Feedback is the tool that just cannot be over-estimated enough when working with your direct reports. Actually, it extends even further than your immediate team, and if executed mindfully, it massively helps to accomplish yours, your team’s, and even your organization’s goals. We’ll talk about the “How” part some other time. Let’s look at the “How often” variable now.
So you came across something that would be considered a point of feedback to your team member, positive or negative. Should you wait for the right moment to share this? Should that be a topic for an upcoming 1:1 in a few days? A note for a performance review? What should be the frequency of various kinds of feedback?
The short answer is straightforward: as often as you have something to say. However, as with nearly everything related to leadership, this is easier said than done.
Why It Can’t Wait?
Actually, it can wait. The reason to share the feedback as it comes up is precisely the moment, and the context helps it to be the most descriptive, revealing, and has the best chance to get accepted well. Therefore frequent feedback is the most impactful type of feedback. You’re not doing this just because you like nitpicking around, but because you want somebody to do something more or do less. And the best way to achieve this is by sharing the feedback fast. So not only the person already knows where, how, when it happened what you’re talking about, but gets an immediate chance to fix their behavior right away. Otherwise, if you have behavior to improve but don’t say it, next time it happens, it’s your responsibility.
Another way to think about it is treating a piece of feedback as some food that is the best when just cooked fresh. But it slowly gets worse with time and eventually spoils.
Ah, so yes, you can undoubtedly wait if you see someone is already full. Just keep in mind: it’s with an end date on the package.
In practice, given I have something to share with someone on my team, I like and try to do the following:
- Pull a person aside right after the event happened. This conversation always has to be private.
- Inquire what led to the behavior in question. Why did something happen? If you have a blind spot, best to learn about it right away.
- Make it quick, to the point, but explain not only what but what impact this had or might have.
- Schedule or agree on a follow-up if the topic requires or discussion emerges that you don’t have enough time for right away.
- Pro-tip: share your perception of the potential issue this way as well. Just make sure you include that fact into your explanation. E.g., “Hey, for me, it looks like this and that. I might be wrong, though, how do you see this?”
If you’re doing this right, an excellent test is to see if anybody on your team gets surprised by the performance feedback checkpoints. Ideally, performance feedback should only be a summary of the feedback that already happened, a confirmation, a follow-up on the action plan and its progress forward. If you’re having performance review discussions on 1:1’s, those meetings should be focused on discussing necessary changes, understanding the already given feedback better, but never breaking the news.
When It Should Wait
There are a few situations I think it’s just a bad idea to follow a frequent/immediate feedback way of working blindly.
First, when the ship is burning. Just do not start pulling people aside if they did not do something perfectly. That’s what the team and personal retrospective is meant for. However, don’t stand and watch if you see the progress is already or about to be impaired. Instead, formulate your feedback as suggestions, e.g., “I think we could solve this faster, if you this and that.” Then, go back and explain deeper only after that production server is up again and the team had a chance to decompress.
Second, when the person is simply unable to accept this feedback right now, and the input does not impact the team or other individuals. You can still mention you see things to improve, and you need to discuss them later. Another bucket of cold water didn’t help anyone survive if they were already drowning in the ocean of personal struggles. Do not take this as a call for inaction - some other action to help is needed! That “help” is not minor feedback in such a situation.
If You Have to Serve It Cold
Don’t wait even longer if you feel you have missed the best moment. Make sure you spend enough time explaining the context that triggered the feedback you’re sharing. With proper preparation, you will see if that feedback makes sense at this point. It’s even okay to drop it - better to roll up your sleeves and act faster next time than have a frustrated team member who just cannot understand the point of the feedback.
The feedback is like your favorite hot meal - best not to let it get cold.