Pro-Tip: Deliver Feedback as a Cop and Not as a Messenger

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@ZhouAnnie

Engineering leader at Square passionate about building products and platforms

Annie leads the business operations platform engineering group within Square’s platform & infrastructure organization. Prior to Square, she worked at a number of startups across a spectrum of industries from consumer products to enterprise solutions, as well as a wide variety of teams from sales to engineering. Having worked with many different managers, she’s formed her own leadership philosophies.
Many before me have written excellent articles about the importance of constructive feedback, best practices on the subject, and powerful frameworks such as SBI (situation/behavior/impact) for delivery. I will not repeat their wisdom. Instead, I want to share a personal story that taught me an important lesson about giving feedback as a manager.
“It is critical that the manager takes ownership and responsibility for the feedback that one is giving.”
I always ask for and value feedback because I’m constantly looking for ways to improve. When I was an individual contributor on one of my previous teams, my manager at the time (let’s call her Stacey) would receive criticism from individuals about their peers and deliver it in a transitive fashion. Let me explain what I mean by a “transitive fashion.” In one instance where I received feedback from Stacey, she said: “I heard complaints from others on the team that you’ve been doing X,Y & Z.” When I first heard about this, I quickly adjusted my behavior because I wanted to be a good team player. After a couple weeks, I checked-in with Stacey to see how my changed behavior fared. Disappointedly, the response I got was “I don’t hear the complaints anymore, but I also haven’t heard any good things, so it’s unclear these changes have worked. I’ll let you know if I hear complaints again.
From my perspective, I felt like I had to correct my behavior to the satisfaction of my peers, but it was unclear what constituted “satisfactory.” I had to keep wondering who I had to please in order to “meet expectations.” If the feedback had come directly from Stacey and she gave me clear actionable steps for remediation, I could focus on those specific areas and engage in a faster feedback loop to understand what I can adjust. Instead, this situation caused a great amount of stress for me to always be on my toes. I knew everyone perceived performance differently and valued different things. In order to “please” everyone on the team I felt like I couldn’t be vulnerable to anyone and I had to be impossibly perfect.
Our team was very small so it wasn’t hard to figure out who the most vocal individual was (let’s call her Beth). I respected Beth and considered her a good friend so it didn’t bother me she provided me with some growth opportunities. I asked my manager to let Beth know that she should just talk to me directly next time. However, after receiving transitive feedback a few more times over more minor incidents, I started to distrust Beth. I couldn’t understand why she didn’t come to me first before going to our manager. She never talked to our manager about the positive contributions (or at least those didn’t make it through to me). I only heard about the mistakes I made during stressful times. I never harbored ill will towards Stacey because she’s just the messenger in this scenario. What I didn’t realize at the time was that Beth’s weakness is confrontation and she would bring minor complaints about everyone across the team and didn’t feel comfortable delivering it to anyone.
While I think gathering peer evaluations from across the team is a healthy practice, I would caution managers to carefully evaluate the information before turning it into deliverable feedback. An individual’s evaluation of another is frequently mixed with personal perspectives and incentives.
“As a manager, I would rather protect the trust and respect my team has with each other so that it does not affect their daily working relationship than to take the easy way out and play messenger.”
Receiving critical feedback is difficult and it hurts the rapport between the deliverer and the receiver. As the manager, I would rather protect the trust and respect my team has with each other so that it does not affect their daily working relationship than to take the easy way out and play messenger. In an ideal world, all individuals on the team have built a great rapport with one another so they all feel comfortable giving each other constant feedback of all forms. However, this is rarely the case even with the best intentions because both evaluating performance and delivering feedback are both very challenging areas and they require practice and skill sets that do not normally align with that of an IC. While it’s important to create a safe and collaborative environment on the team so everyone has a strong relationship and feel comfortable giving each other feedback, an individual’s holistic performance should be evaluated by the manager and not by the rest of the team. It is not an IC’s job to evaluate other ICs; it is the manager’s job.
When I deliver constructive feedback, I try to be very cognizant of the way I message it. It’s easy to play the bystander and say “your peers have said X, Y & Z” because playing the messenger is easier than playing the bad cop. However, I think it is critical for the manager to actually be the bad cop and fully own the feedback he or she is delivering.
Numerous books and articles have been written about the art of delivering feedback to reduce the negative effects. Even though giving critical feedback may hurt your relationship with your IC temporarily, working through a tough situation together and helping your IC grow in the long run will actually improve your rapport and trust!
When someone comes to me with complaints or criticism for another, I’d first coach them to work it out directly with the individual. If, for whatever reason, the individual doesn’t feel comfortable delivering constructive feedback and asks me to help on their behalf, here’s what I would do:
1. Gather the feedback anonymously (from multiple sources if possible)
2. Evaluate it objectively to remove biases
3. Make sure I agree with the feedback and find examples
4. Define action steps for remediation
5. Deliver the feedback as directly coming from me
6. Set goals or milestones together to mitigate the gaps
Over time, we will routinely check-in to follow-up on progress. Once we feel improvements have been realized, I will follow-up privately with the original IC who provided feedback to make sure his or her concerns have been addressed.
Delivering feedback as the owner of that feedback takes the guessing game out of the picture for the receiver, protects healthy inter-team relationships, and holds everyone accountable.
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@ZhouAnnie

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Engineering leader at Square passionate about building products and platforms

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