Refactoring Feedback

One superpower every leader needs to wield effectively is super coaching. Past the buzzwords, that means providing people with timely, sincere feedback and buttressing a support system to ensure it helps people grow and maximize their potential. Many leaders, though, suck at this.

Poor feedback has a trifold negative impact on organizations. First, you’re squandering the potential of the team members you’ve already gone through the hard work of finding and hiring. Second, if they’re a bad fit, you’re wasting everyone’s time shoving a square peg in a round hole—the team and the bad-fit employees would all benefit from having someone else in that position. And lastly, you’re obviously letting precious time and money go to waste. That’s time you’ll never get back, and that, in the current economic situation for startups, could make or break a company.

I’m sure you’re doing great, right? 🙂 Just to make sure, let’s have a quick review.

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Feedback Smells

Just like code smells, here are things I often notice in calls with clients that make me dig deeper.

  • Real feedback is boxed to 1-2 reviews a year. These are often mechanical to fit some template HR asks for. Would you approve of a build process that shows you broken tests once a quarter? Didn’t think so.
  • Bad performers stay on for way too long; often, you and the relevant managers moan about it but don’t do anything active. So many startup leaders were asked to cut employees in the past 18 months. Surprisingly, I didn’t hear a single executive that couldn’t quickly come up with a few people they’d be fine with losing. That raises the question of why it had to get to this point for action to be taken.
  • Not considering the root causes of people needing feedback. In most cases, you’re not dealing with “bad employees.” A whole array of factors is involved, and these people might shine in a different position or team. Therefore, you should always consider their managers’ part in their low performance.
  • Feedback that’s given is too implicit or sugarcoated, so it takes multiple “gentle rounds” till you finally get the point across. This might sound like a parody, but I’ve seen it happen repeatedly. “Yeah, we told him, but I’m not sure he really got it.” Whose fault is that?
  • Relatedly, often, the delayed feedback and the fact that multiple rounds are needed means that people reach the point of no return. It becomes too late.
  • Hit & run feedback: giving someone harsh feedback without actionable steps to fix it and without leadership mentoring to guide along the process. If they don’t know how to improve, they’ll just be frustrated and keep repeating the same mistakes (or leave).

Refactoring Steps

Instead, sit down with your management team and discuss how effective feedback is given and what your roles as coaches should look like:

  • Feedback needs to be provided in a timely manner. Nothing should wait too long. This should be a metric for healthy management. If you hear of the same issue twice without any feedback or action in the meantime, it’s a bad sign. (Give your managers feedback about this!)
  • Realize that complaining and getting bitter about a poor-performing employee is not going to help anyone. Demand a plan and set a deadline for seeing results. It should be a standard procedure, not something you whip up case by case.
  • Give your managers feedback not just about the performance of their people but also about how much their team is growing and the efficacy of the feedback they provide. Are they raising flags fast enough when realizing something’s not working out?
  • Harsh feedback should be clear, frequently with a straightforward distilled message about expectations going forward. Make sure at the end of the conversation that the employee can repeat the message in their own words to see they got the point across.
  • 20-50% of the work of managers should be about coaching and helping their team (more about time allocation for leadership is covered in The Tech Executive Operating System). Therefore, they should always have in mind the ongoing coaching processes for their people and how they’re helping them improve. It’s your role as an executive to monitor how these are running and ensure they’re aggressive enough: it shouldn’t take 3-quarters to see an improvement.