In my first few years as a design manager, I loved giving positive feedback to direct reports and absolutely dreaded, hated, and procrastinated giving negative feedback. I would agonize over what to say so I wouldn’t hurt anyone’s feelings, or worse, ruin the camaraderie I’d worked so hard to build with a direct report. I’d literally lose sleep over it. And in the moment when I delivered the feedback, I’d soften the blow so much that the recipient was often confused about what I was trying to say.
On the other hand, I was personally frustrated that I never received any feedback from my manager or coworkers about what I could improve. I wanted them to tell me—in a professional and caring manner of course—what I could do better. I knew I was making tons of mistakes; surely my manager could point out some areas for improvement.
Do you see the irony here? I longed for constructive feedback, yet was reluctant to give any.
It wasn’t until I sent out an anonymous survey to my direct reports that I finally received some truth: I was being too nice. I was so concerned with hurting people’s feelings that I wasn’t helping them grow. They asked me to be more direct.
I still don’t like giving constructive feedback, but after taking several management courses, reading books about feedback, and practicing (and failing) again and again, I have the skills needed to do it. I’d like to think I’ve made some big steps forward. In this post I want to share with you my learnings: why it’s important to give constructive feedback, my template for giving feedback, and how to give feedback specifically to designers.
There’s not enough room here to share everything I’ve learned about feedback, including how to prepare for it and how to move into problem-solving; for that I’d recommend reading an actual book such as Thanks for the Feedback (my personal favorite).
What do I mean by feedback?
As I wrote in my article on Coaching versus Feedback, feedback is literally anything that results when we take an action. When people talk about feedback, we’re often referring to negative feedback (also called critical or constructive). I’m using the term constructive more here because I believe it reinforces that we are not criticizing the recipient; we are giving a thoughtful observation of what happened as a result of an action they took.
I also won’t go into detail on positive feedback here but I want to point out that it’s just as important as constructive feedback. Specific, timely positive feedback is incredibly valuable. The reason for this is that we hone in on critical remarks about ourselves and remember them vividly, even if they’re delivered with the best form and intentions. So if we receive the same ratio of constructive messages to positive messages, we’ll end up feeling criticized. For this reason many studies recommend at least five positive comments for each negative message in order to feel balanced to the recipient.
Why giving feedback is hard
Can you relate to this? You sit down to give someone critical feedback and suddenly you begin to experience all kinds of physical symptoms. Your heart beats faster. Your hands shake. You feel cold (or your face gets hot). You might want to jump out of your seat and run away. Even though it’s only words, the psychological perception of impending conflict feels like a threat to our brain and our fight-or-flight response is triggered.
We also might avoid feedback, as I often did, because we value having a positive relationship with the people we manage. Some of us might even consider our direct reports friends. I’m fascinated by the research of Naomi Eisenberger showing that social rejection feels literally “painful” because it activates the same regions in the brain as those activated by physical pain. Many of us will do almost anything to avoid losing a social relationship, including avoiding letting them know when they need to improve.
If I tell her that she that she needs to redo these designs before I can show them to our VP of Product, she’ll be offended and not like me.
If I tell him he needs to listen more to his teammates during brainstorming sessions, he’ll get defensive and stop treating me like an ally.
Despite such worries, if you want to be an effective manager, giving constructive feedback is not optional. When designers don’t realize how their behaviors, words, and work are affecting others, they can’t improve, and you’ll be stuck with an under-performing team.
How to give constructive feedback
What helped me finally feel more comfortable giving constructive feedback was the realization that everyone needs constructive feedback in order to grow and most people want it! (Noting again that feedback is completely different from blame or criticism; nobody wants that.) Being direct with someone about a behavior they can change that will help them in their career is actually more caring than watching them create problems without saying anything. As Kim Scott, the author of Radical Candor, points out in this article from Forbes.com,
“You need to rise above your empathy and realize that it’s your own feelings you are protecting, not theirs.”
I’ve found that following a tried-and-true template made it easier for me to be direct and clear with my reports about what they needed to improve. There are many good feedback templates; I especially like the Situation-Behavior-Impact™ (or SBI) feedback tool which was developed by the Center for Creative Leadership because it’s easy for me to remember.
Here’s how I’d use SBI to give feedback to a designer who is refusing to meet a deadline, for example:
1. Describe the situation to set some context.
Referring to a specific situation will ground your feedback in context, as opposed to speaking in general terms which are easy to brush off. For example, using the phrase “you always” or “you never” is a bad idea because it automatically puts the recipient on defense and gives them reasons to argue against you (“I don’t always do that, remember that situation two months ago where I did the opposite!?”). So let’s stick with the facts: where and when did it happen?
In our example, we could describe the situation by saying
“In the meeting this morning when Jose mentioned that you hadn’t sent him your wireframes yet…”
Notice that we’re giving the person feedback about a recent event. It’s better not to let much time pass before commenting on a behavior that is problematic. Just as we design products that give feedback (a red underline when you’ve misspelled a word or a warning when you’re about to delete an important file), giving personal feedback immediately after a behavior makes it possible for the recipient to address it.
Feedback for products is essential, as in this error messagefrom Dropbox. Shouldn’t it be for people too?
2. State the behavior you observed.
This sounds easier than it is, because you can only observe behaviors which are external. This means it must be something the person said or did that can be seen or heard. You don’t know what is going on inside your teammate’s head—their feelings, thoughts, or intentions. You can only tell them what you saw/heard. I like the analogy that behaviors are like an iceberg; we only see the part that is above the surface and based on that we guess at what’s happening underneath.
“You told Jose that it was an insane deadline”
“You raised your voice and slammed your hand on the table”
is also observable.
“You were angry” is not observable. The feedback recipient can protest that they didn’t feel angry—and maybe they weren’t! You can only tell them what you observed (slamming their hand on the table and raising their voice) and what it led you to believe about their state of mind.
3. Tell the person what the impact was.
Here is when you finally get to talk about feelings—your own. Or you can mention something that happened as a result of the feedback recipient’s behavior. Potential impacts from this person’s behavior might include things such as:
“I noticed that Jose didn’t talk for the rest of the meeting.”
“The engineers don’t know when to expect the designs and this might delay our release date.”
“I felt uncomfortable during the meeting and I feel very worried about our ability to ship on time.”
I find that my feelings are the hardest impact to talk about because it requires me to be vulnerable. But it’s often the most powerful way for a person to understand the negative impact of their behavior.
4. Pause and ask how they see the situation.
At this point, you’ve done the hard part: delivering the feedback that their action had a negative impact. The recipient might be completely shocked because they didn’t intend to have that effect. In the best-case scenario, they already saw the problem and want to fix it. Sometimes they might still not understand why it’s a problem that you felt uncomfortable or that Jose didn’t talk during the meeting, in which case you’ll have to set firm expectations for future behavior. Either way, you’ve let them know that something isn’t working and needs to be fixed.
In addition to the above template, it’s important to me to help the feedback recipient know that I am not giving them this feedback in order to be cruel. If these statements feel authentic to your leadership style, try adding them to your toolkit:
“I’m telling you this because I care about you and I don’t want this habit/behavior/bad design to get in the way of your success at work.”
“I’m here to help you improve.”
Giving feedback to designers
In many ways, feedback for designers is the same as feedback for anyone, but there are areas where I believe we are unique. For example, most of us practice design critiques. Well-functioning design teams will regularly give each other feedback about their design work, whether in a formal review or a casual desk chat. Why not use these same techniques and carry them into more personal situations?
In a design critique, we are taught to critique the design and its impact on the user instead of critiquing the designer. In the same way, when we deliver constructive feedback we focus on the behavior or output and not the person. Of course while design critiques can be done in a group, effective and compassionate constructive feedback should be done one-on-one.
At the risk of over-generalizing, I’ve also found while managing designers (and being one myself) that we can be a sensitive group of people. Even designers I thought were callous often have many insecurities, and having to redo work over and over can make yet more constructive feedback feel like the final straw. Bluntly pointing out that a designer isn’t meeting expectations can undermine any chance of them listening to the feedback. This is why delivering feedback using the SBI template in an empathetic manner is often successful. It helps you to state the cause and effect and then give room to listen to their point of view.
Because our jobs as designers require us to find problems and fix what’s not working, I believe designers also tend toward self-criticism, which is easy to disguise with outward confidence. Rather than not giving feedback at all, however, design managers can address this head-on. Encourage a growth mindset by reminding your direct report that we all make mistakes. Try telling them a story about a time you did something similar.
Remember to also give your designers positive feedback when they do something good—not during the constructive feedback conversation, because we’ve all experienced the overused and uneffective shit sandwich, but at another time, ideally soon after you observe the behavior and impact. This ensures that your positive feedback will be heard and felt.
Feedback is a tool you can learn
Remember that anytime you try doing something new, it’s hard at first. Changing from Sketch to Figma or Photoshop to Sketch, for example, is difficult on the first day. But as we practice and get tips from other people, it will eventually feel more natural. We might even create our own custom workflows and keyboard shortcuts. Feedback is a skill like any other, and it’s the only way to help your design team reach their full potential.
Are you a design leader who wants to learn more about and practice giving feedback in a safe space?Jenny Shirey is facilitating a workshop called “Courageous Coaching and Forthright Feedback” at the IAC Conference in New Orleans on April 15. She'd love to see you there! You can also hire her to bring the workshop to you. Find out more about her workshops and trainings for teams here.
Originally published at www.jennyshirey.com