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When you get promoted to being a manager, it’s often because you were a really good individual contributor. Unfortunately, the skills that made you a great individual contributor are not the same as the ones that will make you a great manager!
Feedback is one of those skills. As an individual contributor, it was not your responsibility to give feedback — and if you didn’t have a great boss, you might not have
gotten much feedback. If you had a bad boss, they might even have actively discouraged you from offering your feedback to them. And if you didn’t work in a culture where feedback was encouraged, there may have been relatively little open communication between you and your peers.
But soliciting, giving, and encouraging feedback (both praise and criticism) are critical skills for any manager. Giving praise helps people know what to do more of, and criticism helps people know what to do better. So now that you’re a manager, it’s time to build your feedback muscle and help the people on your team build theirs, too. When you create a strong culture of feedback on your team, everyone will have a lot more success and a lot more fun working together.
If you’re like most people, you probably feel a lot of dread at the thought of having to give feedback. It’s hard, and it feels risky, but think about what happens when you don’t give it. I once had a team member I really liked; I’ll call him “Bob.” Bob was funny and likeable and had great experience. But his work wasn’t nearly good enough. In an effort to be “nice,” I gave him praise that was more of a head-fake. He would show me work that was absolutely horrible, and I would say, “This is such a great start, Bob. You are one of the smartest people I know, though, so I think you can make it even better!” He had no idea how bad I thought his work was, and wasn’t motivated to make it better. I didn’t give him any critical feedback. Ten months later, his work hadn’t improved, mostly because I hadn’t helped him see where the problems were or given him a chance to fix them. The people on my team who were doing great work were so unhappy working with Bob that they were threatening to quit! I ended up having to fire Bob. Not giving him feedback wasn’t so “nice” after all.
Fortunately, there are ways to avoid situations like the one I had with Bob. Ahead, 10 things you should think about as you get started.
There are three good reasons to start by soliciting feedback rather than giving it. First,
you’ll improve. The people who work for you watch you more closely than almost anyone else, and you’ll learn a lot from what they have to say. Second, you’ll build trust by showing that you care about what they think and by taking action based on their feedback. There are few things more damaging to trust than a power differential, and there is some hierarchy associated with being the boss. The sooner you can set that aside, make yourself vulnerable, and just listen, the better. Third, you’ll lead by example when you show how feedback helps you improve, and that you appreciate the feedback others give you. Be over-communicative or even slightly theatrical when you show how things improve because of feedback somebody gave you. Soon, your team will begin to welcome feedback from you and from each other — to demand it, even. Here’s a tip for soliciting feedback: paradoxically, you need to embrace the discomfort — you need to make silence even more uncomfortable than giving you feedback. A simple way to do this is to ask for feedback and then count to six inside your head. Most people find that long a silence so uncomfortable that they will say something. They may start with “oh, it’s fine.” Then you have to say, “But I want to know what could be better!” And start counting in your head again. You’ve dragged somebody out on a limb, so whatever you do, don’t attack what they tell you or get defensive. Reward the candor!
Feedback is both praise and criticism. There are several reasons to start with praise, and to give more praise than criticism. First,
it’s more accurate. Unless you’re about to fire everyone on your team for cause, people are doing many more things right than they are wrong. Focus on the things that are going well, and give voice to those things. Second, it’s easier. Giving praise first will be both easier for you to do and easier for the people on your team to receive. Third, it’s more effective. Most people are better at repeating success than fixing what’s broken. And the purpose of praise is to help people know what to do more of. Fourth, praise gives you leverage. When you praise one person in public, you show the rest of the team what success looks like, and teach not just one person but the whole team what to do more of. Here’s a praise tip: be specific and sincere. If you aren’t specific, it’s hard for people to know what exactly was good — what, precisely, they should do more of. And if the praise isn’t sincere, they’ll likely sense it, and feel patronized rather than encouraged to repeat the success.
As we learned with the story about Bob, criticism is necessary to help people know what to do better. But it’s much more than a necessary evil. Think about criticism as a gift — you’re helping people improve and grow, or you’re letting them know what you think so that they can set you straight. Remember, you just might be wrong! When you have this mindset, you’ll feel more encouraged to give criticism when it’s needed, and you’ll also be more likely to both show you care personally and to challenge directly in the criticism conversation.
Many first-time managers struggle with feedback because it feels arrogant, or because they think they have to have all the answers before they have earned the right to criticize. It feels like saying, “I know more than you,” or, “I’m the one who decides if work is good or bad.” But it’s possible to give feedback humbly.
With criticism, being humble means being open to the idea that you might be wrong and realizing that the other person has a valuable perspective. Instead of issuing your criticism as an irrefutable fact, clearly explain your thinking and ask the other person to share theirs. “Here’s what I think; what do you think? Here’s what I see; what do you see?” Learn from their side of the story, and make the criticism a problem-solving conversation rather than a monologue. Often, first-time managers hesitate to offer criticism because they are afraid the other person will disagree with them. Let go of that fear! It shows you’re a strong and confident leader if you can enter into this sort of conversation. When Bob Cringely asked Steve Jobs about criticism, he said, “Sometimes it means, ‘I think your work is shit'...I don’t mind being wrong. And I’ll admit that I’m wrong a lot. It doesn’t really matter to me too much. What matters to me is that we do the right thing.” Hint: Don’t say someone's work is shit, but do be open to being wrong. Even Jobs didn’t get everything right. You can praise humbly simply by expressing that you learned something from the other person. When you are sincerely impressed by their work or behavior, say so. If there is something you think you can learn from them, ask them to teach you. This type of praise both shows them what to do more of and proves that you don’t think you have all the answers. Hint: If it’s something you’d say to a dog or a toddler (“Good job,” or “Atta girl/boy”), it's probably a little arrogant/patronizing, and it’s likely not specific or sincere enough. Approaching feedback humbly not only improves the quality of your feedback and makes it easier for the person to hear you, but it also makes it easier for you to start the conversation.
Of course the goal of feedback is to help people fix problems or do more of what’s great, but we often lose sight of that. Get into the mindset of giving praise and criticism to be helpful. One way to remember this is to write down your objectives before the conversation — what do you want to happen as a result of giving the feedback? With that clarity, you’ll be more likely to approach the conversation with a helpful mindset. Another technique, recommended by Amarpreet Singh, a great leader from Google and Square, is to think of somebody whom you really love just before offering criticism to somebody on your team. Obviously you’d want to help that person you love improve. Bring that spirit to this conversation.
Just remember, being helpful when giving criticism doesn’t mean grabbing the problem and solving it yourself. It also doesn’t mean that you have to have solution to the problem. Be helpful by pointing out the problem you see and acting as a thought partner to help them fix it.
A lot of formal processes like performance reviews or 1:1 meetings make managers think they need to save feedback for these scheduled events. But when you think about the goal of feedback, it really doesn’t make sense not to give it right away. Giving feedback directly after the praise- or criticism-worthy event means that the person will be able to repeat the success sooner or fix the problem faster. You’ll also be able to give better feedback, because the details and context will be fresh in your mind. Don’t save it up!
It is so important to give feedback in person whenever possible. It’s important to know how someone is reacting to your feedback, and make adjustments to ensure they hear you. Most of communication is nonverbal, so you miss a lot when you can’t see the other person’s body language. For example, if you’re giving praise, and they appear to be uncomfortable, you might be praising the wrong thing or the wrong person. Body language can give you great clues.
Giving feedback in person also allows the other person to see your body language and better understand your tone and intentions. Your mindset of being helpful with your feedback will come through in your body language and better help the other person hear you. It isn’t always possible to give feedback in person. You may work in different locations or be traveling. In most cases, it’s more important to give feedback immediately than to give it in person, so turn to some of the alternate modes of communication. Video conference is second best to in-person because you’re still able to see the person’s face and understand how they are reacting. If this isn’t possible, phone is third best. But try never to give feedback over email or text.
Public praise helps
the whole team learn. Share specifically what was great and why it was great with the broader team — not only to celebrate the accomplishment of one person, but also to show everyone what success looks like. However, some people are embarrassed by public recognition, so make sure you adapt to personal preferences. I recommend never criticizing in public. Public criticism is likely to feel humiliating and make it much harder for the person to accept they’ve made a mistake or to learn from it. When you take a moment to have the conversation in private, you show you care personally, and it also makes it easier for the other person to challenge you or correct your misperception without appearing to be defensive.
It’s best not to make your feedback about someone’s personality. It’s very hard to change personality, and since the goal of your feedback is to help someone repeat successes or improve, feedback about personality is not helpful. Focus your feedback on work or behavior, to give them a chance to take action.
With praise, focusing on personality may also promote risk avoidance. Saying "you are great" when someone does great work has an unspoken, dangerous corollary: If the work is bad, "you are terrible." If doing bad work means one is a bad person in the eyes of the boss, it’s natural to avoid stretch goals that one might fail to hit, or projects that are risky and therefore have a good chance of failure. With criticism, focusing on personality is often a flawed, lazy analysis of the situation that makes the other person feel worse. Put more thought into the specific work or behavior that needs to be improved; point out problems they could actually fix.
You’ve probably been told at some point, maybe when you got your first job, to be “professional.” Unfortunately, this idea of being professional often comes across as meaning that you should be less than your whole self at work. The problem with this is that it makes it much harder to build strong relationships with the people you work with. So instead of being “professional,” bring your whole self to work. Show you care personally. Establish real, human connections. When you do this, you’ll build trust and relationships that make it easier to exchange feedback. And everyone will have more fun at work!