3 Tips for Giving Negative Feedback During One-on-Ones

Written by Divine Odazie

September 15, 2021

Giving feedback can be difficult. As an engineering manager, it can be tough to deliver negative feedback in a constructive way that will maintain the engineer’s motivation. 

Giving negative feedback is also an opportunity for the direct report to grow and improve. But what’s the best way to use this opportunity? There is no one-size-fits-all approach to delivering negative feedback because no two people are the same. 

Engineering managers are the best judge of how they should give negative feedback, and they may have better results if you give different people feedback in different ways.

This article will cover three tips for giving negative feedback during one-on-one meetings.

We will cover:

3 Tips for Giving Negative Feedback

Below are three helpful tips for giving negative feedback during one-on-ones:

1. Prepare before starting the meeting

As an engineering manager, giving negative feedback as a complete surprise can be a bad idea.

Every engineering manager has their way of preparing for and running one-on-ones. But one thing we can see among engineering managers is a shared agenda document with each of their direct reports.

The shared agenda document is private, and no one else aside from the engineering manager and direct report has access to it. The document collects information (comments, talking points, etc.) in preparation for coming one-on-one.

Use Zumvie to manage one-on-ones

This is how Zumvie does it:

  • Notes from your 1:1 meetings. Select if to make a specific note private or keep it public to you and the developer.
  • Have an agenda for each meeting. Set action items with reminders from your 1:1 notes. And so much more.

An engineering manager can use that shared agenda document to give their direct report an idea of what’s coming — negative feedback during the one-on-one so that they can prepare too.

Using the shared document is not to say the engineering manager should write a long, painful monologue about how everything’s wrong – that’s a bad idea. But to write an action item of the wider topic or a specific interaction or meeting the negative feedback is to be given.

2. Give the feedback: Mentioning specific events

To give negative feedback constructively, it needs to be specific. 

Specific feedback is concrete. An engineering manager can use a tailored version of the STAR model (Situation, Task, Action, Result: here’s the situation the direct report was in, what the task was, what the direct report was expected to do, what they did, and the result).

Don’t Sugarcoat

In mentioning that specific event, the engineering manager should avoid sugarcoating. Often, when people give negative feedback, they say, “You did a fantastic job with this feature! However, your code review comments have a harsh tone, which I would like to change. But really, great job on that feature.” 

They sugarcoat the criticism. They start with something positive, then deliver the actual message, then end with something positive again. Doing this waters down the message, and often people won’t get it. 

Build psychological safety: Ask for reason

When an engineering manager gives negative feedback to a direct report, it is essential to build psychological safety. The engineering manager can ask the direct report why they made a mistake (the behavior, action, or word). Asking for a reason is important because it helps the direct report know that their engineering manager cares about them and wants to help them improve.

3. Suggest and let them contribute to the solution.

The goal of giving negative feedback is to help the direct reports grow and improve.

With all the information the engineering manager has gotten so far, suggesting what they could have done differently or different output they could have achieved would prove helpful.

Also, asking questions like, “What could you do differently? What do you suggest resolving the situation or avoiding the situation in the future?” If the direct report comes up with the idea, they will have more buy-in and commitment.

 

What should the engineering manager do if the conversation becomes too heated?

Engineering managers have found that it’s usually because the direct report feels like they are not heard when this happens. To make sure the conversation doesn’t turn sour, an engineering manager should listen to their concerns and hear them out. 

If they are wrong, they can point out what they missed or misunderstood. If the discussion still becomes too heated, then the engineering manager might want to take a break and let them cool down.

The engineering manager may also want to ask them how they would like to proceed in the future. It might be helpful for both of them if they have a set of ground rules in place before moving forward with any future discussions.

Conclusion

A critical part of management is the ability to ask the right questions and listen actively.

If the engineering manager has the context right, they can develop a solution and teach the direct report to do the same.

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