It’s performance review season for much of the corporate world, and everyone’s fretting about promotions, salary increases, granted stock, or lack thereof. One of the dirty words of this time of year is “feedback.” Whether at the receiving end or having to give feedback, it can get stressful, challenging, and intimidating. While both empirical observations and proper research have shown mixed results when it comes to achieving desired results, we argue that the problem is the quality of the feedback and the way it is offered and not its mere existence.
Git Analytics tools, such as Waydev, Gitprime Pluralsight Flow, and Code Climate provide data so that engineering managers can offer valuable feedback to their engineers.
What is feedback
Feedback is information about a task, behavior, or learning process given to help the person at the receiving end improve future outcomes. Feedback should not be seen as a tool to humiliate, punish, or embarrass. For feedback to happen, at least two people are needed — the person doing the task or displaying the behavior and the person observing and reacting. Since the observer is human, the product of her observation is always subjective to a certain extent — an opinion, the observers’ perspective, and not an undeniable reality.
Even if it does lack absolute objectivity and seems fraught with distortions caused by egos or personal preferences and perspectives, feedback is a necessary tool in learning. If we accept the “we don’t know what we don’t know” axiom, it follows that no learning and improvement can happen unless something or someone points out what we are missing, what we are doing wrong, and what we can do differently so that we can reach better results.
Why feedback matters
While many people are capable of learning from their mistakes, a lot of time, effort, and resources can be spared with the right input from others. This is especially valuable for engineering managers and leaders — in the words of the Harvard Management School Professor, Robert Kaplan, leaders should be going out of their way to ask for feedback, both from the upper ranks and their own teams, as a way of keeping themselves in check and make sure that they keep learning and growing.
“I haven’t met a leader yet that can be a great leader of a group all by themselves. This [inviting feedback] engages your people. And for some people, they say, ‘But it makes me look vulnerable. It makes me look weak.’ I would argue the opposite. It makes you look strong. It is not a weakness to ask a question or seek advice. I would argue the most insecure people are the ones who do not do that,” says Kaplan.
How and when to give feedback
For any feedback to have a chance of being accepted and incorporated, it needs to be asked for or welcomed. Whether it comes from a genuine desire to grow as a professional or individual or from the more practical realization that in a corporate setting, one needs to listen and adapt to grow. Openness to accept feedback is crucial. No matter how well-intentioned, no piece of feedback will ever have any impact if the receiver does not accept it. As an engineering manager, there are a few things you can do to help improve the chances that team members will accept your feedback.
Don’t wait until it’s too late. Use regular one-to-ones to stay on top of issues that team members might be struggling with and to give and ask for feedback but don’t limit yourself to that. Feedback needs to be given within a day or two of noticing an action or behavior that would benefit from being discussed. If you miss that time frame, the event can be distorted by memory or classified as irrelevant. You can benchmark engineering performance on a daily basis by checking the Daily Update feature that Waydev provides.
Be specific and focus on how someone can improve instead of on what they are doing wrong. General feedback like “you always” or “you never” rarely achieves anything. Instead, point out the facts and the impact of their action or behavior. If you’re having a conversation with an engineer that is always late for team meetings, there is no point in saying, “You never arrive on time.” Try something more along the lines of “This was the third time in a row that you’ve missed half of the weekly meeting. Because of that, you’ve missed important updates shared by other members of the team. Now, they will each have to take time out of their schedule to brief you.” Git Analytics tools, such as Waydev, help you be more specific, by providing you with concrete metrics regarding your engineers’ performance.
Be aware of mood memory, or that people will remember how you’ve made them feel. Humans are wired to notice and focus on negative feedback, so you need to know that team members will dwell on that and barely recall the positive feedback you give them. In the past, engineering managers have tried to offset that imbalance by using the now much despised “feedback sandwich” where a piece of negative feedback was forced between two “slices” of positive feedback. The problem was that people could see right through the trick and ended up rejecting everything and resenting the person giving it.
What would help when having to give negative feedback is to be aware of your tone, keeping it informal and empathetic so that the person receiving the feedback does not feel threatened. People’s sensitivity and reactions to feedback vary immensely and ignoring that reality will not help anyone. Even more importantly, make sure you ask questions and listen actively and intently. This will give the other person a chance to tell their side of the story. It will also help you see what suggestions or advice to provide them with to help them do better in the future. You might even realize that you are actually on the same page because they know exactly what they did wrong and how to avoid doing it again.
Never miss an opportunity to give positive feedback. In a highly functioning team, the appropriate ratio of positive to negative feedback is 6 to 1. That said, make sure that you don’t force it to comply with the ratio. People are capable of seeing through insincere, forced positive feedback. Also, compliment your engineers on things that matter to them — giving kudos to a team member for getting right a piece of basic code might have the opposite effect, and you might end up offending them. To help you with that, Waydev provides a complete overview of your engineers’ activity, enabling you to visualize healthy work patterns and spot achievements worth praising.
Why and how to ask for feedback
Engineering managers and leaders can (and should) also ask for feedback from their teams. Going back to admitting that we don’t know what we don’t know, it’s hard to improve when we don’t know what our blind spots are. While some of your engineers will be more reluctant to share feedback, if they see that you are sincerely looking for suggestions on how to improve and that you are acting on the feedback you receive, this will prove very useful — you will be spared errors that can be avoided by incorporating other perspectives. It will help you build relationships based on trust, honesty, and mutual support with your team.
At Waydev, we make a point of reminding ourselves that incorporating as many points of view as possible when making a decision or when looking at a problem is key to getting things right. We value and count on the feedback provided by our clients as a way of continuously making our product better and making sure that it serves our clients’ real needs. Also, the product we’ve built helps engineering leaders use concrete data to understand their engineers better and drive more meaningful conversations about what they are working on.