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It’s Extra Challenging for Technical Leaders to Give Feedback— But Extra Worth It When They Do!

Updated: Nov 6, 2020

Whether you lead a technical group or any other group, you probably avoid giving frequent, constructive feedback. My research shows that the primary reason for this is it makes you feel anxious about how the team member will respond.

Special Feedback Barriers Experienced by Technical Leaders & Fixes You Can Try If you are a technical leader, there are some additional dynamics that make it even harder to give great feedback:

Special barrier #1: Technical leaders are often doing work themselves that requires deep concentration Many technical managers, and all technical “leads” do heavy lifting themselves on major design, programming, research and other kinds of projects. Such leaders personally spend many hours and days of sustained concentration on complex tasks. The isolation that is required makes it harder to keep track of what others are doing.

Fix #1 The fix here is to realize that while your tasks are important, there’s so much more going on in the team. It’s essential to take the time to focus more on what others are doing. Agile philosophy—that includes frequent check-in meetings with the team—helps a lot in staying in touch with what’s going on and where there are problems.

Special barrier #2: Observing others’ work is also time-consuming and detailed

Even in an agile environment, where everyone on the team is meeting frequently and collaboratively testing their work, leaders must review details from people who have questions. Also, they often have to deal with broken processes or emergencies created when a team member unwittingly “breaks” a system such as a server used by a lot of people.

Normally, I debunk the issue of time as an objection to giving frequent, honest, and helpful feedback. But if you manage or serve as lead for a technical team, there can be inevitable delays to staying on top of employees’ performance.

Fix #2 You must build in more and more robust ways for the checking to be done by each team member in collaboration with others on the team, including deputy “leads” in specific areas of expertise. If you aren’t already holding frequent check-in meetings, start them up and notice how much more efficiently the team operates.

Special barrier #3: High value placed on respecting others’ autonomy If you’re a technical leader, the people who report to you have often been recruited and valued for their huge expertise in specific areas desperately needed in your organization. They are paid well and you want to keep them happy. If you yourself are one of those star technical experts who has since been promoted, you know the autonomy you wanted in your work climate and you are reluctant to intrude into others’ freedom to do things their way. You may avoid or delay checking on the work of your star professionals and this can be a mistake.

Fix #3 Be more strategic and realize that your superstars may be doing a brilliant job on the wrong priorities. Your role is to realign people toward success and it’s likely that you know more about what success looks like than any other individual on the team. Spend time sitting down with each to align & adjust their priorities, discussing their progress with them, and answer questions they may have.

Special barrier #4: OK, It really is true that technical managers are more often introverts… It is a good thing and totally necessary that technical people have an ability to work alone and maintain their concentration without the need to constantly satiate their social needs through conversation. Otherwise these leaders would be constantly interrupting important projects and goals. What goes with the gifts of introverts (or those who have well-developed capabilities with introversion) is an inclination to give people the benefit of the doubt, hold off on judgment, and delay addressing tough performance issues.

Fix #4 Know that initiating lots of feedback conversations is essential if your team is to achieve its goals. You just can’t escape giving frequent feedback–face-to-face or via telephone conversations. As you become adept at it, you will be able to exchange feedback with each of your people in short hallway exchanges, shorter phone calls, and even—with skill and with people amenable to it—via short helpful email. Most importantly, don’t let problems slide and go unaddressed for weeks and months. When someone is off track, making frequent mistakes, not cooperating with others on the team, or otherwise underperforming, run, don’t walk, to the conversation you need to have to get it turned around (and not via emails).

Feedback is Such a Good Thing! Every time you deliver the helpful information employees need to change, grow, and improve, you are helping them complete a “feedback loop.” Your role as leader is to make sure those loops provide accurate and frequent information they can use to drive success for the organization and for their own careers.

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