Giving Actionable Feedback

management growth

Feedback is a gift. But how do you provide feedback to someone while increasing the chance that the person can hear and maybe even act on what you’re sharing with them?

Defensible and Actionable

It’s end-of-year peer review time at my current company. I’ve written my fair share of feedback on people over the years: it has primarily been during formal corporate performance assessments, including Microsoft and Google review ‘cycles’. It’s variously called Peer Feedback, 360 Feedback, and so on. Frankly writing feedback does not come naturally to people (me included back in the day) so I’ve been in the habit of sharing some guidelines for people who work on my team, and to people whose feedback I’m seeking.

What’s common is the need to write things that are:

  • Both defensible, meaning that the feedback is as objectively true as possible, while understanding that it’s always biased by who is writing the feedback.
  • and actionable, meaning the the person receiving the feedback can reasonably be expected to understand what is being said, in context, and can ideally take action on it, even if that’s just self-reflection.

Here’s what I share with folks to get them in the right frame of mind to write actionable and defensible feedback. It reflects Woolpert’s Great Place to Work approach, which I quite like. Otherwise I think it’s generically applicable to most organizations.

A short guide to giving feedback

Peer feedback is how you let Woolpert and me know how you think your peers are doing on the 4 pillars of a Great Place to Work: supportive, focused, balanced, and progressive.

As such it’s important (to me, to Woolpert, and to your peers!) that you give your feedback some thought. Some tips for giving feedback that have served me well in the past.

  • Give praise where praise is due…and use an example.
    • NOT: “Bob is amazing – really great developer.” That’s nice, but it’s not particularly useful for Bob or his manager. What is Bob doing that is so great?
    • YES: “Bob is great at sharing his knowledge with the rest of the team. For example, in Q1 he did 3 peer reviews of key commits that really highlighted some potential issues BEFORE they hit production.”
  • Keep it professional. If you wouldn’t say it directly to the person’s face, then think twice about your tone (and maybe your message). Naturally, 360 Feedback is CONFIDENTIAL. However, I’ve always tried to write mine with two points in mind:
    • Hopefully I’ve already shared my feedback with the person I’m writing about, so I’ve thought about how to be constructive.
    • I actually WANT the person I’m writing feedback about to read it, and benefit from it. Being a jerk is decidedly NOT helpful.
    • 360 Feedback is like the Internet…once you’ve written and hit the Send button you can NEVER take it back.
  • Make it about the behavior, not the person. This is why it’s important to give a brief example.
    • NOT: “Alice was a jerk on Project A because she didn’t listen to my opinion.” That’s…well…just your opinion. If there’s a specific example, then it’s fact based and gives Alice something to work towards, not just a negative bit of feedback.
    • YES: “In our Project A architecture review, Alice used language like ‘That’s a bad idea’, when I would prefer to hear ‘Help me understand your thought process?’ One makes me not want to share my ideas in the first place; the other encourages open discussion.”
  • Be Balanced. Try to give as much positive feedback as constructive feedback.
    • It’s not a requirement, but it does encourage you to think in a balanced way.

All that said, don’t agonize over feedback. Just be honest, actionable, and have empathy for your teammates.

I hope that is useful. By focusing heavily on how to write the little snippets of feedback, I’m probably missing some important aspect of the process. But getting feedback can be hard, so picking the right language and tone can be a great first step to seeing the change you’re looking for.

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