How great managers give and receive feedback

Advice from Kim Scott, Julie Zhuo, Marcus Buckingham, and Camille Fournier on how to exchange feedback with your direct reports.

Feedback is a gift— one that can help you improve team results and relationships with your direct reports.

In fact, a study quoted in the book First, Break All The Rules says that the world’s best managers share three characteristics: they exchange feedback continuously, focus on employee strengths, and offer criticism in private—during one-on-one meetings.

At Fellow.app, we believe the best managers are those who offer feedback as work happens, and not only during cycles that dictate when feedback should be given.

If you agree with this statement and would like to learn how great managers give and receive feedback from their employees, you should definitely read this post:

Why feedback is important

Giving feedback—both when things are going well and when they aren’t— is one of the most important responsibilities of a manager.

This is why Julie Zhuo (Facebook’s VP of Product Design), argues that every manager should set clear expectations with their direct reports and give specific feedback as regularly as possible, in order to help them grow:

“Mastering this skill means that you can knock down two of the biggest barriers preventing your reports from doing great work—unclear expectations and inadequate skills—so that they know exactly where to aim and how to hit the target,” says Zhuo in The Making of a Manager.

If you only have performance conversations during stated cycles (like annual performance reviews), you give employees the impression that you’re giving them feedback just because you have to.

On the other hand, when you provide weekly feedback or constructive comments as soon as you notice something your direct reports can improve, they’ll see you as someone who actually cares about their growth. Less like a manager, and more like a coach.

“Feedback is a gift. It costs time and effort to share, but when we have it, we’re better off. So let’s give it generously,” says Zhuo.

How to get employee feedback

Here’s one thing you might not have considered. Before giving any feedback to your employees, you should always ask for it first. That’s what experts like Kim Scott (author of Radical Candor) say:

“There are several reasons why it makes sense to begin building a culture of Radical Candor by asking people to criticize you,” says Scott. “First, it’s the best way to show that you are aware that you are often wrong, and that you want to hear about it when you are.”

Here are three things you should consider when asking employees to give you feedback:

1 Acknowledge your weaknesses and ask employees to call you out on them

One way to encourage your teammates to give you feedback is letting them know about the things you normally struggle with and asking them to call you out on them. Here’s an example:

In a Harvard Business Review article, Ron Carucchi describes a manager who spoke for way too long whenever he felt anxious during meetings or presentations.

“One of the ways he worked to improve was to acknowledge to his team that he was aware he did it (which they greatly appreciated) and he asked them to simply hold up their hands when they felt he’d gone on too long,” says Carucchi. “Self-aware leaders know their triggers, and let others name them.”

Kim Scott gives a similar example in Radical Candor:

“My cofounder Russ once complained that I interrupted him. It was true; I am an inveterate interrupter,” says Scott. “So I said, ‘I know, it’s a problem. Can I ask you to help me stop interrupting?’ I pulled a fat, blue rubber band out of my drawer and put it around my wrist. I asked him to snap the rubber band every time I interrupted him. Russ thought it was funny, and I agreed.”

As Scott says in the book, the additional snapping did help her interrupt less. However, the most important part was that it sent a strong signal that she was taking action to apply her team’s feedback.

You don’t have to ask every employee to snap you with a rubber band. However, you can start by telling them what you want to improve. Letting your team know that you’re aware of your weaknesses makes you a more approachable boss. It not only makes you look more human, but also works as a good incentive to work continuously on your personal growth.

2 Ask specific questions

Put yourself in your employee’s shoes. If your manager asked you for feedback without being specific, it would be hard to come up with a response on the spot. This is why asking “do you have any feedback for me?” is great… but not enough.

In contrast, when you ask specific questions, you’ll not only help your direct reports come up with better answers but help yourself in areas where you know you need some improvement or growth.

For instance, you can start by asking yes/no questions to get straightforward answers from them. Some of the questions you can ask during your one-on-one meetings include:

On the other hand, you can write a list of open-ended questions that you’d like to ask (or use the suggested 1:1 questions and templates in Fellow.app).

Open-ended questions are great to follow up on your employee’s yes/no answers. For example, if they said that they’d like more direction and support from you, you could ask questions such as:

Kim Scott argues that when you’re the boss, it’s awkward to ask your direct reports to tell you frankly what they think of your performance—and it’s even more awkward for them than it is for you.

This is why she adopted a ‘go-to question’ to kick things off. If you’re struggling to ask your direct reports for feedback, you can start by asking this too:

“If those words don’t fall easily off your tongue, find words that do,” says Scott. “Of course, you’re not really just looking for one thing: that opening question is just designed to get things moving.”

3 Reward feedback to get more of it

Once you’ve asked your question and understood the criticism, it’s important to follow up by showing that you really did welcome it. In Scott’s words, you have to reward the candor to get more of it.

If your employees say something about your leadership style, the first crucial step is to thank them.

“If you agree with the criticism, make a change as soon as possible,” says Scott. “If the necessary change will take time, do something visible to show you’re trying.”

What should you do when you disagree with your employee’s feedback?

Even if you disagree with the feedback, it’s important to thank your direct report for having the courage to criticize you.

Tell them you’ll take some time to think about their comments and try to find some aspect of the feedback that you agree with. Once you’ve taken the time to reflect on it, schedule a meeting to give a thoughtful explanation on why you disagree. This conversation could help you understand your report’s perspective and clarify misunderstandings. In the end, you should always show appreciation and try to work together to find and commit to a course of action.

“Even if you don’t agree with what’s said, receive it graciously and recognize that it took effort to give. If others find you defensive, you’ll get less feedback in the future, which will only hurt your growth,” says Julie Zhuo.

You know what they say: be the change you want to see. If you want to lead by example and be able to give ongoing feedback, let employees criticize you first. It shows that you’re invested in becoming a better boss and working on your own flaws, which will make it easier to give them feedback when there’s something they can improve.

How to give employee feedback:

1 Know your people

In The Manager’s Path, Camille Fournier argues that the first step to successfully giving continuous feedback is a basic understanding of your reports’ strengths and weaknesses. Ask yourself:

“Good managers have a knack for identifying talents and helping people draw more out of their strengths,” says Fournier. “Yes, you’ll also want to look for weaknesses and areas of improvement, but if you spend most of your time trying to get people to correct weaknesses you’ll end up with a style that feels more like continuous criticism.”

Another important component of knowing your direct reports is understanding if it’s the right time to offer them feedback. Whenever you recognize an issue, make sure to always ask for permission:

2 Give immediate feedback

Talk about the things that don’t seem to be going well as you notice them. The best feedback is timely.

Did someone say “uuhmm” a lot during a presentation? Find some time to let them know your thoughts and offer some resources or advice. Did a team member make a mistake at work? Let them know during that week’s one-on-one meeting and not four months later, at a performance review.

“This also goes for getting praise. A great manager will notice some of the little things you’re doing well in your day-to-day, and recognize you for them,” says Camille Fournier.

Of course, there are times when you should wait to praise or criticize somebody. As Kim Scott argues in Radical Candor:

“Generally, if either you or the other person is hungry, angry or tired, or for some other reason not in a good frame of mind, it’s better to wait. However, this is the exception not the rule, and too often we use the exception as an excuse not to do what we know we should do.”

3 Praise in public, criticize in private

Remember the study of “great managers” that we mentioned at the beginning of this post? In First, Break All The Rules, Marcus Buckingham explains that one of the characteristics of great managers is that they give feedback in private, during one-on-one meetings:

“The purpose of feedback is to help each individual understand and build on his natural talents. You cannot do this in a group setting,” says Buckingham. “This sounds obvious (…) but it is surprising how many managers forget the importance of spending time alone with each of their people.”

If it’s time to give someone on your team constructive feedback because they did something that needs improvement, make sure to give them that piece of feedback in private and in person. Don’t send them an email or call them out at a team meeting. If your intention is to help that person grow, you should find a quiet space to offer your advice face-to-face.

As Kim Scott argues in Radical Candor, giving feedback in person also helps you avoid misunderstandings:

“The clarity of your guidance gets measured at the other person’s ear, not at your own. That’s why it’s best to deliver guidance in person,” says Kim Scott.

On the other hand, praise can be shared publicly—as long as your report is comfortable with it. (If your direct report prefers private praise, make sure to respect that):

“Public criticism tends to trigger a defensive reaction and make it much harder for a person to accept they’ve made a mistake and to learn from it,” says Scott. “Public praise tends to lend more weight on the praise, and it encourages others to emulate whatever was great.”

4 Don’t personalize

Feedback should never be directed at the person, but at the action or habit they should work on.

For instance, if someone has been late to your team meetings several times, you must never say things such as “you’re irresponsible” or “you don’t care about other people’s time.” Instead, you can describe the specific events and the ways in which that person’s tardiness affected everyone else on the team. 

As Kim Scott argues, radically candid criticism is about the work, not the person:

“There is a big difference between caring personally and personalizing when giving praise and criticism. Caring personally is good. Personalizing is bad,” says Scott.

If you’re still wondering how to make your feedback less “personal,” you can use what Lara Hogan calls the feedback equation

“If you structure all of your feedback this way—not just big, important feedback, but even tiny little pieces of feedback that you might casually have throughout your day—you’ll find it’s really easy to give successful feedback that people will actually hear,” says Hogan.

5 Focus on the future

While the first part of your discussion may focus on the employee’s actions, the majority of time should be devoted to what Marcus Buckingham calls “the truly creative work” — which means, figuring out next steps and ways in which you could help:

“Great managers focus on the future: They want to discuss what could be rather than allowing the conversation to descend into recriminations and postmortems that lead nowhere,” says Buckingham.

If your goal is to be a helpful manager, telling people that they did something wrong is not enough. You should offer resources, ideas and guidance to help them accelerate their growth. Ask questions like “is there anything I can do to help you?” or “what are the next steps you’ll take to change this behaviour?” — focus more on the future, and less on what happened before.

“Ultimately, continuous feedback works best when you, as a manager, pair that feedback with coaching,” says Camille Fournier.

6 Record the feedback

The last important step you should take when exchanging feedback is recording all the information. This ensures that neither you nor your direct report will forget that you had this important conversation.

As Julie Zhuo argues in The Making of a Manager, recording feedback also empowers you to analyze emerging themes and behaviours:

“When you zoom out and look at many examples of task-specific feedback for a report, what themes emerge? Does he make decisions quickly or slowly? Is he a process wizard or an unconventional thinker? … By connecting the dots across multiple examples, you can help people understand how their unique interests, personalities, and habits affect their ability to have impact,” says Zhuo.

Giving feedback — both when things are going well and when they aren’t — is one of the most important responsibilities of a manager. Providing positive and constructive comments as soon as you notice something will make your direct reports feel that you care about their growth. 

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