Giving Feedback: Sooner, and More Directly

Sooner than you would prefer

When we anticipate that an experience will be uncomfortable, the natural temptation is to delay it in order to avoid it. Humans are great storytellers, and we often use stories to rationalise our choices. For example, “we had deployment issues with this project, but you know, there were some unforeseen things that came up — I will see how the next one goes, then I’ll speak to them about this”. Or, “I was going to bring this up in our 1–1, but then we got talking about something else, and I didn’t have the chance. It’s okay, I’ll bring it up next week”. Narratives like these are problematic. The more time between an action, and the feedback on that action, the less effective the feedback. Memories fade, details are lost, and new things come up in the meantime. There’s a good chance that if we don’t bring it up now, then we never will, or when we eventually do, things will have moved on and the feedback won’t be as relevant. As leaders, we need to recognise these stories for what they are, and lean into the discomfort of discussing the feedback sooner than we would prefer.

Photo by Veri Ivanova on Unsplash

More directly than you would naturally

When we’re uncomfortable in a conversation, it’s not uncommon to find ourselves talking around the subject rather than addressing it head-on. We use more words than we need to, and we add more qualifiers (“maybe”, “try”, “possibly”) to hedge our statements. This leads to a couple of problems. First of all, it makes the point we’re trying to make less clear — more words to parse means there’s more room for misunderstanding. It also softens the tone of the delivery, so it can mislead the other person about the urgency or importance of the feedback. To defend against this wordiness, we need to make a special effort to communicate in simpler, more direct terms than we would normally.

Talk it through beforehand

Before going into a feedback conversation, I have found it helpful to talk it through with a trusted peer. Doing this allows you to practice both articulating what you have observed, and communicating your message in simple, direct terms. It helps you verify that your choice of words conveys what you intend.

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Mark Wood

Mark Wood

Engineering leader at Bloomberg. All opinions are my own.