Tough love for managers who need to give feedback

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I’m honored to coach a lot of really terrific managers and leaders in my work. But no matter how experienced or how smart these folks are, we all still get some things wrong sometimes. When it comes to feedback, I have a lot of tough love to give.

These five reminders are for the managers (and executives) who need to step up how they deliver feedback to their reports. You owe it to them to be better at this, because you have 100% of the power in this relationship: the power to fire them, the power to limit the projects they take on, and the power to cap the compensation they earn.

1. Your feelings have no place in feedback for your reports.

This is because of the power dynamic; your feelings are your responsibility. Give feedback on your reports’ work, the outcomes of their work, and how this relates to their level and expectations (more on how to do this effectively below).

Cut out any feedback that amounts to why they should change their behavior because of your feelings. Vent to or lean on your peers about your feelings; that is not your direct reports’ job.

2. You don’t get to assume why someone’s behaving the way they’re behaving.

You get to ask about what’s behind their actions, and problem-solve together based on their answer. Quit proposing new solutions or approaches when you still don’t know what’s going on for your report.

3. I get that you’re worried about how someone’s going to react to your negative feedback, especially while the world is upside-down. But you’re not allowed to soften the feedback so much that your report doesn’t understand what they should do next.

It’s your responsibility to clearly (and kindly) articulate what’s expected of them in their role, and what the gaps are. If you avoid being direct—even if it sucks to do so, on top of everything else happening in the world!—you’re setting them up for failure.

By the way, I witness this pitfall occurring most often when a white manager is preparing to give feedback to a person of color.

Out of fear of being perceived as biased, or not wanting to compound existing inequities in the workplace, white managers tend to soften feedback to people of color so much that it inhibits their growth, limits their impact on business drivers, and sets them up for further failure. This happens for other members of minoritized groups, too. Read more on this phenomenon (and what to do about it!) here and here.

4. If you can’t own the feedback, don’t give it.

It’s your responsibility to synthesize others’ feedback into something that you can confidently deliver to your teammate and support them in finding ways to address this feedback. You’re not allowed to pass your report’s feedback off as “other people are saying…” What are they supposed to do with that? Take responsibility and own the feedback.

5. Be honest with yourself about whether or not you think this person can meet these expectations.

Too often I talk to managers who are going through the motions of giving feedback, but don’t really believe this person will be able to hear it or act on it. This is unfair to those reports. If you give someone feedback while expecting them to fail, that’s you failing as their manager.

What to do instead

If you’ve fallen into one or more of these pitfalls as you’re writing performance review, don’t worry! You can regroup. Your reports deserve you taking the time and energy to give them fair and actionable feedback.

Follow these steps as you prepare to give a direct report feedback, no matter the occasion: their performance review or a regular one-on-one.

  1. Frame your feedback in terms of your observations, rather than assumptions or judgments.

  2. Tie your feedback to shared career ladder or job description documents that relate to this person’s role, and the next level up.

  3. Cap off your feedback with open coaching questions, before hopping into advice/request mode.

  4. Roleplay the feedback conversation with a peer first, to iron out the potential pitfalls, and make sure it’s fair and clear.

  5. To steal from Jill Wetzler: Deliver your message, with commitment. She writes, “the delivery of a performance review is not so much the end of the feedback cycle as it is the beginning of your work together.”


Lara Hogan

Author, public speaker, and coach for managers and leaders across the tech industry.