Engineering Manager: Continuous Feedback
Feedback is one of the most valuable tools to support people and company growth. In this article, focus on feedback between engineers and engineering managers.
Join the DZone community and get the full member experience.Join For Free
Feedback is one of the most valuable tools to support people and company growth. What is feedback? It is any information about the product, workplace, company culture, team, workmates, or managers used as a basis for improvement. The feedback comes from many sources, but in this article, we focus on feedback between engineers and their engineering managers.
The feedback goals, frequency, and methodology to achieve them are good indicators of the company's culture. For example, there are many companies where the goals are only focused on performance delivery and not on the growth of the people's career path or skills.
Most of the companies where I have worked had annual performance reviews. The goal of this meeting was to give me feedback about the project goals of the last year and sometimes it seems the justification to give you a promotion or why not.
In this article, we will review some of the concepts most important to get good feedback.
Positive and Negative Feedback
In either case, the feedback is a tool to improve; therefore, the feedback has to be always a constructive message. Even in the worst cases, such as in regard to people who are fired from the company or moved to another squad, the feedback should be more constructive than ever. It's especially in the worst situations when people need support and feedback on what went wrong and what they need to improve.
We should not misunderstand constructive feedback by not providing an honest message.
The feedback has to be company-wide and bidirectional. One of the tools that we have to get feedback are one-to-ones. These should not only be with the direct engineering manager, but also with others such as "skip-level 1:1s" with the director, the head of engineering, etc. In the case of the engineering manager one-to-ones, the frequency depends on the need of each engineer; but at least 45 minutes every two weeks.
These meetings must be focused on the engineer's needs. However, from my experience, these chats tend to be about global feedback, personal issues, and his/her professional growth. Rather, they are rarely about what the engineering manager needs to improve in order to help them: being more comfortable in the team, achieving the goals, or being more efficient. This is something that worries me a lot, and I have discussed it with many peers and engineers about what could be the reason. Some of them feel that this feedback is not well received by their managers, that it's simply not listened to, of no interest to them, or we could go so far as to say that they feel it may even affect their salary reviews or promotions.
As engineering managers, we need to understand that for the feedback to be constructive, the first step is "to learn how to receive feedback." This begins with some of the following activities:
- Out ego: We are not perfect. There are always skills to improve.
- Continuous improvement and critical thinking about ourselves
- We also make mistakes every day that could possibly have a negative impact.
- There are always problems and challenges to be faced and you are not alone in this. Your team, engineering managers, and the company can help you to overcome this together as a team.
Our goal is to support our teams to be better and achieve their objectives.
Informal vs Formal
There are two types of feedback:
- Formal feedback: Usually through meetings and tools such as surveys; this is the most common type of feedback in companies and is very necessary.
- Informal feedback: It is the spontaneous feedback that comes out of conversations between people, sometimes at coffee hour, in a casual encounter in the hallway, or over a few beers with colleagues.
The best feedback is the one that takes place in an environment of trust, and that is probably why informal feedback is perhaps more valuable, and at the same time, more complicated to analyze.
Feedback has to be honest, and always has to be constructive. However, constructive does not mean sweetening the reality. There are many people and engineering managers who have difficulties in sharing what aspects we have to improve. The most important thing is to understand that we are not helping anyone with this type of attitude, but rather doing the opposite. People can't improve if they don't know what they need to improve.
Being honest does not mean being rude. Every person is different and each has a different way of communicating. As a manager, we must adapt to each personality type of our engineers.
Every person has cognitive distortions that make them see the world in a different way based on their experience, culture, personality, or training. In the end, each person's vision is always subjective and partly unrealistic.
- Black-and-white thinking
- Jumping to conclusions
- Disqualifying the positive
For these reasons, these are some best practices to apply:
- Skip-level 1:1 meetings quarterly with directors or the head of engineering: Feedback should not only be to the direct manager to minimize subjectivity.
- On important issues, always gather several opinions from other engineering managers without affecting the confidentiality or trust of the engineers.
- Provide other points of view and alternatives.
- Challenge our/their thoughts and check their veracity.
- Look for alternative ways of thinking.
- Evaluating and rating feedback based on the person giving it and the topic
Correlating feedback from all stakeholders is a must in order to find points in common and those where there are discrepancies.
- Points in common: They usually are the most realistic points to improve.
- Topics with very different points of view: Sometimes these points can affect the team's dynamics or can be very complex issues.
The Value of This Information
Companies usually take main decisions and strategic decisions based on their business goals, sales, number of users, or feedback from customers. But the feedback from the engineers is also important and allows us to correlate the global view of the organization and analyze what is coming in the future.
I feel that in many organizations, even though there are many channels to give feedback, this feedback is not analyzed or considered when taking action. I have always believed that a company's greatest asset is its employees. This does not mean that they are always right or that the organization has to make the decisions recommended by them.
Engineers must be listened to. This does not mean that every feedback or recommendation will be applied; this means that we are analyzing their feedback and in combination with other indicators, a decision will be taken. This will be shared with them. What needs to be noted is that not every decision can be explained to them and can be the object of a debate, as this is something that can gravely affect the agility of a company or can even paralyze it.
The difference between feedback and continuous feedback is the frequency. Annual feedback doesn't add any value and can have a negative impact on the company and the engineers. Frequency makes it possible to be more agile in reacting to situations that affect individuals and the team.
As a manager, we must always have time available during the day to talk to the engineers when needed.
The feedback must be promoted as part of the company's culture. If not, it will never be effective. The feedback culture requires constant efforts over the years, no egos, and an environment that promotes trust and honesty in the organization.
It is one of the most challenging and complex goals to achieve in an organization and at the same time one of the keys to success. Continuous improvement as an organization, team, or individual begins with feedback.
Opinions expressed by DZone contributors are their own.