trust and rapport and cultivates a growth space. Active listening shows the employee you care about them and their opinions, rather than telling them what to do or punishing them for some real or imaginary imperfection. Remember, criticism does not engender change. You may feel pressure to be firm, be direct, lay down the law - but opening with strong corrective statements like “you need to pick up the pace” only breeds fear and distrust.

Think about the topics you want to cover, then craft clear, open-ended questions to kick off a conversation in each area. Some questions you might start with:

  • For someone who’s been stagnant:
    • How do you feel about your growth?
    • Have you been growing? On what dimensions?
  • For someone you want to see step up:
    • What does leadership mean to you? Who do you see demonstrating leadership?
    • What makes them exemplary?
  • For someone who needs to improve technically:
    • What are the most important parts of the development process?
    • What are the best ways to learn from others?
  • For someone who’s been isolated:
    • How do you want to show up on the team?
    • What do you want to contribute?

Stick with the one or two most impactful opportunity areas. No one can change everything at once.

Try building momentum by linking these to recent changes. “Given our new strategy, how do you see yourself contributing over the next six months?”. You’re partnering with the employee to navigate a new situation together, instead of piling more pressure on them. A team change, process change, personal change - it’s all fair game. Employee goals are as much about adapting to dynamic circumstances as they are about the employee’s individual direction.

Observations Communicate Feedback Objectively

What is an observation? It’s a data point. Not an accusation, not a judgment. In fact, observations remove judgment from the conversation by forcing you to evaluate your emotions and biases.

If you feel an employee works slowly, that’s a judgment. But why do you feel that way? What actions have you observed that create this impression? Maybe they’re missing deadlines, or they aren’t pushing much code, or they’re asking the same questions over and over. All these observations can have reasonable explanations that don’t assuming a fundamental lack of ability (try thinking of some!). But until you Ask - truly, deeply, curiously Ask - you can’t valid your assumptions (hint: they’re probably wrong).

Before ACE, I would go into performance reviews armed with judgments. During the conversation, I would always discover new information about the situation. How could I not? The employee has a lot of info I don’t have. This put me in an impossible position: deliver my judgment and feel like I was unfairly criticizing the employee, or not deliver it and feel like I hadn’t addressed the problem. No matter what I chose, I left the conversation feeling like a bad manager.

An Observation remains the same in the face of additional data (data + data = more data). Its meaning invariably changes (interpretation + more data = new interpretation). A growth-minded employee readily, thankfully accepts new data as an opportunity to learn and accelerate. A criticized employee rebels against new data as they seek to reverse your preconceived judgment.

By reserving judgment, you can together decide what these mean. Since you haven’t finalized a mental model of the person, you leave room to update it as they add their own observations.

Some ways to generate Observations:

  • Just think of some ๐Ÿ˜› Seriously though, you likely have firsthand experience with this employee or you wouldn’t be working with them on feedback and goals. Write down anything that’s top of mind.
  • Think of how you feel about the employee; these are NOT observations. Think about the behaviors that make you feel this way; these ARE observations!
  • Incorporate observations you’ve heard from others about the employee (if and only if you think it’s relevant)

And, some additional tips as you prepare for your feedback communication:

  • Rely on your experience! You know a lot of things and people want to hear what you think, even if it seems obvious to you. What table stakes are they doing well or poorly against? Don’t assume they know it.
  • Rely on your position! Employees value your perspective; you’re able to see things they can’t (and vice versa).
  • You don’t need a ton of observations to have a productive conversation
  • You do need to include some positive observations. Building up their confidence smooths the growth process (“belief in ability to change”), so plan how you’re going to make them feel good about their strengths and contributions.

Expectations Bolster Impact

The rubber hits the road with expectations. What behavioral changes do you want to see from your employee, and why? Again, write them down in advance but be prepared to adjust on the fly.

Expectations should be grounded in the employee’s role, and relate closely to the needs of the company. Across the board, they should be the same for everyone doing the same job. Yet, individuals will thrive with different goals based on their skills and interests, and as a manager you must find a win-win balance between generic role expectations and the unique strengths of the individual.

Expectations have little to do with Observations, either. Decoupling the two allows you to stand firm with your expectations regardless of how the Ask and Connect phases went.

For example: you want your employee to build a reputation as an expert, and you see an opportunity for them to create stronger relationships outside their team. You observe them hanging back in larger meetings, and thus not getting on the inter-team radar. During your feedback communication conversation, you learn they have a massive fear of public speaking. No problem! This new data doesn’t change your expectation (stronger relationships), only your approach. Together you set a more appropriate goal on an easier avenue for them: casual one-on-one chats.

Some tips to generate expectations:

  • Consult internal assets: your career framework, the job description for the role, previous performance evaluations
  • Think about company needs and company strategy, and how this employee fits into the bigger picture
  • If you could change one thing to turn this employee into the most amazing example of this role, what would it be?
  • What is the employee’s biggest strength? How could they double down on it to help the company?
  • What is the employee most excited about? You’ll see much more growth in an area they’re naturally attuned to.
  • Reference the SMART framework to craft concrete goals together

You’re Ready To Communicate Feedback!

Careful preparation alone changes the tone and impact of your feedback conversations. But wait, there’s more: feedback and goals are two sides of the same coin. Feedback without goals is just complaining, and goals without feedback is wishful thinking! In Part 2, we’ll discuss how to expand your feedback communication conversation into a meaningful discussion of employee goals.

What are your go-to questions for easing into a tough topic with an employee? Tweet me @archslide and share your story.