Our 6 Must Reads for Managers to Give Feedback That Helps People Grow

Our 6 Must Reads for Managers to Give Feedback That Helps People Grow

Giving constructive feedback that resonates is extremely difficult. You have to strike exactly the right chord for your words to cause change. Here's the best advice we've seen on how to do that.

Some of the most popular advice we've ever given on First Round Review concerns feedback. There's a reason why Kim Scott's piece on how to give 'Radical Candor' has been shared 150K+ times — and has since been turned into a bestselling business book. It's because people want to do exactly what its subtite describes: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity. For managers both new and experienced, this can feel like threading a needle — giving people the constructive feedback they need to grow in their careers without making them feel badly about where they've failed or come up short.

We've heard from a number of people — founders, executives, managers, and ICs alike — that giving constructive feedback is painful, uncomfortable, and even frightening. No wonder many go far too long without doing it, or sugar coat their words past the point of clarity. They worry that what they say will cause more damage, or make people disengage. They worry that what they need to communicate won't come out quite right or be well received. So they sit in silence — which ends up feeling far worse when people around them continue to make the same mistakes, underperform, and gradually get managed out. All of which might have been prevented had someone just intervened.

Whether you're a manager or not, you don't have to let this happen to high-potential people around you. Instead of dreading the impact of your feedback, think about its power to transform someone's trajectory for the better. This collection of articles is a good place to start. We haven't included Radical Candor here, because that one goes without saying (read now if you haven't already). What follows are the best pieces of advice we've ever published on the tricky task of giving truly great feedback. We hope it helps.

1. Managers, take responsibility for the best and the worst.

This piece from First Round Partner Phin Barnes is chock full of gems for giving good feedback in a variety of scenarios (23 of them to be exact). But the two pieces of advice that have stood out most for folks are these: 1) Managers need to take responsibility for building a strong foundation of confidence and certainty from the start, and 2) managers need to take full responsibility for the emergence and repair of bad interpersonal dynamics with their reports.

To instill tremendous good will and confidence, work this into the first conversations you ever have with the people you hire:

"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 amazing. 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 working relationships 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. Think of it like building a house. If you create a solid, sturdy foundation, then everything that comes after builds upward. Don't miss this chance.

When bad performance and dynamics emerge, don't shirk your role in the whole thing, emphasize it:

Giving feedback is a delicate matter, and it can easily derail relationships. This is especially true when a power dynamic is involved. Barnes has 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, 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?

Blaming yourself can be a healthy way forward. 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. More from Barnes on giving feedback that matters here.

2. Practice your delivery, even if it feels silly or unnecessary.

Patty McCord knows a lot about how to give harsh criticism in ways that will be embraced. After all, she's the creator of Netflix's famed Culture Doc, which is responsible for creating one of the highest-expecation/hardest-charing environments in all of tech. Her key assertions: 1) People get used to immediate and pointed feedback when you create a culture that demands it, values it, and makes it a celebrated habit. 2) It's absolutely 100% vital that managers not hold back on feedback because it puts undue pressure on the boss to provide cover (i.e. they end up doing way more work and taking way more heat) and cheats the employee out of the chance to improve.

Her top advice for making feedback go smoothly? The people giving it need to practice, practice, and practice some more. Netflix invested a lot of resources in coaching managers to be good at this, and part of this was not skimping on rehearsal.

A lot of the time, McCord would let managers with employee issues vent, loudly and passionately. They'd recite in detail all the bad behavior of the person they were annoyed with. Then she would ask, "What did she say when you told her that?" Typically, the person complaining would say, "I can't say this to her!" She'd push back, "But you said it to me, didn't you?" and they'd look sheepish, realizing it wasn't right to unload behind the person's back.

Then she and the manager would practice the same conversation without the emotion. They'd discuss the importance of giving specific examples of the problematic behavior and proposing solutions. Following those rules makes such conversations actually constructive.

Practice is crucial for honing your delivery style. You can do it in front of a mirror or with your spouse or a friend. Actually rehearsing what you'll say, out loud, allows you to hear the tone of your voice. You might even want to record yourself.

It's also important to think about your body language, which can speak louder than words. We're often totally unaware of how emphatically it's sending a negative message.

A friend told McCord that when she went for coaching about how to talk to her boss — who was so difficult that her whole team had trouble communicating with her — the coach had her friend do some roleplay showing how she typically talked to her boss. The coach exclaimed, "Well, I'm sure she knows how annoyed you are with her!" Her hand gestures had spoken volumes. The coach told her to sit on her hands during meetings with her boss, and that dramatically improved their conversations.

The most important thing about giving feedback is that it must be about behavior, rather than some essentializing characterization of a person, like "You're unfocused." It also must be actionable. The person receiving it has to understand the specific changes in their actions that are being requested.

The comment, "You're making a great effort, but you're not getting enough done" is essentially meaningless. An action version would be, "I can see how hard you're working, and I really appreciate that, but I've noticed that there are some things you're spending too much time on at the expense of others that are more important." You would then establish better prioritization with the person.

Many people feel hesitant to speak so openly, but the truth is that most people really appreciate the opportunity to get a better understanding of their behavior and how it's being perceived, as long as the tone of delivery isn't hostile or condescending. More from McCord on how feedback fits into building high-performance cultures here.

3. Be the force that helps employees zoom out.

For most of her career, Katie Dill's primary job has been to give helpful, specific, and transformative feedback. Today, she's VP of Design at Lyft,  but before that was Director of Experience Design at Airbnb, and a Creative Director at Project Frog. She's been in hundreds if not thousands of design reviews during that time — meetings carved out for the express purpose of being critical and not pulling punches.

In this piece, she focuses on how to run great design reviews in particular, but also how those same principles can be applied to help people get better at anything. One of the most powerful roles critique can play, she says, is helping people who are too close to their work zoom out and see the broader picture, and then zoom back in to see the role they play in that picture with fresh eyes.

When people are very close to their work, they have a hard time getting enough perspective to see where they are falling short or what they should change. “When you’re the critic coming in to offer a second opinion, you have he chance to zoom out and look at the forest for the trees and think about the system as a whole,” she says.

First, zoom out and ask:

  • Does their work fit in with what the rest of the team and company are doing coherently? Can you draw a through-line from how they spend their day-to-day to the ultimate success of your mission? You want to establish this clearly. Show them the impact their work has the potential to make on the whole.
  • Do the different journeys and experiences that have been mapped out make intuitive sense given the audience? Have their actions and decisions historically been the right ones for the users you're trying to reach or the stakeholders in their project? Point out the ripple effects of their work and how they have been positive or negative when viewed from 50,000 feet. A lot of people have a hard time visualizing the second or third-order consequences of their work.

“Then zoom down into the details,” says Dill. “Are all the little pixels along the way helping convey the message they are trying to? Is everything there for a reason?” In the context of a manager-report relationship, this means walking through all of the granular work on a person's plate to make sure their time is being used wisely and everything they do is purpose-driven.

Zooming in and zooming out is your opportunity to give someone a whole new perspective on their work.

More from Dill on running excellent critique sessions here.

4. Don't just give feedback — have 'Career Conversations.'

Russ Laraway has gone beyond helping his reports build better skills and professional habits — he's helped them make leaps and bounds in their careers. Currently VP of People at Qualtrics, this former Twitter VP and Google Director, doesn't wait to give feedback in the frame of performance reviews or underperformance. He proactively holds three different types of Career Conversations that allow his reports to better visualize what they want out of their work lives and understand what they need to do differently or better to get there. This ends up increasing performance more than any other type of intervention. Here, briefly, are these three conversations:

Be their Barbara Walters. Take an hour to get to know your employees — deeply. Begin with the phrase:

Starting with kindergarten, tell me about your life.

Then probe with more questions when they talk about pivots in their lives.

Laraway took this tactic with a direct report, who mentioned switching from cheerleading to swimming while in high school. “I became curious about why she liked swimming so much better than cheerleading. ‘What was it about swimming?’ She said, ‘I never really thought about it, but when we worked hard and we spent a lot of time in that pool, we had tangible outcomes on the backend. We reduced our times or maybe even got to the podium,’” says Laraway. “It became really clear through that story, and others like it throughout her life, that she deeply valued hard work leading to tangible outcomes. It was so clear to both of us because of the story.”

Look for the patterns over the course of your people's lives that give you strong signal and just write them down. “In this case of the cheerleader-turned-swimmer, I wrote, ‘Hard work leads to tangible outcomes.’ Then I wrote down the story, ‘Cheerleader to swimmer,’” Laraway says. “It’s not rocket science. I had pages of notes that yielded a list of 5-10 values and motivators that helped us have a shared, textured understanding of what she cared about and what brought her to this point."

Spot their lighthouse and bring it into focus. Articulating a clear vision for an employee’s future is the most important step. Ask your employee about their dreams.

“Maybe we're a little skeptical that a lot of our millennials, for example, will know what they want to be when they grow up. In fact, some of you are thinking that you don't even know what you want to be when you grow up. That's common skepticism,” Laraway concedes, but he continues, “I've run this process hundreds of times, and never had a person who couldn't tell me about their dreams.”

“The idea is to try to get employees to start to talk to you about their dreams, or three to five of them if they don't really want to commit to one idea. None of it should be time-bound — no 10-year plans. Ask what this person would be doing at the pinnacle of his or her career — when they’re feeling challenged, engaged and not wanting anything else.”

“What we have now is a blurry, fuzzy lighthouse out in the distance. The goal is to try to bring that lighthouse into focus. We want to see the paint chips. We want to see the red tiles on top. We want to see the seagull perched on it. We've got to ask a few more questions,” Laraway says. He suggests the following three questions for focusing the vision only after you both understand the dream:

  • What size company do you imagine working for?
  • What industry do you want to be in?
  • Do you want to be in a very senior individual contributor type role or very senior management type role?

Laraway had an employee, Jane, who articulated this vision: Own and operate my own spirulina farm.

This woman had also noted in her life story conversation that the happiest she ever was in her career was when she “built something from nothing” at a former employer, so this vision was aligned with what she valued most. Knowing her wildest dreams helped Laraway place her in a position that would deliver experiences that would compound and prepare her for where she was headed — even if she was in a different industry currently. “We were working in digital ads at the time at Google. Together, we were able to take the right actions given her vision, and advocate for her to get training that would be valuable for her as an entrepreneur,” Laraway says. “We were both extremely happy with the investment we made in her. She stayed at Google longer than I did, and continues to grow in the digital ad space at Facebook. The spirulina farm is still the lighthouse in the distance, and that’s ok.”

Create a career action plan.

Armed with a shared and textured understanding of your employees’ key motivators, and a clear articulation of their own envisioned future, now you’re ready for the next step: crafting a detailed action plan. These will map out — in great detail — exactly how your employee is going to reach that vision for themselves. Think of it as a roadmap to self-actualization.

“Now we've got it: We've got an understanding of the person’s origin, path taken to this point, what they care about and what drives them. Now we've got a clear idea of this lighthouse in the distance. We know their dreams — what lights them up. We know how they envision their future,” says Laraway. “That arms us with all we need to take relevant action right now and start to build the career action plan.”

Read on for Laraways's four steps to create a compelling career action plan and other advice for giving impactful feedback in the form of career coaching.

5. Avoid Performance Improvement Plans with this advice from Slack's VP Engineering.

As one of the most elite engineering leaders in the business, Michael Lopp has handled many different performance issues. He's built incredible teams at Slack, Pinterest, Palantir, and Apple. But that didn't happen without letting a few people go along the way. At a past First Round CEO Summit, he had the hard task of walking entrepreneurs through the best way to fire someone. But the most important wisdom he shared was actually about preventing that conversation in the first place — particularly, how to make the dreaded Performance Improvement Plan (or PIP) less common and more effective.

PIP is one of the worst and most-feared acronyms out there. It usually takes the form of an official, written agreement drafted and overseen by HR that outlines exactly how an employee needs to very quickly get better at their job in order to keep it. They may be more common at large corporations than startups, but even new companies should be familiar with PIP principles to keep their staff on track, especially as they enter rapid growth. Lopp recognizes the need, but hates how they’re used: too often as a last-ditch, half-hearted effort to save someone’s job.

“There are two problems with how PIPs are used. First is that you should want to fix something as soon as you see it go wrong, not at the very end of a long, slow decline. And second, you can’t just throw a switch and fix everything. It’s not just one conversation. It’s a lot of little things that need to be addressed over months, every day, every hour."

If you’re thinking about putting someone on a PIP, your first question should be what could you have done earlier?

Instead of jumping right to the worst, Lopp recommends what he calls a pre-PIP — essentially an agreement made between a manager and employee to improve performance without signing anything with an unspoken “or else” at the end of it. This is even easier to implement at a startup that doesn’t have a formal PIP process. Here’s what the pre-PIP route looks like:

  • Feedback needs to be immediate. As soon as someone steps off the path or veers into dangerous territory, let them know. Ideally during the first 90 days, give people “an exorbitant amount of feedback,” Lopp says. “Just think, you could have fixed it six or nine months earlier by pulling the person aside and saying, hey you really frustrated people in that last meeting because you weren’t listening.”
  • Be very specific. Give granular examples of the mistake the person is making and how things would look different if they changed their behavior.
  • Have the person repeat it back to you until what they're saying matches what you mean. Too often people think they know what is expected of them, but still fail to meet expectations.
  • Take the threat out of it. One of the worst things about performance improvement plans is that they’re surrounded by an air of doom. This causes people to either push back and have a bad attitude, or feel hopeless and unable to put in their best effort. Address this candidly to help calm their fears. Don't let them go unspoken.
  • Still write things down. Even though this isn’t an official PIP filed with HR, it should be quantified and codified. “You should write a well-defined list of things that you can measure. The person should be able to see for themself that they are succeeding. You should be able to see the changes that result from this process.” Even if there’s something subjective the person should improve, try to put something quantifiable around it.
  • Be patient. “Changing behavior is a lot of work. A lot of people assume it’s impossible. But by investing in feedback and giving your leads the ability to have hard conversations, you can do it, and it's often worth it.”
  • Always transition the conversation from critical feedback to possible solutions. People naturally cling to the negative, so ending on a positive note could make the difference between motivating the person and convincing them to give up.

When Lopp was there, Pre-PIP training was a key component of Palantir’s bootcamp for team leads. The company even retained an external coach that came in and trained people to give constructive feedback. There’s no time to be intimidated. More from Lopp on PIPs and what to do if they don't work here.

6. Gender plays a role in feedback that shouldn't be ignored.

This wouldn't be a complete collection on feedback without sharing at least one more of the great Kim Scott's contributions to this body of knowledge. In this piece, she digs into how gender can change the way people give and receive the Radical Candor that's so valuable to their professional growth. Here's her quick summary of the issue:

Gender politics and fear of tears push men away from being as radically candid with women as they are with other men. This is bad for men, women and the truth. Gender bias pushes women away from being radically candid in a way that is also bad for men, women and the truth.

Gender bias is a fact of life, and it’s worth looking at how it pushes women away from Radical Candor, which hurts them, as well as the men they work with. For too many people, talking about gender and related issues has gotten to be a hot potato more easily avoided. In order to make progress — and help everyone get the feedback they need — we have to cool things down. Here are Scott's top recommendations:

Tears: Some simple coping mechanisms. Emotion can be a shortcut to the heart of the matter. Often when somebody is frustrated or angry or upset enough about a situation at work that they start to cry, this is your cue to keep asking questions until you understand what the real issue is. Don’t avoid the emotion. React to it with kindness, but also use it to better understand what’s really going on.

At the same time, all this emotion can be exhausting. Here are some techniques for keeping things on an even keel:

  • Tissues: Scott used to keep a box of tissues in her office in case of tears. Then a person she worked with made a habit of coming into my office and crying every Friday afternoon. This was an exhausting way to end the week. She complained to a man she worked with, who was deathly afraid of tears. He pointed out to Scott that having a box of Kleenex even present in his office would sometimes prompt the waterworks. But if he saw somebody start to tear up and he didn't have a tissue handy, he’d be able to excuse himself to leave the office and go get Kleenex. That little respite was often enough to allow the crier to regain composure. Scott tried this technique the next Friday, and it worked!
  • Water: Another good piece of advice Scott heard was to have some unopened bottles of water at hand. If you see that somebody is getting upset, offer a bottle of water. Often, the simple pause to unscrew the top and take a sip of water is enough to prevent the tears from starting in the first place. (If you're a crier, bring a bottle of water!)
  • Walk, don’t sit. When planning a difficult conversation, try taking a walk instead of sitting and talking. When on a walk not face one another, emotions are less on display and thus easier to keep in check. Also, walking and looking in the same direction often feels more collaborative than sitting across a table and staring each other down.
  • Own your emotions and don’t try to control theirs. Finally, if you really can’t handle tears, forgive yourself. You don’t have to sit there watching somebody cry if it’s unbearable. There are other paths to the heart of the matter. But don’t put the burden on the other person not to cry. Own your emotions, but don’t insist the other person put their emotions in a bottle. If somebody starts to cry, just say, “I'm so sorry you’re upset. I’m going to step out for a moment and get you some water. I’ll be right back. Then, if you want, we can keep talking or change the topic and come back to this later.”

Men: Don’t “pull punches” with women. Women: Demand criticism. If you're a man who’s worried you might be pulling his punches with female employees because you're wary of gender politics or afraid she’ll cry, it can be helpful to become aware of how the woman feels about your feedback. Even if you’re not worried about this, it’s good to be more aware of how others feel about your feedback. You may not even be aware you’re going easy on some people and not others.

Similarly, if you're a woman who’s worried your male boss is hesitant to criticize your work, it can be helpful to make him aware that you want more feedback. Three suggestions here — they're designed to work well for either of you:

  • Just talk in your own words. Be straight. Speak plain. Don't try to tiptoe around something or nibble around the edges. It will only be confusing and prolong the discomfort.
  • Establish shared language. If you’re not sure how to have the conversation, try using the language in the Radical Candor framework, or from some other approach to feedback. A shared vocabulary can shortcut conversations that otherwise feel awkward. It also helps to point to something established so that it's clear that other people in the history of the world have felt this way and had to deal with it. If you’re giving feedback simply say, “I’m trying to be radically candid, and I want to check in with you to see how my feedback is landing for you.” If you’re trying to get more feedback, try saying, “What can I do or stop doing to make it easier for you to be radically candid with me.” Or, “I’m worried you’re so concerned about my feelings that you’re hesitant to give me the feedback I need to improve.” Or, “The thing that I most need from you is to tell me what you really think.” Then, pause. Count to 10 in your head. Embrace the discomfort. Do whatever it takes to drag a candid assessment out of somebody.
  • Get feedback on your feedback. It can be useful to get/give a reading of how feedback is landing regularly. Just check in regularly to see how it’s going.

Things to think about when telling a woman she is “too aggressive.” Before you give feedback like that, try these tactics to make sure you’re not falling into the competence/likeability trap:

  • Switch genders. If the woman were a man who did the exact same thing, would the criticism “you’re too aggressive” turn into “you really know how to get things done?” Really imagine a man on your team doing exactly the same thing the woman did. Now, how would you react? If you’d react differently, you’re about to fall into the trap.
  • Be more specific: Feedback like “you’re too aggressive” is too abstract and thus subject to the abrasive trap. If you describe specific examples of how this manifests itself, it will become more clear whether there is a real problem, or if this is unconscious bias at work.
  • Language matters. Notice the words you use. Do you use words like “abrasive” “shrill” “screechy” or “bossy” that are rarely used to describe a man? If so, you may be about to fall into the trap.
  • Never just say, “Be more likeable.” Make sure you address the situation by giving folks a better basis for attributions and ways to be more effective. Gender bias is a fact of life, and it’s your job as the boss not just to advise women how to navigate around it, but also to come down hard on the bias, and to create a more just working environment where the bias doesn’t affect a woman’s career.

Things to think about if you’re a woman who’s being told "you’re too aggressive." Similarly, before you react to feedback that you’re too aggressive/abrasive/etc., consider the following four rules of thumb:

  • Never stop challenging directly: Too often the advice to women who are perceived as abrasive (or worse) is to stop challenging directly. This is always the wrong answer. You must do that to be successful.
  • Care personally — but kill the “angel in the office.” Too often, in order to move up on the “care personally” axis, women expend too much energy picking up the “office housework,” or otherwise being “the angel in the office,” to paraphrase Virginia Woolf. Self-abnegation is never an effective way to show you care.
  • The competence/likeability research has NOT concluded that you weren’t out of line. Consider the possibility that you may have been obnoxious. Don’t be the angel in the office, but remain open to the possibility you may have hurt somebody unnecessarily.
  • Just because it’s wrong to kiss up and kick down doesn’t mean it’s right to do the opposite. Scott has coached many, many women who are radically candid with their teams, but obnoxiously aggressive with their bosses. She don’t have any research to show that this is more common for women than for men, but it’s been pronounced enough in my personal experience that she mentions it here.

Most importantly, SLOW DOWN and get an outside perspective. This is a classic case where thinking fast, to borrow Daniel Kahneman’s phrase, may trip you up. Silence your lizard brain and use your higher-level problem-solving skills. "The lizard brain is powerful. It overwhelms both intelligence and love at times." Don't let it make your feedback less valuable and cheat your reports out of growth.

More from Kim Scott on how gender influences the effectiveness of feedback and what to do about it here.

This is far from the end of the Review's wisdom on feedback — and it's definitely only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to amazing writing on the subject in general. We highly recommend you check out the best articles EVER written (by us and others) on feedback, collected from across the entire internet on First Search. Image courtesy of Science Photo Library/Getty Images.