Timing Is Everything in the Framework of Critical Feedback

Local team leaders are tackling difficult conversations now to better prepare their workforce for the challenges of tomorrow.
Written by Kim Conway
November 16, 2021Updated: November 16, 2021

Offering critical feedback can be a tricky task to approach — and an even more difficult conversation to be on the receiving end of. But with feedback come opportunities for professional growth, and in order for managers to determine how they move their teams forward, they need to consider how to build the framework for constructive criticism.

Before he can give feedback, Daniel Moore, head of engineering at Garner Health, creates a collaborative foundation for long-term success. “Feedback isn’t always easy to hear, which is why I stress the importance of building a relationship with my team that evolves and grows over time and as we learn more about how we each operate,” he explained. From there, it’s easier for Moore to be forward-thinking — he takes the issues at hand as opportunities to think about the future. 

But what about a critical issue in the present moment?

When an employee makes a time-sensitive error that quickly unravels and impacts your team as a whole, consider taking a dialogue-focused approach that respects the individual in question. As the VP of machine learning at HyperScience, CF Su thinks factually: “It’s important to have a flexible approach with open communication channels that foster dialogue and trust. A fact-based approach is free of judgement and doesn’t center around someone’s motives.” Su also suggested looking beyond the surface when issues arise — but not so far as the moon. Keep your guidance grounded and come up with solutions that are ambitious yet attainable. 

Because every manager has their own process when it comes to feedback, Built In NYC sat down with four local leaders to learn how they each frame their critical feedback and aim it toward actionable resolutions.

 

CF Su
VP of Machine Learning

 

Before delivering critical feedback to a team member, what’s an important step you take?

When preparing to give critical feedback, I make sure to look beyond the surface of the issues at hand. I also set clear expectations for myself on what I hope to get out of the conversation so I can stay the course. As VP of machine learning, my ultimate goal is to support and guide my team to understand what success looks like — within their individual roles as well as within the wider organization. 

It’s important to remember that quality feedback is based on facts, not opinions. I take my time soliciting confirmation from a variety of people, then document these facts before providing my feedback. This provides both me and my direct report with a complete picture, so that we can factually discuss the wider impact on the team. Feedback conversations are a dialogue, and I strive to remain aware and respectful of the individual’s intentions and thought process. I’m prepared to hear their reasoning. Asking clarifying questions helps me to fully understand the other person and the situation at hand.

 

How do you frame critical feedback to ensure your message is clear and actionable without sacrificing employee morale? 

When providing feedback, I find it’s important to have a flexible approach with open communication channels that foster dialogue and trust. A fact-based approach is free of judgement and doesn’t center around someone’s motives. Initiating the conversation with confirmed accounts of the situation allows the individual to thoughtfully consider the implications. 

With clear communication, we can work together to identify a desired outcome and reach a mutual agreement. The agreement is a foundation for results-oriented growth and defines accountability for personal and organizational goals. Ultimately, the objective should be measurable so that the person is in a position to help move themselves and the company forward.

Feedback conversations are a dialogue, and I strive to remain aware and respectful of the individual’s intentions and thought process.”

 

Once you’ve delivered the critical feedback, what comes next? How do you get buy-in from the employee and ensure there is follow-through?

After feedback is delivered, I like to stick to the SMART goals framework. This focuses on setting specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound goals to guarantee they are clear and reachable. With this metric, my team is able to clarify ideas, focus their efforts and use their time effectively. HyperScience is growing rapidly and there are an immense amount of business areas and processes waiting to be disrupted by machine learning, which makes using resources productively all the more important. 

High-level guidance and coordination are essential to avoid unfocused “moonshot” attempts that try to achieve more than might be feasible. By building ambitious yet attainable goals and tracking their progress, my team is able to see a positive change within the organization as a whole and among themselves. 

Our team is a combination of machine learning scientists and software engineers. Team members are expected to write production-quality codes that are used by some of the world’s largest organizations. With the right support and assistance, each of us has the capacity to successfully reach our goals while eliminating doubt and guesswork.

 

 

Veronica Jobson
Director, Software Engineer

 

Before delivering critical feedback to a team member, what’s an important step you take? 

One of the most important aspects of giving feedback is not waiting until things build up. It is very important that you, as a manager, provide feedback on an ongoing basis or when you witness a behavior where an employee has opportunity for growth. I also believe that before you provide any critical feedback, you should ask the employee for their perspective. 

It is very important to provide feedback on an ongoing basis or when you witness a behavior where an employee has opportunity for growth.”

 

How do you frame critical feedback to ensure your message is clear and actionable without sacrificing employee morale?

You should always focus on the behavior and never let it get personal. Again, I always like to get the employee’s perspective first. I try to be very specific on what needs to improve and the expectations I have. 

For example, I was managing an employee who could not meet their deadlines, which put others behind schedule. I met with the employee on a weekly basis to indicate that dates were critical, and asked how I could help them. After missing several more deadlines in a row, I met with the employee again and we discussed how they were not just impacting their deliverables, but others’ as well. I noted that when the employee did deliver on time, their work was very strong. 

The employee was overcommitted, but had opportunities for growth in time management. I worked with them on their next set of deliverables and we set mini-milestones to ensure they felt comfortable with their deadlines. This was a positive change for the employee, and the mini-milestones helped them realize when they were getting behind. 

 

Once you’ve delivered the critical feedback, what comes next? How do you get buy-in from the employee and ensure there is follow-through?

Helping the employee realize there are growth opportunities is one of the hardest parts of delivering feedback. It is important to outline the specific expected outcomes and remind your employees that you are there to help them. Working on a plan together ensures they will be comfortable with committing to the outcome. It is critical to work with the employee as they navigate the plan you put together and provide feedback as they execute it.

 

 

Daniel Moore
Head of Engineering

 

Before delivering critical feedback to a team member, what’s an important step you take? 

When I need to deliver critical feedback, it’s important for me to get my head in the right place. Maybe we had a system outage or perhaps an important client saw a bug that we shouldn’t have shipped — it can feel like a punch to the gut. Before I can give productive feedback, I first need to take a breath to allow those feelings to subside. With a clear head, I can then focus on gathering all of the contextual information required to identify which specific behaviors need to be adjusted to yield better results in the future.

 

How do you frame critical feedback to ensure your message is clear and actionable without sacrificing employee morale? 

I don’t think about giving feedback as a singular event —  it has to be a consistent part of a broader culture of feedback that goes both ways among everyone on the team, including myself. This culture needs to build psychological safety through a basis of trust, mutual respect and shared language.

Feedback isn’t always easy to hear, which is why I stress the importance of building a relationship with my team that evolves and grows over time and as we learn more about how we each operate. When the time comes to deliver feedback to my reports — either specific feedback in a project or long-term feedback in a performance review — I take a few concrete steps.

The first step is identifying that my report also views the situation as a problem. It may be necessary to contextualize the situation and explain far-reaching impacts to the team or business. Then I give my report the opportunity to explain why they made certain decisions. Diagnosing where our thinking was misaligned is always a collaborative process. Once we’ve both come to a mutual understanding of the problem, we discuss the necessary changes in behavior.

Diagnosing where our thinking was misaligned is always a collaborative process.”

 

Once you’ve delivered the critical feedback, what comes next? How do you get buy-in from the employee and ensure there is follow-through?

After delivering feedback, I switch to active listening and ask the recipient what they think about it. Sometimes a report will be defensive or brush off what I’ve said, and in these cases I need to back up and make sure I’ve framed the conversation correctly. Usually though, they’ll have questions and want to understand the feedback better or in other contexts — and that’s a good sign. The conversation that follows is just as important as the feedback itself, because it confirms my report has fully understood what I’ve said and is open to changing their behavior.

Once I feel confident that they’re ready to apply the feedback, I want to be sure there’s an opportunity to do so —  upcoming releases or kick-off meetings are great candidates for this. I’m not always aware of what the next best opportunity is, but with a little brainstorming, my report and I can always find one. This leaves the conversation on an upbeat note, correctly framed as a discussion about the future.

 

 

 

Before delivering critical feedback to a team member, what’s an important step you take? 

Giving critical feedback is never easy, but it’s absolutely necessary. I see managers shy away from tough feedback all the time because it is uncomfortable. But that unwillingness only hurts the team member who doesn’t get a chance to improve. 

When providing feedback, it has to be done shortly after the task, situation or incident, and needs to be backed up by a specific observation or data. What I’ve found to work best is asking the team member for a self-assessment so they can draw their own conclusions. Oftentimes, the employee is aware of what went wrong or what could be improved, and it’s simply about bringing that to the surface. If it doesn’t come up naturally, leading questions such as, “What would you have done differently?” or “What impact did this action have?” can get them thinking about the issue or problem that you’ve identified. 

We always say in sales: “No one can handle an objection. Objections can only be overcome by the person who has the objection.” If you tell, and don’t ask, you’re more likely to be met with resistance. With swift feedback based on specific observations or data and a question-led approach, team members will be more open to change.

 

How do you frame critical feedback to ensure your message is clear and actionable without sacrificing employee morale?

Even with a question-led approach, managers need to point out what went wrong and what they expect to change. I focus on clear, direct and specific feedback. This is followed up with what I expect to happen if the feedback is implemented and the plan for monitoring the change. The key mistake I see managers make is offering critical feedback that is too vague, long-winded and sugar-coated. You can’t tell a team member their presentation “wasn’t good.”  What about it was specifically and measurably bad?

In practice that could sound something like: “Hey Judy, thanks for letting me sit in on your sales presentation earlier today. I agree with your assessment that the presentation was content-heavy. As a result, you did 70 percent of the talking and lost engagement with the audience. If you trim the content and get to 50 percent of the talk time, your presentation would be much stronger. I’ll plan to listen to a call next week and look for this change. What steps can you take to adjust the talk time?”

The employee owned the error that her presentation was content-heavy, which was reinforced by the manager. There was a specific timeline to revisit, and the next steps were to be defined by the employee.

With swift feedback based on specific observations or data and a question-led approach, team members will be more open to change.”

 

Once you’ve delivered the critical feedback, what comes next? How do you get buy-in from the employee and ensure there is follow-through?

The best way to get an employee to truly buy in on critical feedback is to help them own the solution. Telling an employee what to do can often produce immediate results, but the impact of that feedback trails off over time. 

The more an employee is committed to self-improvement and defining the solution, the more likely they are to follow through. This is best characterized as intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation — intrinsic motivation is behavior driven by internal rewards or the goal of self-improvement, and it can actually be more powerful than extrinsic motivation.

The most critical tasks for a manager to do are help shape the action plan so it’s a SMART goal — specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based — and hold the employee accountable through detailed follow-through. 

The most common pitfall with critical feedback is the lack of follow-through. The employee commits to fixing a problem only for it to rarely be discussed again. The best managers agree on the action plan and a date at which point both sides will meet to determine if performance has improved. This ensures accountability for the employee.

 

 

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