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.
- Effective negative feedback: This includes corrective comments about past actions. When it’s timely and specific, negative feedback helps your team adjust their behaviors and get back on track towards their goal. You’ve probably also heard this referred to as ‘constructive feedback’ as it’s meant to build up the receiver rather than tear them down. (Giving negative feedback is one of the hardest, yet most important skills you can build, which is why we wrote a full guide on it here!
- Effective positive feedback: This includes affirmative comments about past work or behaviors to help your team recognize when they’ve hit the mark. Positive feedback is great for team motivation, but only if you’ve already developed a culture of trust (we’ll get into that more later on).
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
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:
- 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?
- What do we want users to feel and achieve here? In other words, what does success look like? What’s your goal?
- How important is this experience? If it’s not a high-stakes decision, don’t spend too much energy on it.
- What is our scope/timeline/team? Do you have the resources to act on your feedback?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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:
- How does this work connect to our product vision and strategy?
- Are we working towards the right OKRs?
- What user behavior are we trying to change (and why is it important to the overall experience)?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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:
- When you notice a pattern: If a team member has a consistently negative way of addressing other teammates or never shows up to meetings on time, you need to address it with constructive feedback. Since it’s a repeated behavior, you can provide examples in your session and ask them if there’s something going on to cause this pattern of behavior.
- For developmental purposes: When you see someone struggling to complete a task properly, it’s time for a feedback session to identify the cause. Perhaps they didn’t receive the right training or don’t have the correct resources. You can use the session to identify solutions and help them get back on track.
- To assess yourself: Team managers should also periodically ask for feedback. You can ask team members if your management style is helping them complete tasks or if it’s hindering them. Asking for feedback shows strong leadership and will encourage other team members to respect you.
- To manage the workload: Team members sometimes have too much on their plate and can feel overwhelmed or burned out. If you suspect that their workload isn’t realistic, have a conversation and see how you can help them better manage their workload.
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:
- Like-Wish-Wonder Framework: “I like X. I wish Y. I wonder Z.” For example, “I like the tone. I wish the conclusion was as actionable as the middle. I wonder if we changed the CTA.”
- Continue/Consider: This categorizes feedback into actions that you’d like the person to continue doing and other behaviors you’d like them to consider. For example, “I’d love you to continue bringing such energy and enthusiasm to our sales pitches. I’d like you to consider limiting the slides to just two or three key points.”
- Action/Impact/Suggestion (aka the ‘McKinsey feedback model’): This feedback model focuses on one specific action, its impact on the team or project, and a suggestion. This could sound like “When you asked me about the project’s status every hour, it made me feel you didn’t trust my ability and I struggled to keep my focus on completing the task. Next time, could we agree on certain checkpoints to update everyone on the project status?”
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:
- How do you see this situation? What am I missing?
- How would you do things differently if you could start over?
- What do you think worked well?
- Were there any constraints or decisions I should be aware of?
- Were expectations clear from the start?
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.
Here are a few of the most common mistakes that can poison your feedback sessions:
- Too general: Feedback that’s abstract and doesn’t go into detail won’t help people pinpoint what they need to improve.
- Overly critical: Overly negative or personal criticism will demotivate your team members and scare them from making mistakes.
- Not setting clear expectations: If people don’t know your expectations, they can’t meet them, it’s as simple as that.
- Overwhelming: Long feedback sessions that attempt to cover too many subjects will tire out team members and prevent them from processing your most actionable points.
- Shying away from hard conversations: Avoiding giving negative feedback will only limit your team’s potential and prevent you from reaching project goals.
- Getting emotional or overly negative: Feedback needs to be as objective and actionable as possible. Playing the blame game or being too negative won’t help anyone improve, it will just demoralize people and make them feel bad.
- Waiting too long: Feedback is most relevant and powerful when given as soon after a behavior as possible. Waiting too long only means the person has likely already forgotten about the past behavior.
- Not giving enough feedback: Giving feedback infrequently means it’s harder to ensure you’re staying relevant and actionable.
- Mistaking feedback for something else: Remember feedback isn’t advice, evaluation, a gut reaction, or criticism. It’s a goal-oriented statement about specific actions or work.
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.