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How to give difficult feedback

Giving difficult feedback is a critical part of being a manager, and often the part that comes hardest to many. This post covers some strategies for handling that, and dealing with underperformance.

The vast majority of this material (or the good parts, at least) came directly from a great talk by Claire Lew at Know Your Team, and you can find a related post from her in this 4 tips to give tough feedback post. I recently signed up to the Know Your Team annual plan and it has been well worth it.



Don’t delay in having the conversation

When someone is underperforming, you see it. You feel it. The rest of the team will often tell you too, in their own way. And when that is the case, talk to the underperforming team member about it as soon as you can. At least in your next 1-1, but even scheduling a dedicated meeting if you need to. Delaying addressing a lack of performance rarely goes well.

Come from a place of caring

Demonstrating good intentions can diffuse defensiveness.
For example, say:

  • I’m sharing this feedback because I want you to succeed
  • I want you to be promoted
  • I want this project to be a success

Focus on observable behavior & impact – Don’t bring emotion to the table

Don’t start the conversation with “I think you’re underperforming”, or something similar, since it can make the person defensive. Instead, be objective. Stick to the facts. Talk about observable behaviors, impacts and outcomes.

For example

  • The team have commented that you are speaking up less in team meetings
  • Feature x shipped 2 sprints later than planned
  • Documentation isn’t being kept up to the standards expected
  • Bugs slipping from stage to production more often than we would like

Come from a place of fallibility

We all make mistakes, have blind spots and we’re all wrong sometimes. Starting by acknowledging that can really take the edge of things. For example, say:

  • I haven’t been in all meetings with you
  • I haven’t reviewed all your code
  • I know you are working on other projects that I am not involved with

Be curious – allow the team member to talk

Remember that feedback is a conversation, so ask questions and stop talking. Find a way to open the conversation up and hear what they think. Perhaps simply ask “What do you think?”, or “How do you think we can make this work better?”.

Find out what is going on. Are they having issues at home that are affecting work? Are they feeling under-equipped to do their job? Do they need professional training, mentoring, or coaching? Do they have too many tasks on their plate and excessive context switching is slowing them down?

Have a conversation.

Set expectations, and create a plan together

Now that you’ve talked about the behaviors you’ve seen, and heard their side of the story, follow up by being clear on what your expectations are. Underperformance can be often caused by you not setting clear expectations as a manager. Perhaps the team members weren’t clear on what you wanted, what the team needed, or what priorities were.

So use this opportunity to discuss what you expect from them, what success looks like, and both agree on how to measure that success.


Continue to monitor and give feedback

Continue to meet regularly with the team member to give feedback, coaching and encouragement. If you do find yourself having more than one meeting about underperformance, then you need to let the person know that a PIP (Performance Improvement Plan) is possible.

Sometimes, being aware that they may go on a PIP can be a great motivator to step up.
So, when you bring up the prospect of a PIP, make sure to emphasize that it is not a foregone conclusion; that it wont be necessary if performance improves. You want the person to talk out of that meeting motivated to do better, not feeling scared and demotivated.

However, if the person does continue to underperform, don’t delay in moving to a PIP…

If performance doesn’t improve, PIP

A PIP should never be a surprise

Putting someone on a Performance Improvement Plan should never come as a surprise to them. You should have discussed this as a possibility in the earlier performance conversations.


Schedule the meeting

Schedule a meeting with the person, and make it clear that a PIP is the purpose of the meeting. Ideally, have HR with you to help where possible, and make sure the person knows that too. Again, there should be no surprises anywhere in this process.


During the PIP meeting

Explain the process. This should be well defined by your HR team and you should share it in detail with you team member. Define, together with the employee, what success looks like and when it should be achieved (for example, in a 6 week time period). Together, agree what the goals are, how to measure success, and develop a plan for reaching them.


Meet regularly

During the duration of the PIP, meet with your team member regularly; at least once a week, but bi-weekly or even daily if it will help.
Discuss progress, any blockers, and continue to provide feedback.



With a PIP, 1 of 2 things will happen. Either

a) Performance improves back to an acceptable level, or

b) It does not and you need to exit the employee

Note that you do not need to wait to the end of the PIP period for a conclusion to be reached. For example, if you define a 6 week PIP but there are zero improvements after 2 weeks, or even a further degradation of performance, then for the sake of the team, you and the underperforming engineer, you should exit that person sooner.

And throughout this while process, obviously pull in your HR partners early and often in all of this. And, always be documenting.

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