How to Deliver Better Feedback (and why it matters)

By: Eric DiMarco

In mid-April, IntelliDyne hosted a quarterly offsite for new and seasoned managers to collaborate and learn from one another. One of the activities that took place during this day-long session was an interactive discussion about delivering feedback with guest speaker, Freddi Donner, PCC. Freddi is a Team Engagement Specialist and the owner of Business Stamina. Her insights on giving feedback, dealing with conflict, and sharing positive recognition inspired IntelliDyne’s Network Security Manager, Eric DiMarco, to share lessons learned from his own experiences as a manager.

Meet Jack 

In the early years of my career, my fellow team members and I often felt like the boss had a simple job. 

The boss hardly ever dealt with the “hard stuff.” The technical issues. The engineering problems. They only managed the “big picture.” People. Projects. Seems easy, I thought.

Then came the day I entered my first team lead position. I was responsible for a group of five people. I thought I had it all figured out. All I had to do was assign the work and run some extra meetings. Then, if there were any performance problems on the team, I could just say, here is what you did wrong, and here is the solution. Simple, right?

Well, a few months into the job, I had my first counseling session with a team member. Let’s call him Jack. Jack had been slacking off at work, and it needed to be addressed. 

I called Jack into my office and started going over the details. I read off a written counseling statement that outlined what Jack did wrong and why his performance was not meeting standards. I did most of the talking, and he just nodded along. Jack was typically pretty talkative, but today he was quiet. This was unusual, but I was just happy he wasn’t arguing with me.

About five minutes in, I noticed Jack’s eyes were becoming red. He was holding back tears. A few seconds later, he was crying. He had to excuse himself and step out of the office.

I was shocked. I had known Jack a long time, and I had never seen him cry. I didn’t know he could cry. Jack was always an upbeat, optimistic type of guy.

Until that point, I had thought the meeting was going well. I was never harsh with Jack. I tried to keep the session very organized and professional. Why was he so upset?

We had to reschedule the conversation so Jack could compose himself. I later learned from a colleague that there was more going on than I knew about. Jack had marital problems, and he was going through a rocky divorce. Around the time Jack’s divorce started, he seemed to stop caring about work. I realized I didn’t know what Jack was going through; I didn’t even know he had a wife. I had never asked.

After that first meeting with Jack, I realized some things about myself.

I lacked awareness. My procedure-driven mentality lacked empathy.

People are complicated. Employees don’t leave their lives at the door when they enter the office. Instead, they bring their whole selves to work. That includes any stress or burdens from home.

While it may sound great to say, “Keep your work and home life separate,” that’s not always possible.

As a new manager, I was not focusing enough on my team. I thought I could focus on the work and projects. Dealing with people was supposed to be a side duty.

I did not pay enough attention to the early indicators that something was off. Jack liked to chit-chat and joke around, but he was never a slacker. If I had been paying attention to the signs, I would have done things differently.

What a wake-up call.

Fixing the Problems

All managers know that these types of situations happen. Maybe they don’t end with your team member leaving in tears, but feedback conversations can quickly go sour. Luckily, managers can take a few steps to ensure feedback conversations have their best chance of going well. Here are a few tips.

Engage Regularly

Weekly 1-on-1s are an excellent place to start. These conversations should be loosely structured and informal. Normalize talking about life outside of work. Many managers setup 30 minute calls for 1-on-1s and spend around 10 minutes talking about work projects. Then they end the call early. Instead, take advantage of the remaining time to learn about your team. Show that you care.

Be Genuine

No employee will ever open up to you if you ask questions about an employee’s life just to check a box. Being a manager means being a people person. Learn how to make small talk. Hobbies and families are easy topics for most people to talk about.

Have Courage

As a manager, you are still responsible for ensuring your team meets expectations. It’s never easy to confront someone, but it is still your job. When a team member is not performing to expectations, you have to talk to them and address the issue. Have the courage to set aside time for individual feedback with your team.

By taking these steps, you are laying the groundwork for a productive feedback conversation. Knowing what is happening in your team members’ lives will help you contextualize conversations and approach them with the proper mindset.

The Mindset

So, what is the right mindset? The mindset is the psychology of management. It establishes a mental framework for how you engage in feedback conversations. There are entire books on this subject, but here are some of the key ideas.

Talk with your team member, not at them.

  1. Leave your assumptions and biases out of the conversation. 
  2. Avoid jumping to conclusions.
  3. Focus on the facts.
  4. Never start with accusations.
  5. Give the benefit of the doubt.
  6. Focus on behaviors, not the individual.
  7. Make context-conscious decisions.
  8. Be aware of body language.
  9. Listen.

Remember, a feedback discussion aims to find a mutually agreed-upon solution to resolve problems and move forward as a team. Mutual agreement is not always possible, but it is the ideal goal. The purpose of the mindset is to steer you towards that goal. Feedback conversations are not about “winning” or belittling. No productive conversation starts with personal attacks or accusations. Give yourself the best chance for your team member to buy in to the solution.

Keep an open mind, and never assume you already have all the details. Try not to be judgmental. Focus on the facts. Be prepared for new facts that may change your view of a situation. Mentally prepare for challenging conversations. The positive or negative outcome of a feedback conversation is often entirely determined by the mindset of the manager.

Speaking of positive…

Be Positive

Feedback is not always negative. You may think providing positive feedback is easy. Unfortunately, it’s so “easy” that many managers forget to do it. How many team meetings have you held without ever recognizing a star performer? When was the last time you bragged about your team? When was the last time you told a team member good job?

If you’re having a hard time thinking of an example, you need to provide more positive feedback.

Giving positive feedback takes time and effort. Pay attention to team members who go above and beyond. Make notes when someone impresses you. Take the time to write thoughtful and specific award nominations. Remember, be genuine. If your feedback sounds vague, then you risk sounding insincere. This is often worse than providing no feedback at all.

Find a Mentor

I’ve changed a lot since my first time as a team leader over a decade ago. Most importantly, I learned that being a good manager is not easy. Developing team-leading skills takes time and experience. Even senior managers face new challenges as their teams grow more prominent and their organizations become more diverse. Therefore, it is important to continue honing your management skills. One of the best ways of doing that is by finding a good mentor.

During IntelliDyne’s Manager Offsite, Freddi Donner offered great insights on managing teams, dealing with conflict, and giving positive recognition. In addition, the offsite attendees participated in a fantastic practical exercise that helped put feedback in perspective. I highly recommend Freddi to any organization looking to improve the skills of its leaders and managers.

Ongoing professional development is critical for building a positive work culture and better leaders. Find an organization that is willing to invest in you. Over time, the mindset will become more natural and intuitive. Remember, improving as a manager and leader is a lifelong endeavor.

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