Tag Archives: feedback

Peer-to-Peer Feedback

One of the traps people fall into on teams is withholding information that’s critical for the team to function. Sometimes the information is about friction between team members. When team members don’t have a way to talk about small frictions, they turn in to big events, damage relationships and spill over onto the team.  So here’s how to have one of those difficult conversations.


Not long ago, a developer approached me for advice about a problem team member. The developer reported that one team member was causing resentment, alienating other team members, and generally making life difficult for all. No one wanted to work with him.

“What is he doing to cause all this?” I asked, wondering what sort of wildly dysfunctional behavior was going on to cause these problems.

The answer surprised me. “He picks his nose,” the developer said.

“He picks his nose? Have you talked to him?”I asked.

“Of course,” my developer friend replied. “I talked about the importance of manners at our team meeting. And I talked about how we all had to be careful about spreading germs.

“He still picks his nose,” he continued. “It’s gross. The only thing I can think of is to start picking my own nose to see how he likes that.”

Nose picking is an unattractive habit. But the real source of this team’s problem isn’t nose picking. The real problem is that team members don’t know how to have an uncomfortable conversation—peer-to-peer.

How to talk about a difficult subject.
Remember, the over-arching goal of feedback is to improve working and social relationships. When you think of it that way, it’s easier to find a respectful way to deliver a difficult message.

Use “I” language.
Talk about what you see, and what you feel. Start your feedback with a sentence that starts with “I,” rather than with “you.”

Describe what you have seen and heard.
Stick to the facts of what you have seen and heard. Describe behavior rather than applying a label. For example, “Yesterday in our team meeting I heard you call Sara an idiot.” rather than “Yesterday you were rude.” Labeling the other person only puts him or her on the defensive.

Own your own feelings about the situation.
Some people advise using this formula to give feedback: “When you do X, I feel Y.” But this construction implies that one person is the cause of another’s feelings. No one else can make you have feelings. To remove the implied cause and effect, you might say, “When I hear you call Sara an idiot, I feel like you are disrespecting her,” or “I want to tell you about something that you do that’s a problem for me.” Then describe the behavior.

Talk about the effect the behavior has on you.
People often don’t realize the effect their behavior has on other people. Explain (briefly) how the behavior you are talking about effects you. Explaining the impact gives the feedback receiver information so they can choose what to do with your feedback. If there’s no impact, then a request seems arbitrary. The conversation could start with “When I hear you call Sara an idiot, I feel like you are disrespecting her. I worry that you talk about me that way when I’m not in the room.”

Make a request.
Most people don’t like to be told what to do, even by a peer. (Telling someone what to do implies that you are not actually peers.)  Ask for joint problem solving to work out a different way to work together.  But there are times when you want a particular behavior to change or cease.  Then make your request clear:  “I want you to stop calling Sara and our other co-workers idiots,”  or “Please check with me before you commit my time to a meeting.”

Don’t sell past the close.
Sales people warn about “selling past the close.”  Selling past the close happens when the prospective buyer has made the buy decision, but the sales person keeps selling.  This breaks the relationship because the buyer feels pressured and senses that the sales person isn’t actually listening to him.  And there goes the sale.

The same think can happen with feedback.

It’s helpful to prepare what you want to say–as it is in any situation where you feel anxious.  But don’t just stick to your script.  Pay attention to the other person, and listen to his response.  When he signals that he’s gotten the point, zip it.

If you open with “Laura, I want to talk to you about the meeting yesterday,”  and she responds “Oh, it’s about how I interrupted it you…I’m so sorry, let my enthusiasm carry me away. I know I do this, and I’ve asked Sara to help me monitor myself….”  Stop.  She’s got the point and continuing your feedback message won’t help your relationship.  Sometimes the feedback receiver gets it at the description, or when you state the impact (“Oh, I didn’t know my speaker volume irritated you.  I’ll turn it down.).

Don’t expect an admission of guilt or contrition.  Often, people need time to absorb what you’ve said, especially if this is the first time they’ve heard about a problematic behavior.  And after all, the feedback is about you, not the Truth about them.

It’s not always easy to give feedback. I still feel anxious when I prepare for a difficult feedback conversation. I have almost always found that the pre-conversation anxiety is worse than the actual event. And the pay off for having the conversation is well worth the effort.

So what happened with the nose-picker?
I advised the developer to have a private conversation with the offending team member. “Give him the benefit of the doubt,” I said. “What if he’s unaware he’s picking his nose? It may be an automatic habit. And even if he’s aware he’s picking his nose, he may not be aware of how if affects you and other people on the team.”

The developer agreed reluctantly, and we worked out a little script. Here’s what he decided to say to his nose-picking colleague:

“Joe, this is really awkward for me. I want to tell you about something that you do that’s a problem for me.”


“I’ve noticed that during our team meetings, you pick your nose.”

[Pause and wait for a response. This may be all you need to say.]

“When I see you picking your nose, I feel worried about you spreading germs. My reaction is getting in the way of our working together.”

[Pause and wait for a response. This may do it.]

“Would you please stop picking your nose while we’re working together?”

The next week, he reported back.

“You’ll never guess what happened,” he said. “You were right, he wasn’t even aware he was picking his nose. But it was really awkward,” he continued. “He was embarrassed but he was also grateful I told him. I guess I shouldn’t have waited so long.”

It is hard to address interpersonal and work issues directly-even when the issues aren’t as awkward as someone picking his nose. Respectful feedback can improve working relationships. And handling issues directly keeps little irritations from growing into major divisions.

An earlier version of this article appeared on Stickyminds.com.

Gird Your Loins

….. It’s Time for the Annual Performance Review

Vague statements and labels, one-sided evaluations, surprises, and secondhand complaints are just the sorts of things that can make a person want to run away screaming from an annual performance evaluation–probably not the best career move. Here are some tips for dealing with these situations in a calm and collected manner.


It’s that time again: the ritual of yearly appraisals and performance reviews. If you’ve followed my writing, you know what I think of yearly appraisals and performance reviews. And, you know that the data is on my side.

Still, the vast majority of companies still mandate some form of annual review with ratings, rankings, and bell curves. Except for people who receive top ratings, these reviews can be discouraging, demotivating, and soul-destroying. But, refusing to participate is a career-limiting move.

Four of the most destructive dynamics in reviews involve vague feedback and labels, one-sided assessments, surprises, and second-hand complaints. I hope that your review doesn’t go down that road. But, in case it does, here are strategies you can use to hold on to your dignity and obtain some useful information.

Vague Statements and Labels

Several years ago at about this time of year, I was talking to a group about feedback. One woman shared that she had just had her annual review and received a below-average rating because, her boss said, she was “too nice.”

I’m sorry, but that isn’t useful feedback; it’s a label. There was no way for the receiver to act on that label, other than to start being mean. If your boss uses a label to summarize some aspect of your performance, ask for examples. But, do so carefully, so that your boss doesn’t infer that you are challenging his assessment.

Start by creating an opening by saying something such as, “I’d really like to learn more about that perception, so that I can decide what changes will be most effective in this area. Can we set up a time to discuss specific examples?”

If your boss says no, you’ve got bigger problems than a useless label. Fortunately, it’s unlikely he will respond that way. It’s more likely that your boss won’t have those examples at his finger tips and may need time to think back over the situations that led to his conclusion. Pressing him during the review may make him feel defensive and lead him to label you as resistant–downward spiral, here we come!

When you do have the opportunity for further exploration, ask for recent examples. You need enough information to allow you to recognize and remember the situation. Once you have data that you both agree on, ask to understand how your boss sees your actions affecting your ability to do your job. For example, the too-nice lady might have asked, “How do you see my style getting in my way?” or “How did my style affect my credibility or ability to do my job in the situation we’re talking about?”

Part of everyone’s job growth is developing a greater repertoire of options for action, so ask for some coaching while acknowledging the data. “Yes, I did do that. At the time, I didn’t pause to consider other options. Will you help me think through some other alternatives that would have been more effective?”

One-sided Evaluations

If your boss makes an assessment that you feel doesn’t cover all the facts of the situation, add more information.

Excuses don’t sway most bosses. But, when there are circumstances beyond your control that affect your ability to finish assignments, your boss should take them into account (and work to correct the situation so you can succeed).

It’s almost never a good strategy to argue with the ref, so start by acknowledging what is accurate in your boss’s assessment. You might say something such as, “I can see how that’s a problem, and I’m not making excuses. I would like to share some more information about how that situation came about.”

Share additional information in as neutral a way as you can, and avoid blaming other people. After you’ve laid out the data, own what you can about the situation. Maybe you didn’t raise the red flag to indicate there was a problem early enough. Maybe you didn’t consider more than one option. Whatever it is, if you can own your part of the situation, your boss will see that you aren’t trying to shift the blame.

Then, move to problem solving by making an opening such as, “I would like to discuss how to handle the situation should it arise again.”


One of the worst things a manager can do in an annual review is spring a surprise on you. But, sadly, some managers wait until the end of the year to tell people about a problem that’s festered for months.

If this happens to you, acknowledge your manager’s point of view and the importance he puts on the situation. You won’t be able to bring your best thinking to the situation when you are caught off guard. Ask for a follow-up meeting within the next week, so that it’s clear you aren’t trying to brush off the concern.

Secondhand Complaints

Bearing secondhand feedback is a sure way to erode trust. But, some so-called performance-management systems rely on it, and some managers fall into the trap.

Vague or puzzling secondhand feedback presents a problem similar to vague labels–you don’t have enough information to make a choice about what to change. Use a similar opening: “I’d like to learn more about that perception. Can you arrange for me to have a follow-up conversation with the person who gave that feedback?”

If that fails, ask if your boss shares the assessment from the anonymous source, and seek clarification from him.

If the secondhand feedback is a complaint about the way you do your job, ask your boss to arrange a meeting so that you can repair the working relationship.

Most people are open to feedback when they believe that the source is reliable, the receiver trusts the giver’s intentions, the receiver has a chance to clarify, and the process–both how the feedback is developed and how it’s delivered–is fair.

Too many annual reviews violate some or all of these principles, but if you use the strategies in this column, you can restore some of the balance and gain helpful information.

Public humiliation is not feedback

@mick_maguire asked me about “Differentiation” and how it could possibly fit with an Agile team.

It can’t. Not with any team.

Mick also pointed me to a blog post where the writer, a fan of Differentiation, described how he implemented the process on his team.

As a part of this meeting, each member of the team must select the people who they believe to be in the bottom 10%. On our team 10% is one person. We do not publicly discuss why they were chosen. But they are encouraged to meet with the person to get feedback during the next iteration. After the exchange of the bottom 10%, each person must select the top 20% and during the meeting explain why they picked them as a top performer.

We publicly select the top 20% and the bottom 10%, and publicly state why top performers are in the top 20%. We allow each member to privately receive feedback from members so they can improve and know where they stand within the team.

(The writer also describes “continuous feedback” as process where team members give each other “praise and criticism.”  Feedback is information, not evaluation, not criticism, not blame.)

I’ve talked to a number of people in different organizations who went through a public process that required each person to praise and criticize other group members. They described the process as humiliating–both when receiving praise and criticism.

The blogger admitted that the process was humiliating on his team, too. He stopped it after 3 or 4 rounds.  I bet the damage outlasted the few weeks the they used this horrible process.

So what is “Differentiation”?  It’s the practice of identifying 20% of the people in the organization as stars, 10% as cull, and lumping the remaining 70% in the middle. Welch justifies “Differentiation” on his observations and recollection of how kids choose schoolyard baseball teams.

We aren’t playing baseball, we’re doing knowledge work. Surely, we can do better with adults in the work place.

I find it’s more effective to focus on building teams who produce great results and organizations that are designed to produce value and support people to do excellent work. Identifying the top 20% and bottom 10% of an organization won’t help with that.

Most people fall within a normal a range of capability, and have both strengths and weaknesses.  Put them together with other people with complimentary skills and compensating strengths and they can achieve more than a group of competing individuals.

It doesn’t bother me that I don’t know who is “best” and “worse” on a team. I care about how they work together on a team level.  I care about creating work places that work, and work systems that enable people to do their best.

Of course, there are people who outperform the system, or underperform the system.  Treat them as exceptions.  But for heaven’s sake don’t subject everyone to a ranking scheme or humiliating public criticism.

No More Middleman: Avoid triangulated feedback

Tom looked up to see Jonathan, who had just transferred onto the team, standing in the doorway to his office. Jonathan looked red and flustered. “What’s up, Jonathan? Looks like you’ve got something on your mind,” Tom said, waving Jonathan in and pulling up a chair for him.

Jonathan slumped into the chair. “You know I’ve been working with Danielle this week?” Jonathan began.

“Yes, how’s that going?” Tom asked.

“Is she showing you the ropes?”

“I can’t work with her anymore!” Jonathan blurted out.

“Whoa,” Tom said. “That sounds pretty final. What brought that on?”

“She’s always eating cookies, and the crumbs get all over the keyboard. On Tuesday she left chocolate fingerprints on the table,” he said. “And yesterday she put greasy marks all over my printout.”

“Have you talked to her about this?”

“Well, no,” Jonathan admitted. “But I wipe up after her, so she should get the hint.”

Tom took a breath. “If you haven’t talked to Danielle, how is she supposed to know you don’t like it when she eats cookies during your working sessions?”

“Anyone with a clue would know how rude it is to drop crumbs in the keyboard. Besides, giving feedback is your job,” Jonathan said.

“Yes, giving feedback is part of my job,” Tom said. “And it’s part of your job, too, when it comes to improving working relationships. You need to work this out with Danielle. I can coach you on what to say, but you have to say it.”

Jonathan crossed his arms and sank down in the chair. “All right. I’ll tell her,” he agreed grudgingly.

Tom and Jonathan discussed the outcome that Jonathan wanted and developed a script so he could practice what to say.

“Ready to go?” Tom asked.

“I guess so. I’ll ask her if we can talk right after lunch. She’s probably out buying cookies right now,” Jonathan replied.

Tom watched Jonathan walk out the door and then sighed. A year ago I would have fallen into the trap and talked to Danielle myself. Then she would have been hurt and angry. And it wouldn’t have helped Jonathan and Danielle work together—it would have made it worse.

Yes, it’s my job to provide feedback, Tom continued to muse. But it’s not my job to play middleman.

Tom had learned the hard way what happens when a manager delivers feedback for someone else. Last year at review time, Tom had asked everyone on his team to provide feedback for every other team member. He provided a form with a series of questions and a rating scale. At the bottom of the form was a space for additional comments. Tom had gathered up the feedback forms and consolidated the responses. I’ll have some solid information to provide people about how their peers view their skills, he’d thought. But the reviews didn’t go as well as Tom had hoped.

Martha had been mystified to learn her teammates rated her communication skills as poor. “What does that mean?” Martha had asked. “What can I change to do better?” Tom had made some general recommendations but couldn’t be specific.

Ted had been thunderstruck when he found out that Jenny had complained about an incident that had happened back in January. “I had no idea Jenny was upset about that. Heck! I hardly remember what happened. I wondered why Jenny had been cool toward me during that project, and this explains it. If she’d talked to me last January, I could have done something differently.”

Fred had summed up his review experience succinctly. “This feels like third grade—when someone’s upset, he goes to the teacher to tattle.”

Rather than improving teamwork, Tom’s experiment in delivering secondhand feedback had bombed. He could feel the trust level drop as co-workers wondered who had said what. Everyone seemed to be waiting for the next knife in the back. Even the team members who had received positive feedback weren’t basking in the glow—”I’d rather someone thank me directly rather than filling in a stupid form,” one person said.

It had taken months to rebuild trust between team members, and Tom had had to eat crow to do it.

After weeks of watching the team pull apart, Tom had called a special meeting. “I made a big mistake,” Tom began. “I thought it would be helpful for the review process to gather your feedback for each other. But I see now that it wasn’t the right thing to do. You guys aren’t talking and joking like you used to. It’s as quiet as a tomb around here. Most of you are barely speaking, and you sound guarded and careful when you do. It feels like my efforts at second-hand feedback, instead of helping, has destroyed trust.”

Tom had paused. “Do I have it about right?” The members of the team murmured their assent.

“OK, I blew it,” Tom said. “What can we do to move past this?”

Finally, Ted spoke up. “I was hurt and angry to hear that Jenny had complained about me.” Ted turned to Jenny. “Jenny, I really wish you had spoken to me directly.”

“I didn’t know what to say to you,” Jenny said looking at her notebook. “But next time you do something that bugs me, I’ll try.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t save up our feedback ‘til the end of the year,” Fred offered.

The team continued to generate ideas on how to rebuild trust. Tom took an action item to arrange for a training session on peer-to-peer feedback.

It took time, but the team started chatting and joking again. And to Tom’s surprise, team members developed stronger relationships as they learned to give one another feedback directly and respectfully.

There were a few occasions when a team member came to Tom for advice on how to broach a sensitive topic. And Tom continued to provide coaching and feedback based on his direct experience. Tom knew that in some rare instances, he’d need to be involved in a peer-to-peer issue—in the case of harassment, ethics, or safety. And it was conceivable that someday he’d have to step in when peer-to-peer feedback didn’t resolve the issue.

Tom snapped out of his reverie. “These aren’t school kids, and I’m not the teacher,” he said to himself. “No more middleman for me.”

This article originally appeared in Better Software magazine.

Managing a Struggling Employee

Sooner or later every manager faces the same dilemma: What do I do when I inherit or hire an employee who turns out to be a poor fit for the job?

Tom was the development manager for a supply chain product. He had an important project to deliver and was staffing up to meet the workload. The company had recently discontinued another product, InventoryPro, and HR was trying to find jobs for all the people who had been displaced within the company. When it was time to recruit candidates, Tom looked internally first .

Sara, one of the InventoryPro team, had the qualifications, at least on paper. But Sara also had a reputation for having bounced around the company for more than a decade. She’d been on “get well plans” and on the edge of being fired three times, but had always pulled it together long enough to climb out of probationary status.

Tom rationalized an explanation in his mind:

She just needs a fresh start. She’s bright and she’s got 12 years of experience. With the InventoryPro situation, I’d have to go through all sorts of hassle for an external hire when there’s someone from the InventoryPro team who could do the job.

So Sara started on the project. Tom—and the rest of the team—soon experienced first hand the behaviors that had landed Sara on employment probation three times.

Within three weeks, Jessica, the team lead, was in Tom’s office. “Tom, I’m worried about Sara’s impact on the project. Every meeting turns into a debate. It’s starting to wear on me and the team. Plus the work she does isn’t…well, it isn’t very good. I’ve had to ask her to redo 3 out of 5 deliverables so far. I’m worried that with Sara’s rework, we’re falling behind schedule.”

“You’ve got to give her a chance, Jessica,” Tom said. “Maybe she didn’t understand what she was supposed to do. She’s new to the team, after all.”

“I don’t know, Tom,” Jessica said. “I reviewed the completion criteria for each deliverable with her, and gave her examples from the last project. I wouldn’t expect to coach even a junior employee this much.”

“I’ll have a talk with her and sign her up for a communications skills class.” Tom said. “And I’ll talk to her about the quality of her work. But you need to cut her some slack and give her some time to fit in with the team.”

The next week, Jessica was back in Tom’s office. “It just isn’t working out with Sara,” Jessica said. “She sits through our work sessions glaring, and after the meeting tells the other team members how stupid my approach is. It’s really taking a toll on the team—they’re wasting energy bitching about Sara instead of working on the software! We’re definitely falling behind schedule!”

“I’ll bring Sara up to acceptable performance. I’ve never fired anyone,” Tom protested. “I’ll turn her around: I’ll meet with her every day to coach her.  It’s going to take time, Jessica. You need to be patient. ”

“How much time? How long before Tom decides he’s done enough to try to help Sara?” Jessica wondered.

Where to Begin

Tom made a poor tradeoff when he decided to avoid a hassle with HR and hire a person with a history of poor job performance. While Tom’s situation is extreme, sooner or later every manager is faced with a decision about how long to coach an employee who is struggling.

When you are faced with an employee who isn’t working out, ask yourself these questions:

How much rework am I willing to accept?

How much time am I willing to add to the schedule to accommodate poor-quality work?

What effect is this person having on the rest of the team? Am I willing to accept that effect?

What sort of message do I want to send to the rest of the team?

How much time am I personally willing and able to invest in coaching this employee?

Am I investing my coaching time where it will best serve the individual, the team, and the company?

If you’ve decided to coach an employee who is struggling, make a plan with a time limit.

Have a frank conversation about the gaps you see between the results you want and the results he’s achieving.

If you are both willing to work to close the gaps, develop a training and skills-building plan and agree when and how you’ll reassess progress.

If you don’t have other appropriate work and can’t accommodate the time investment to build skills, coach the employee out of your group. Your HR department may offer support to help him find another job internally or externally. Although it may be tempting to help the person yourself, don’t do it! You are not a job placement service, and getting involved in the job search will make it harder for you to fire the person if he doesn’t find other work outside your group in a reasonable amount of time.

When the employee doesn’t recognize the skills gap or there are behavioral problems, establish a “get well plan.” Determine the changes and actions that you’ll need to see and set a time frame. My preference is 30 – 60 days, with weekly checkpoints along the way. Your company may have specific guidelines, so check with your HR person or the company lawyer. Be ready to terminate employment if the employee isn’t willing or able to meet the goals of the plan.

What happened with Sara? Three months later, Jessica had moved Sara off the supply chain project. The team couldn’t recover the time and productivity they’d lost while Sara was on the team, but they were starting to settle in and re-gel.

Tom devised a one-person project for Sara to work on. It wasn’t really important work, but it kept Sara busy while Tom continued to follow up on her work and coach her twice a week. I doubt Tom will ever fire Sara, since doing so would admit he’d failed to bring her performance up to a suitable level.

Many managers, like Tom, have a hard time making the decision to stop coaching and move an employee on to another job inside or outside of the company. Some will spend months or even years accepting marginal performance and lowered productivity for the entire team rather than make a difficult decision.

Take a look at the bigger picture of the work to be done, the productivity and the morale of the team. Then ask yourself: Where should I invest my time?

Cupid’s Arrow at the Office

I was recently interviewed for an article on how managers should handle office romances:

Office romance 101: Relationship advice for managers:46% of employees have been involved in an office romance. If you haven’t dealt with this issue yet, you surely will.

Here’s part of my interview with Esther Schindler.

ES: When do you judge that a relationship is romantic (and thus bears examination)? Presumably it’s no big deal for two people to have lunch together, but when do you notice (just to yourself) that you have a Dating Situation?

ED: As a manager, it’s really none of my business what people do with their time outside of work (unless it involves something like using company assets to run a side business).

It only becomes my business when there is behavior that affects work results and working relationships–or when behavior crosses a legal boundary, like public sex . Yes, the parking lot and the storage room count as public places. So does an office, even with the door closed. Really, I don’t make this stuff up.

It’s my business  when two people are so focused on each other that they loose sight of the context—the work, the team, the office environment.

But this doesn’t only happen with love-birds. I’ve seen this dynamic when two people are locked in a hate relationship and are determined to make each other look bad, sabotage each other or refuse to work together when the job requires them to.  (Some times the hate relationship follows the end of the love relationship.)

ESDoes your company (or HR) HAVE a policy about romance at work? What is it? Have you ever looked at it?

ED: A company I worked for in the past had a policy that applied to dating when there was a direct or indirect reporting relationship–and that made sense.  Where there is a power difference, there can easily be an element of coercion. When the relationship is known (and they usually are) there’s almost always a perception of favoritism.  And that gets in the way of work.

As for dating between between peers or where there isn’t a reporting relationship, you can’t stop attraction, and you can’t stop people falling in love.  It’s going to happen, whether there is a policy or not.  So let’s handle it like adults, treat employees like adults, and not pretend the company acts in loco parentis.

That said, “Don’t get laid where you get paid” is not a bad rule of thumb.

[Aside: I can’t believe they didn’t publish that bit of sage advice!]

ES: What do you do when the couple’s behavior matches expectations? (E.g. they keep it quiet, never let the relationship create a conflict of interest, etc.)

ED: Wish them well.

ES: How do you, as manager, keep an eye on this and stay fair?

ED: Well, I don’t watch the couple like a hawk.  I observe the dynamics of the group and look at work results.

ES: What happens when the relationship creates a work distraction?

ED: Start with congruent feedback, based on observed behavior and impact.  When people are in love, their brains are flooded with all sorts of chemicals that keep them from thinking clearly.  Information about impact may make it though the haze.

ES: How do you handle it as manager when the couple breaks up, or is found making love in the storeroom, or creates an uncomfortable atmosphere?

ED: As long as the breakup doesn’t interfere with work, it’s not my business.  If it does interfere, I give feedback.  It the former couple can’t figure out how to work together and their animosity gets in the way, one of the former pair will often leave the group voluntarily.  If you have to break up the fight, move both of them off the group. Moving only one too often results in other team members taking sides–another distraction from the work.

I usually talk about consequences after the second time I give feedback–talking about consequences when people haven’t had a chance to change can feel like a threat.

Unless there’s something illegal or egregious going on, then the message needs to match the seriousness of the situation.

Held Hostage by a Prima Donna

What to do when your (so-called) MVP is destroying team productivity.

Luke, the manager of the Rev 2.0 team, was walking on eggshells. He’d had another blow up with Shelly, the team architect. He tried to talk to her about the way she had treated the newest employee, Brent, in the design review meeting on Tuesday. But when Luke asked Shelly to be more patient, she exploded.

“Look, my time is too important to waste explaining the obvious to the stupid,” Shelly snapped. “It’s not my fault you hire unintelligent people who can’t understand this stuff.”

“But, Shelly,” Luke said weakly. “It’s important that everyone on the team gets along.”

Shelly snorted. “Hire some smart people, and we’ll get along just fine. In the meantime, just remember that I’m the one who was smart enough to figure out the algorithms for this system.”

She didn’t need to add “You need me,” but the threat was hanging in the air.

Luke’s face burned every time he thought about that conversation. He knew they needed Shelly, but her abrasive behavior was upsetting the team. They avoided her, struggling silently to support her code rather than risking her wrath by asking a “stupid” question.

So when Luke attended a workshop on giving feedback, he asked for some coaching on responding to difficult people.

“Describe difficult,” the instructor prompted.

“Well, I have this architect,” Luke said. “She gets defensive when I give her feedback, and she doesn’t accept what I say. She thinks she’s always right.”

“Tell me more,” the instructor coaxed.

“Well, she’s brilliant. And she’s an order of magnitude more productive than anyone else on the team—she really cranks out the code. But while most people can hold six or seven thoughts in their heads, she can hold fifteen or twenty. Everyone else has trouble following her code, and when they ask for help, she’s disdainful.

“When I talk to her about it, she gets mad. I can’t afford to lose her. I need to find a way to coach her to be more patient with the other team members.”

The instructor paused a moment, then said, “So the way she writes code and the way she interacts with the team make everyone elseless productive?”

“I’ve never thought of it that way,” Luke said on reflection.

“I wonder what would happen if she left the company?” the instructor asked.

“Oh, that would be a disaster. No one knows the code the way she does, and no one can figure it out.”

“That sounds sort of risky.”

“You bet!” Luke agreed. “But what can I do? We need her.”

“Do you really? Or are you being held hostage?”

Luke mulled that thought over during the rest of the workshop. Back at the office, he spent a week observing the team and examining metrics. He listened carefully in one-on-one meetings and probed to gauge both current morale and aspirations. As he listened and watched, he formed a new picture of the dynamics within the group.

The following Monday, he asked Shelly into his office.

“Not another sermon on manners,” Shelly sneered.

“Nope,” Luke said. “We need to have a talk about how your code and your style are affecting the rest of the team.”

Shelly sat across from Luke and glared. “I can walk out the door any time and find a new job in two days.”

“I’m sure you can,” Luke agreed. “I want talk about each issue separately.”

Luke described the behavior and work results that were getting in Shelly’s way. He described the impact her behavior and style were having on the team and the department.

“Shelly, if you make some changes, you’ll be successful in this job. And you’ll put yourself in the position to be even more influential across the company. Are you willing to work on these issues?”

Shelly thought for a while, then gave a quiet “Yes.”

She and Luke worked out new expectations for code maintainability. Then, he coached her about different ways to work with the rest of the team.

Shelly didn’t experience an overnight transformation. She’s still gruff and has to count to ten in her head to keep from snapping at less-experienced colleagues, but she’s working on it. She has worked to simplify the code and has explained it to the other people in the group. She listens to questions and suggestions, and even pairs with less-experienced programmers to help them learn the code base.

Six months after their first frank conversation, Shelly asked Luke what he would have done if she’d walked out the door as she’d threatened.

“I would have let you go,” Luke said. “The way things were going, I was putting the company at risk and denying the other team members the chance to develop. I was underestimating the cost of turnover with the rest of the crew and not considering how their productivity was suffering. In a way, I feel I owe you an apology for letting the situation go on so long.”

“That was a tough conversation,” Shelly said. “But looking back, I’m glad you told me. No one had ever explained to me that my attitude was hurting my prospects. And now that I’ve gotten to know the other guys better, they aren’t so dim—just young and inexperienced.”

Luke smiled and thought, “I sure did talk my way out of that crisis!” 

This article originally appeared in Better Software magazine in 2006.

A Manager’s Guide to Getting Feedback

© 2006-2010 Esther Derby

Author’s Note: In general, anonymous feedback in the workplace doesn’t work. It destroys trust, and doesn’t give the opportunity for followup, clarification, or problem-solving.

But there is an exception.  Sometimes the only way to get feedback up the chain–from direct reports to managers–is to use a process that anonymizes individual responses, and allows for open discussion of the results.

Once a manager establishes that he is open to feedback, will act on feedback, and does not retaliate, people may be more willing to give direct feedback. As long as managers have power to rate, promote, fire, and influence careers, it’s going to take extra effort to receive clear and honest feedback from people in a position of less power.


Like everyone else, managers need feedback to know how they are doing and where to adjust their actions. Managers may receive feedback from their managers; that’s necessary, but not sufficient. Managers also need feedback from the people they manage.

For information on how you are interacting with and supporting the people who report to you, go to the source.

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to obtain feedback from direct reports. When I ask knowledge workers why they don’t give their managers feedback, here’s a sample of what I hear:

“If I criticize him, I’ll see the effects when it comes to annual salary reviews.”

“Feedback is a one-way street with my manager.”

“It’s not my job. He should know now he’s doing. He’s the manager, after all.”

Beliefs about hierarchy can belie the truth that all relationships are co-created—even relationships between managers and direct reports. So as a manager, you may have to work extra hard to receive clear, honest, and direct feedback about how the people who report to you perceive you and how you are affecting their ability to accomplish the goals of the organization.

Even if you have built a foundation of trust, you’ll have this obstacle to overcome when you seek feedback from your staff. If the trust in your group is low, rebuilding trust is the first priority. Asking for feedback can be part of that—if it’s handled carefully. I’ll say more about this later.

Before you start the process of obtaining feedback, ask yourself if you are really willing to hear the feedback and act on it. Going through this exercise and not making any changes will cause cynicism. Gathering data and then punishing people will cut off your source of information. Acting hurt will telegraph to people that you can dish out feedback, but you can’t take it. You may hear information that is surprising or unsettling. You may learn that other people don’t see you as you see yourself, or that others’ perceptions don’t match your intentions.

If you can affirm that you are willing to hear uncomfortable information and are willing to take at least some action, then proceed. If not, take some time to reflect on why, and consider using a coach or taking a management style assessment to begin learning about how others might perceive you. Once you’ve decided to go ahead, set aside at least two team meetings for the feedback process. Overall, the process takes about a week.

Meeting #1: Identify the Characteristics and Behaviors That Matter to the People in Your Group

State the purpose of the meeting by saying something along these lines: “I want to do my best to support you by creating an environment where you can do the work we need to do. To do that, I need information about what you feel is most important for me to do, and how my actions are supporting you in those areas.” Provide an overview of the process and explain how you’ll use the data. Ask the group to individually brainstorm the qualities and behaviors most important to them. Use stickies to do an affinity sort. Have the group attach a descriptive name to each affinity group. Most groups end up with five to seven groupings.

After the meeting, create a short survey to collect data. The survey might look something like this.

Characteristic & Assessment



1=Behavior in this area is getting in our way

3=Could do more/differently here

5=Keep doing what you are doing

Note that the ratings don’t express a judgment about the person, such as “poor” or “outstanding.” Use wording that focuses on behaviors, not an assessment of your goodness as a person. Distribute the survey, and create a way for people to return it anonymously. Ask that the surveys are returned in time for you (or someone else in your group) to collate the data.

Meeting #2: Discuss the Data

The numbers don’t have meaning in and of themselves, and they won’t tell you what to consider changing, what to stop doing, or what to continue. But they will help start a discussion.

Start the meeting by stating the purpose: to have a frank discussion about what people need from you. Vague generalities won’t help. You need specific behavioral examples of what you are doing that has a positive impact on the group and what you are doing that gets in their way. For areas where the team would like to see something different, engage in problem-solving and identify several possible options.

Here’s what one manager’s data looked like:


Ask for specific concrete behavior examples in each category. One manager I know responded to a low number for “availability” without asking for more specific information.  She instituted office hours and handed out her home phone number. But that wasn’t what her staff wanted. Their assessment reflected the fact that she took phone calls and answered email during meetings (which she continued to do during her “office hours”). You need to hear from the people in your group what you are doing or not doing that leads to their assessment. For areas where your staff sees you at the low end of the scale, ask “What one or two things can I change—either start doing or stop doing—that will improve my effectiveness?”

Chances are that some things you do as a manager will please some and displease others. In some cases, you can have it both ways. For example, if one person in your group feels you check the status  day-to-day work too often and another appreciates your interest and attention, you can adjust your style for each person (assuming that the person who doesn’t like day-to-day attention can work independently). In other cases, you’ll have to abide by the old adage “You can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

If your team tells you that something you feel is critical to your job is driving them crazy, explain what is behind your behavior, i.e., the management goal you are trying to achieve, and ask them to work with you to find other ways to accomplish that goal. One manager was annoying his team by inserting himself into technical discussions and decisions that the group felt they should be making. He explained that he was concerned that they didn’t have all the facts and might make a decision that would work short-term but would be detrimental over the long term. Once the team understood his concern, they were able to move into problem-solving. The manager and the technical staff agreed that the manager would provide context, set boundaries, and be clear on whether he was looking for a recommendation or a final decision.

Be prepared for surprises. You may learn that you have habits that get in your way. One manager learned that her staff inferred that she didn’t like to hear bad news because she furrowed her brow and scrunched up her face when staff members informed her of problems. They believed her facial expression meant she was mad at them. This manager believed she’d never be able to completely control her expression. But once she was aware of the effect her facial expression had, when she caught herself scrunching up her face, she explained that she wasn’t angry, she was concentrating.

Rebuilding Trust

If the trust level in your group is too low for this method, consider having a neutral party  facilitate the process (perhaps someone from the HR department). A neutral party can help ensure that people feel free to state their perceptions, and help you absorb the feedback and choose how to act on it. Asking for feedback can be the first step in repairing relationships, if you are prepared to take a hard look at yourself and act on what you learn.

Manage Expectations

Whether you are starting from a position of high trust or low trust, your group won’t expect you to be a completely changed person after the discussion session. Just as you wouldn’t expect your direct reports to make 15 behavioral changes in the course of the week, your staff won’t expect that of you either. You may ask them, “If I can change just one thing in the next month, which is most important to you?” Your team will expect you to listen carefully to their feedback, consider their perceptions, and make at least some adjustments.

Real-time Feedback

(c) 2003-2010 Esther Derby

This column originally appeared on Computerworld.com

Twice a week, I go to the gym and weight train with Brooke Darst, a Certified Personal Trainer. As I perform my exercises, Brooke provides a constant stream of feedback: Minor corrections, “Chin in! Lower your right shoulder. Stand up straight!” Encouragement, “Perfect!” and recognition for improvement, “You held that 10 seconds longer than last week – awesome!”

It’s obvious that if Brooke waited until the end of the month and then told me “In the first week of the month, you raised your right shoulder during some exercises,” it wouldn’t be very helpful. I might not remember the specific exercise or session, and I wouldn’t have a chance to correct the problem until the next session. I’d start looking for a new trainer.

Unfortunately, many managers act as if they think it’s best to wait until the yearly performance evaluation to provide feedback.

Delayed feedback has significant costs. If there’s been a pattern of incorrect or incomplete work, it’s too late to go back and correct the work. The opportunity to improve performance and productivity is gone forever. The feedback given long after the event may feel capricious or arbitrary. The highest price is damaged working relationships.

Jackson waited until a yearly performance review to tell Sheila that the defect density in her code was twice as high as the other programmers. Now he was going to move her onto a less challenging project.

Sheila was stunned. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” she asked. “The defect densities aren’t sorted to show individual differences — I had no idea. When I asked about a promotion in our one-on-one meeting, you never said anything about not being happy with my work! I could have done something differently if I’d known!”

Sheila started wondering what else Jackson wasn’t telling her. And she wondered if this was the start of Jackson pushing her off the team. She accepted the new assignment, but she didn’t really trust Jackson after that.

Feedback is necessary to achieve result and to maintain relationships.

Here are three basic guidelines for providing information to improve the work while maintaining working relationships:

Assume people don’t know. Like Sheila, people are often not aware that their performance isn’t quite up to par. When there isn’t a defined point of comparison or data from the work itself, people may not realize their work isn’t all it needs to be. Some times it’s as simple as asking a question. “Are you aware that the defect density in your code is twice as high as anyone else in the group?” A question can provide information and set the stage for problem solving.

Provide clear, specific examples. Don’t make the feedback receiver guess what to change. Suppose a manager said, “You didn’t deliver on last month’s design. I’m disappointed in you.” What does “didn’t deliver” mean? Was the design late? Was it incorrect? In the wrong form?

Vague statements and generalizations such don’t provide information for the feedback receiver to know what to do differently. If you want to see an improvement, provide specific examples of what was wrong and what the results should be. A statement like “I found grammar and spelling errors on every page in your design. I’ve marked them here. The design itself is correct, but the number of errors in the text distract from the content,” is more likely to achieve the desired improvement.

Give feedback before you reach the boiling point. Don’t wait until you are ready to transfer, demote, or terminate. Most people want to do a good job. But they may not know what the standard is or how to do it. Give information early so people have a chance to correct the situation before you reach the end of your rope.

Managers don’t need to provide minute-by-minute feedback like my personal trainer does. They do need to provide clear, specific, and timely feedback to help people be as successful as they can be. After all, if the people who report to you aren’t successful, how can you be successful?

Shocking Survey Results about Performance Appraisal

The landed in my inbox this morning:

In a famous Leadership IQ study, we surveyed 48,012 CEOs, Managers & Employees about their performance appraisals. Here’s the shocking results: Only 13% of Managers & Employees thought their performance appraisals were effective. And only 6% of CEOs thought their appraisals were effective. We also discovered that only 14% of employees say their performance appraisal conversation offered meaningful and relevant feedback.

Actually, I’m not shocked by these results. Not even surprised.

What is shocking is that many organization continue to add layers of process, systems, and training, in an effort to make a fundamentally broken concept work.

I’m not saying we don’t need feedback. We do need information about results and behavior. That information needs to be relevant, timely, and actionable. For ideas on how to make feedback useful look here.

I’m not saying that we don’t need to have conversations about performance.

I’m not saying managers don’t need to make decisions about whether a person’s performance matches the needs of the job.

But the typical performance appraisal process fails to give useful feedback, fails to promote meaningful conversation, and seldom leads to decisions about fit for job.