This article is by Phin Barnes, partner at First Round. For more, check out Sneakerhead VC or follow him at @phineasb.
I was fresh out of college and had just joined footwear startup AND1 as employee No. 10, when I found myself in a knock-down drag-out argument with the CEO. It was an unusual place to be at age 22 with little experience behind me. But instead of shutting me down, CEO Seth Berger chose to listen.
AND1 managed to create an environment where feedback could be offered in any direction, and where everyone was expected to make an impact. Looking back, seeing this dynamic in action so early on made all the difference for me.
Since leading a team as creative director at AND1, I have founded my own fitness gaming company, and now, as a partner at First Round, I give founders feedback to help them maximize their potential. Below are the lessons I've learned for giving (and oftentimes getting) criticism. Because, let's face it, while we spend a lot of time talking about how important it is, we're rarely good at it.
Build a Strong Foundation
1. Remember why you’re here.
The fundamental goal of giving feedback is to help the person you’re talking to. They have to understand that that’s why you’re spending time with them — you want to help make them better.
A surprising number of managers miss this. They give feedback because someone is screwing up, or holding something back, or not making enough progress. They don’t stop and take the time to reframe it as a benefit for the employee, for the company and for themselves. If you're not transparent about the motivation behind the feedback — the emotion and driver of the message — it’s bound to be received poorly.
2. Try saying this.
When you first start to work with someone, it’s worth saying, "Hey, you’re in this job, which means you jumped over a pretty high bar. I’ve looked at your background. I sat in on the hiring process. I know you’re smart. I know you’re capable and will work hard. I’m here to maximize your potential. And I'm grateful for the opportunity."
Managers have a tendency to kick off a working relationship with a laundry list of expectations. Even if they're friendly and welcoming, this can still be intimidating. As an employee, it’s extremely helpful to be reminded of your talents, and know that your manager already believes in you. This establishes trust really quickly, and then any feedback you give from then on will be heard as guidance from someone invested in their individual success.
Today, I do this when I work with founders, and it’s amazing how meaningful it is to not just point out the monetary relationship we have, but to make it clear that First Round invested in them for a reason, and we’re here because we believe they are uniquely qualified to take the idea over the finish line.
3. Expect transparency.
This doesn’t mean forcing people to tell you everything. It’s about creating an environment where people feel safe and supported to share. I encourage managers to tell reports right off the bat:
I owe you an unvarnished opinion and unwavering support.
So much advice about giving feedback says to sandwich negative points between compliments, or to be sure you say some number of encouraging things for every negative thing, but in my experience, people just want you to be genuine and direct. You want to be able to look at someone’s work with them objectively, and speak openly about what challenges or problems they faced — where they feel like they came up short, where you feel they came up short. The only way to do this is to make sure the employee knows he or she has your unwavering support as a person, not idea-by-idea or deliverable-by-deliverable.
4. What do they hear?
Let’s say you haven’t bothered to establish this positive baseline with a co-worker. Every time you’re direct in your criticism of their work, they’ll probably hear you criticize them as a person — not their work. They hear you say they are not capable. That’s not what you’re saying, of course, but if that’s what they hear, what can they possibly do with that? There’s no way to improve if you feel like you’re just generally bad at something.
People assume that others hear exactly what they are trying to express, but this is very rarely the case. Then it’s compounded by further rounds of similar feedback that only serve to cement the feeling of incompetence. That’s when people start underperforming. It’s exhausting. Your relationship deteriorates and it’s almost impossible to recover.
5. Don't kill a mosquito with a shotgun.
Creating a good feedback culture requires an awareness of the impact of your words, and when you have the authority of a founder or senior leader you need to choose them carefully. The best founding teams and early employees are usually very close and very candid with each other, and they can lose sight of how they should be talking to people as the company grows. At AND1, the founders would constantly tell each other, "I hate this design," or "this work was awful." When I first started, if the same feedback had been directed to me, I would have been devastated.
When it's your company, people will take what you say to heart. Before you give feedback as a founder, think about the message you're delivering, imagine that it will be amplified by 100x and taken personally — if it achieves your goal, proceed. If not, consider the position of the recipient and work to deliver a message they will hear and that will motivate them to achieve their best.
6. Best idea wins.
Feedback is toughest when there’s a lot of ego involved. To help people put distance between themselves and their work, try out this mantra: The best idea wins. When you’re rewarded for choosing and supporting the best idea on the table — even if it’s not yours — you’re much less likely to take constructive feedback personally. Instead, you’re pulling for the team to do good work, and you have a strong incentive to contribute your best. When you make celebrating the best ideas a common goal, you let people know that everyone’s opinions are weighed equally, and that’s very motivating, especially for the more junior members of your team.
Try to maintain this spirit as you scale. A lot of the best ideas I’ve ever seen came from junior people at organizations that took their contributions seriously.
7. Demand participation.
The only way to sustain a “best idea wins” culture is to have people air their opinions. They have to feel comfortable saying what they think. Make sure people know you value their thoughts and then demand that they participate. It starts with setting a tone of respect. Against this backdrop, people are less likely to be crushed when they get critical feedback, or their idea doesn’t get adopted. It’s just part of the process of collaborating to produce the best work.
Fix a Bad Dynamic
8. Take all the responsibility.
Giving feedback is a delicate matter, and it can easily derail relationships. This is especially true when a power dynamic is involved. I have seen a number of managers who are completely oblivious to a direct report’s anxiety or concerns. Bad communication is always at the root.
When you're a manager, you don’t just take some of the responsibility for this — you take all of the responsibility. 100%. There may be two people in the room, but you have the authority. You determine how often you communicate, where, what you talk about. So if you feel a relationship going sour, the first questions you have to answer are: What don’t I understand about this person? What am I missing? What did I do wrong?
9. Inventory the damage.
In my time as a manager, I have had to handle a few contentious relationships — both with reports and peers. I would grumble about this or that person until one of my friends asked me, "Do you actually want to fix this? And if you do fix it, would the company be better off? Would you be better off?" It really pulled me out of my head and made me think about what I wanted and whether it was important enough for me to repair things. How far was I willing to go to fix it?
I realize the answers to these questions won't always be positive. Sometimes you aren’t willing to bend. A change needs to be made, or you need to figure out how to keep the peace until something changes. But if you do want to fix a bad dynamic, you have to accept that it’s going to be really hard. Then you need to look at which of your own behaviors you can change. Someone has to offer the truce first. When you’re a manager, you always have to go first.
10. Blame yourself.
When you’re repairing things with someone, don’t just point out that you feel like something isn’t quite right. Frame the problem in terms of what you could be doing: "I feel like I’m not motivating you as well as I could," or "I feel like I’m not supporting you in the ways you need." Tell them straight out, "Being a good manager is important to me, and I could use your help improving."
Put it out there: I know you are talented and that our relationship is in your way.
If you have someone reporting to you that is clearly intimidated or doesn’t feel comfortable expressing how they feel, say something vulnerable. You might tell them that you’re scared of missing out on all the benefits that they could bring to the table. Try to mirror what they are feeling.
11. Be a safety net.
People are most creative and productive when they feel secure enough to take risks — to push limits. Of course, if you don’t have good communication they will never tell you they're afraid. Give them this safety by letting them vent to you about what you could be doing better. You can take it. Make sure they know that nothing they say is going to change your mind that they were hired for a good reason. Then say something like: "I know you can do this job 10 out of 10. I know that this is possible but we’re not there yet, so together we need to figure out how to unlock this potential."
Remember, most people are terrified they are not safe in their jobs or doubt that they are the best person to get the job done. This is particularly true in fast-paced, unstructured environments embraced by most early-stage founders. That’s why it’s so critical to start any feedback session with the assurance that you respect them and their abilities and that the goal of the conversation is to elevate your game together.
12. Don’t let them steal responsibility.
When people are receiving negative feedback, their impulse is to explain it away or make an excuse. Their cat died or their girlfriend broke up with them or they are having an off day — they’ll work harder, they say. You can’t let them do this, and you have to be firm about it or things will never change.
As a manager, you can’t let people out of that corner. Say, "No, this is on me. The only way we’re moving on is if you tell me what I can do better for you." If you let them get away with an excuse, you’re counting on them to make changes without your guidance. If they are going to make a genuine effort to perform better, you want to be able to tell them what direction to go in. You want that effort to have the payoff you’re both looking for.
13. Watch out for the pendulum swing.
Especially when people are nervous or feeling insecure, receiving criticism can send them swinging radically in the other direction. Suddenly they’re working too hard, all hours, burning themselves out. But they’re probably responding or adjusting to the wrong issue. You tell them they need to focus more, so they develop laser focus on one thing and drop the ball elsewhere, for example. That makes the situation even worse. Then you’ve both sunk a bunch of energy into work that is not paying off.
Make Your Feedback Sticky
14. Shorten your feedback loops.
Create a schedule with people to follow up and check in on their progress. As a manager, creating trust and listening is not enough. You need to take the time to manage the change. If someone is new to a role, or trying to improve in concrete ways, it's critical to put easy victories in their path. As a manager, it should be your goal to catch them doing something right instead of doing something wrong.
15. Give them control.
The best type of coaching gives the recipient 100% of the control to make changes. This means focusing on action-based goals with no dependencies. If you tell your head of content marketing that she needs to drive 700,000 page views a quarter, that’s not in her control. The closer she gets to the end of the quarter, the more the pressure is going to build, the greater the chance she’ll lose confidence in herself. As a leader, it’s your job to determine the actions she can take that are likely to produce the results the company needs.
The feedback you give people should be all about behaviors, not results.
Take the example of someone who does not contribute to meetings and never seems to be prepared. Don’t just tell them that and leave it there. Tell them how they can turn this around: they need to be on time, they need to read and take notes on the materials that get sent out before meetings. They need to show up to every meeting with three questions and three suggestions written down in advance. Everyone can do that if they care enough.
What you can’t say is come to every meeting with three ideas that will change the way we think about X or that they need to be more impactful in meetings. This doesn’t mean anything. It’s like telling a designer that their work doesn’t have enough "pop." If you observe that someone is not delivering on their potential, you have to think, okay, what specific behaviors would change my impression of them?
16. To fix the link, explain the chain.
People need context around how they're contributing and why it’s important. It’s shocking how overlooked this is at even the best companies. For example, you might tell someone they are too slow and that they are creating a bottleneck for a project. Maybe they’ll care and maybe they won’t. But if you can help them understand that the items on their to-do list are also on yours, and that Jake in accounting and Patty in procurement won’t be able to do their jobs without them, that shifts their perspective from the task to the team.
17. Paint the finish line.
When you’re managing someone, you have to paint a clear picture of what they could and should be achieving — even if it will take some time and help to get them there. When people can visualize their potential, they’ll be more motivated to grasp it.
I’ve seen managers create blocks and micromanage because they don’t trust someone just yet. Maybe they have to read a draft of everything before it goes out the door. Not only does this slow the person down and make them feel less capable, it might lower the quality of their work. If it’s going to go through you first anyway, why should they put their all into it?
Establish that your goal is to take yourself out of the process, that you want them to be able to send their work directly to market. If they know the next step is for them to own the relationship or the project end-to-end, they’ll deliver their best work to take another step closer to where they want to be professionally.
Accept Feedback the Right Way
18. Don’t hold back.
Accepting feedback isn’t all about listening. It’s also about making your priorities, expectations and emotions known. All of those things create the framework for how you will hear and act on the conversation.
If you're scared, say you're scared.
If you’re in a one-on-one with your manager and you’re legitimately terrified about what you think they're going to say, tell them that. The vast majority of the time, they'll be surprised and say, "Oh my God, no no, you’re great — I just want to help you be better." If you run into someone who says, "You should be scared because you suck," you might need to rethink your situation. You need to make sure you’re in a place and a relationship where you can thrive. And the sooner you find this out the better.
This is especially important for young professionals. When you think about how important those early positions are to your overall trajectory, you want to find a place where you have mentors who can support you to do your best work. This doesn’t mean pouring out your soul in every meeting, but you should be able to be honest.
19. Manage up.
As much as it's a manager’s responsibility to see and fix problems, it ispossible to be a great junior employee who asks good questions and pushes managers to give better feedback. This is usually the person who asks why things are one way and not another.
It’s okay not to know everything — and to use that to your advantage. Sometimes if you just tell your manager that you think something should be different, she’ll say, "Okay, let’s try that.” By making it clear you want to grow and make an impact, you can improve the feedback experience on both sides and capture better opportunities.
20. Learn about your boss.
Just like managers should seek to understand what truly drives their team, as an employee you need to use your one-on-one time to figure out what motivates your manager. What are they working on? How do you fit into that and how can you make the biggest impact in your current job? This will earn you trust and freedom.
21. Give your work some space.
Ego is the number one barrier to turning feedback into productive action. To escape your ego, I have several recommendations:
Recognize that you can only do your best with the information you have right now. You might say or do things that aren’t right, but you can only be as good as what you know today. The important thing is gaining the knowledge you need to not make the same mistake again.
Assume the best intentions from your teammates and start with the belief that everyone wants the company to do great work. Envision yourself as part of this broader effort. Don’t worry if your idea doesn’t win as long as the best idea wins. You will have more ideas.
Don’t try to make something perfect before offering it up for feedback. Adopt a napkin sketch mindset and check in with your manager along the way to make sure you’re headed in the right direction. The final result will turn out better, faster.
Make your work about the end customer. If you find yourself explaining to someone why your work is good, and they just aren’t buying it, don’t get your feelings hurt. Think about what the customer would ultimately want — which probably doesn’t include you explaining why they should like it.
22. Understand the system.
Let’s say every project you turn in goes through this person who tears it apart every time. You can either try to make yourself so good they can’t possibly tear it apart — which is very hard — or you can involve them early and work with them so now they feel like they own the process too. Once they're invested in the work, if it was really about ego, they’ll stop holding you up. Even better, maybe you’ll find out they tear their own work apart and that’s just how they do things. Then maybe you can learn to hear the ideas behind the criticism and get value from their critique.
23. Relationship-building counts as work.
A lot of people skimp on the time they spend in one-on-ones or feedback sessions. They might dash off a few notes if they're solicited, or think deeply about it once a year or once a quarter around performance reviews. But, generally speaking, we ignore people in our culture of hustle and growth. Building a real human connection doesn’t seem to count as productivity, but I couldn't disagree more.
Not everything requires a concrete action to move the ball forward. When you learn you can be honest with your manager, or as a manager you learn that you can be open and candid with a teammate, work is being accomplished. In fact, doing this will make everything that you achieve going forward that much easier, faster and more effective. You’ll get what you put into it over time — you just won’t know when.