Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
December 01, 2021 · 11 min read

How to make effective feedback your project management superpower

How to make effective feedback your project management superpower

The worst mistake any project manager can make is to focus too much on their process and forget about the people powering it. Your team is the heart and soul of every project. But that’s easy to ignore when you’re behind schedule, over budget, or getting negative feedback from stakeholders.

Even in the darkest moments of a project, effective feedback is the light that guides you and your team forward.

With the right guidance and motivation, your team will work harder, collaborate better, and feel safe to propose new and innovative ideas.

In this post, we’ll cover:

But feedback doesn’t always go as planned. Your teammates work hard. And even if they miss the mark, they went into their work with the best intentions. Cutting them down or dismissing their effort is only going to add more turmoil to your life.

Instead, giving effective feedback is an art and a science powered by proven frameworks and best practices. Once you master the fundamentals, you’ll be a better manager in everything from one-on-ones to design reviews or even brainstorming sessions.

What makes feedback effective?

Simply put, feedback is when you give someone information about how they’re progressing towards a goal.

However, not all feedback is relevant (or appreciated).

Instead, effective feedback is when that information is goal-oriented, specific, timely, and supportive (i.e., it recognizes their efforts and talents).

Yet just because effective feedback should be supportive doesn’t mean that it’s always positive. In fact, some of the most impactful feedback is negative in its nature (it’s highlighting a fault or an issue), but positive in its approach.

Either way, that’s a lot to fit into a short conversation, which is probably why the vast majority of managers hate giving feedback.

Yet study after study finds that your team wants more guidance. In fact, 63% of modern workers want to hear timely, constructive, performance feedback throughout the year.

5 reasons why mastering effective feedback is so important

If you’re used to managing projects, you probably have a slight fear of giving feedback. Unlike working on a project proposal or risk management plan, people management involves dealing with emotions, egos, and interpersonal relationships.

Yet, effective feedback is your superpower in the workplace. Get it right, and you’ll encourage your team to bring their best, hit goals, and make you look good. But get it wrong, and you could alienate, demotivate, and inspire mutiny among even your closest teammates.

But beyond just pushing the project forward, effective feedback improves your team and culture in several ways:

  1. Improves performance: Team members won’t be able to meet your expectations and the project’s deliverables if they don’t know what they are. Proper feedback clarifies expectations and keeps your team working to the project’s scope.
  2. Builds camaraderie and trust: Honesty and candor build a culture of trust and psychological safety–one of the common factors of the world’s highest-performing teams.
  3. Opens the lines of communication: Feedback should be an open two-way conversation between you and your team; Not a one-way monologue. Effective feedback is a chance for your team to respond and voice concerns that can only help with your leadership and future projects.
  4. Helps you adjust behaviors before they become issues: Regular feedback sessions give you the opportunity to talk through negative behaviors before they impact the project. For example, if someone on your team is difficult to work with, you can talk through this with them before the rest of your team feels alienated by their behavior.
  5. Checks in on important tasks and goals: One-on-one or team-wide feedback sessions are a chance to talk about pressing tasks as well as overarching goals. Openly talking with the team should help you find out what they think is realistic and achievable.

The 7 qualities of effective feedback

Whatever your reason for giving feedback, it’s essential to remember that you’re putting the receiver in a vulnerable position.

Feedback–whether mostly positive or negative–is a critique. And many people take that as an attack on their work or even their abilities and personality.

Giving effective feedback isn’t just about saying the right words. It’s a delicate balance of delivery, tone, context, and substance.

When you go into a session (or before you ask for one), remember to focus on these seven qualities of effective feedback:

The 7 qualities of effective feedback

1. Contextual and goal-oriented

Effective feedback is tied to the goal the receiver is working towards.

Giving broad strokes (for example, “you’re late too often to our planning meetings”) is much less effective than providing direct, goal-oriented feedback (for example, “when you were late for the planning meeting this morning, it meant we weren’t able to hear from our stakeholders.”)

As educator Grant Wiggins explains:

“Effective feedback requires that a person has a goal, takes action to achieve the goal, and receives goal-related information about his or her actions.”

Keep in mind the goal your teammate is working towards and don’t ignore the context of their work. If you tie your feedback into their overall goal, it will be more actionable and feel more relevant.

2. Actionable and concrete

Keeping feedback goal-oriented also helps you shift from being overly subjective (“I don’t like this”) to being more objective and actionable.

Former Facebook VP of Design, Julie Zhou, uses a series of seven questions to help guide her feedback towards being concrete. This list was created for designers, but can easily apply to developers and anyone else working on a product, app, or service:

  1. What is the user journey to get here? This question helps you understand the context of the decision. Who’s the user? How did they get to this moment? What’s on their mind?
  2. What do we want users to feel and achieve here? In other words, what does success look like? What’s your goal?
  3. How important is this experience? If it’s not a high-stakes decision, don’t spend too much energy on it.
  4. What is our scope/timeline/team? Do you have the resources to act on your feedback?
  5. Are you confident that your proposed changes are better than what exists? Your team will take your feedback seriously. Make sure you’re serious about it.
  6. What can you remove (instead of add)? Effective feedback can be subtractive, not just additive. Look for elements or tasks that you can remove as well as add.
  7. What would you do if you didn’t have any constraints? It’s not always possible to ignore constraints, but thinking this way can help you question what’s really getting in the way. Some constraints are legacy and can/should be removed anyways.

Going through these questions can feel like a lot of work. But that should be the expectation. For feedback to be effective, your team needs to feel like you truly understand what they’ve created, not just look briefly at it and then provide a knee-jerk reaction.

3. Tangible

To make feedback actionable and tailored to the project, you need to know the business results you’re after. Along with the above questions, ask yourself:

Connecting feedback to the bigger picture can help your team understand the impact of their work (rather than get caught up in the details of their task). Giving tasks a purpose is also one of the best ways to motivate your team.

Lastly, tangible feedback also shifts the focus from the past (what was done) to the future (what you’ll do next).

No one can change the past, and dwelling on it runs the risk of demotivating your team. Instead, use past actions and decisions as a way to guide the future and put your feedback into practice.

4. Timely

Whenever possible, give feedback as close to the action as possible.

Not only do you want the actions and context fresh in the receiver’s head, but leaving feedback for days or weeks later will make it less relevant and cause your team to feel like you’ve been ‘holding back’ from them.

There’s a window of opportunity to give feedback and truly change behaviors. As a rule of thumb, give feedback within a few days of the action. Don’t leave it for an annual review or some other far-off date.

5. Minimal

Receiving effective feedback is exhausting. And so is giving it.

Beware of feedback fatigue and take care that your feedback doesn’t overwhelm the receiver. Keep your feedback sessions concise and focused on just one or two points. That way you can be sure team members can absorb your key points, take them away, and apply them to future tasks and projects.

6. Candid

Don’t shy away from hard conversations––ignoring obvious problems is the quickest way to lose your team’s trust. Negative feedback is just as important (if not more so) as positive feedback.

In one study of nearly 1,000 employees from around the world, 92% believed that negative feedback helps improve their performance… “if delivered properly.”

If you plan on delivering negative feedback, always focus on the process, not the person. Criticism can be hard to hear, so make sure it’s centered on actions and behaviors as opposed to the person.

Instead of saying “You ramble on sales calls”, try saying something like “Sometimes it’s best to provide just 2 or 3 details about the product that are related to the unique use case so you don’t overwhelm the prospect.” That way the person has a clear idea of what they need to do moving forwards and won’t feel personally attacked either.

Task showing constructive and effective feedback in Planio

7. Ongoing

Effective feedback is an ongoing open conversation and not a statement. It asks questions and then follows up later to see the results.

This process is known as a feedback loop. Each successful feedback session should feed into your daily work.

As a bonus, the more you give feedback, the more readily it’s accepted and implemented. If feedback is seen as nothing more than just part of your day-to-day communication, it won’t be misinterpreted as something dangerous or stressful.

How and when to give effective feedback at work

Those seven qualities will help you shape the substance of your effective feedback. However, your delivery, timing, and tone are just as essential in ensuring your comments are heard and acted on.

There are a few extra steps you can take to create a better feedback experience for everyone involved:

Ask how people prefer to receive feedback

Not everyone loves a face-to-face meeting for getting feedback. (Just think how terrifying a simple statement like ‘hey, can we talk later about that project?’ can sound!)

If possible, ask how someone prefers to receive feedback on work.

Do they like comments on the document or in a project management tool like Planio? Do they prefer to receive feedback via writing? Would they like to talk over the phone?

Ask how people prefer to receive feedback

Most people will have a preference for one feedback medium or they may like a mix of a couple of methods.

No matter how your team members like their feedback and especially if you are working asynchronously, it is always useful to record any important feedback in your project management tool for the future.

Choose your moment

Timing is everything when it comes to delivering effective feedback.

It’s only natural that the person receiving feedback will read into the timing of when you’re giving it. They’ll look for ulterior motivations or tie your comments to other things going on at your company.

Instead, be purposeful in your timing and make sure your feedback sessions are happening at the right time for their situation. Here are a few examples:

Watch your tone and delivery

People might feel intimidated or nervous about a feedback session or performance review. For that reason, it’s important to think about your tone of voice and overall feedback delivery.

If you’re giving negative feedback try starting with things they’re doing well. This will help them understand what your expectations are. Before you move onto what needs to improve, make it clear that you want to help them continue to develop these positive types of skills and behaviors.

Always be clear about what needs to change and provide specific examples to help them see where they can improve.

When feedback sessions get ugly, it’s rarely about the facts.

Use an effective feedback framework

Overwhelming people with feedback and suggestions may have the opposite of the desired effect and leave them feeling bewildered and at a loss of what to do next. Following a feedback framework can keep sessions structured and actionable.

Try a feedback framework like:

Listen and ask questions

When feedback sessions get ugly, it’s rarely about the facts. Instead, it’s about conflicting views and values. Often feedback sessions can get personal and people can feel they’re not good enough which makes it harder to find solutions.

To find a solution, you need to really listen to the other person and ask questions like:

Giving the other person space to respond to your comments will help them see the wider perspective and open them up to effectively addressing issues.

Ask them how you as the manager can help them improve their skills. Ultimately your job is to give them perspective on their actions so they can identify ways of improving.

Follow up and recognize their improvement

Giving feedback doesn’t necessarily mean you’re right. Only that you have an opinion and/or data that could help them reach their goals.

Following up is an integral part of giving effective feedback as it gets your teammates thinking more and more about how to improve their performance.

The key is to follow up after some time has passed to allow the person to put into practice what you discussed. Following up too quickly could give the impression of trying to micromanage them. If you set some clear goals, allow them to implement them and later on follow up by recognizing their success.

The most common mistakes you’re making when giving feedback

Lastly, despite your best intentions, feedback sessions can quickly get emotional or fall off the tracks. The easiest way to avoid these situations is to be aware of the common pitfalls that make effective feedback ineffective.

The most common mistakes you’re making when giving feedback

Here are a few of the most common mistakes that can poison your feedback sessions:

Giving feedback doesn’t necessarily mean you’re right

With ongoing feedback, you turn a stressful situation into a superpower

There are plenty of formal situations where you’ll be giving feedback and setting expectations (one-on-ones, kickoff meetings, performance reviews.) But, feedback shouldn’t be limited to just those project milestones.

Instead, effective feedback is a tool you can use at any time to adjust behaviors, check-in, and improve your team.

Keep these tips and best practices in mind and you’ll find it easier to deliver effective feedback that brings out the best in your team and projects.