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Are you struggling to give your engineers truly honest feedback?

Recently, I had the chance to talk to a group of distributed engineering leaders on what was different on their teams now compared to before COVID-19 sent us all remote. One surprising thing we found we had in common was how difficult it is to be candid with people right now, and it’s become near impossible to let under-performers go. The amount of feedback we have been giving across the board is at an all-time low.

Why is this? You often hear that even in office settings, managers typically regret waiting too long before finally parting ways with someone who chronically misses expectations. They bemoan the lack of clear feedback and feel like failures for not having made the problem explicit. There is the inevitable regret over wishing they’d been even clearer, and rarely do you hear, ‘I wish I’d waited longer’. In the current pandemic-stricken, forced-remote environment – all amidst global turbulence – this problem seems to mushroom wildly. Many of the teams we spoke about felt they had rampant artificial harmony.

In her book, Radical Candor, Kim Scott shares how important it is for organizations to maintain open and clear communication, especially around sensitive topics like performance. Sensitive discussions are where managers can easily become either aggressively obnoxious, or end up over-empathizing to the point of withholding the very feedback an engineer needs to hear in order to rescue their situation.

Scott also discusses the time that Sheryl Sandberg (Chief Operating Officer, Facebook) took her aside for a walk after a meeting:

‘Finally, Sheryl said, “You know, Kim, I can tell I'm not really getting through to you. I'm going to have to be clearer here. When you say ‘um’ every third word, it makes you sound stupid."

The kind way Sandberg shared such a direct comment got Scott’s attention, and the humanizing touch of the walk meant that the feedback came across as a genuine effort to help Scott in her career, and not as an insult. Sandberg also chose to give Scott the gift of career-changing feedback, in telling her something many coworkers and managers had likely known, but out of misplaced empathy, failed to mention. They had let Scott walk around with the workplace equivalent of spinach in her teeth rather than have an awkward conversation. In essence, Sandberg provided radical candor.

Enter the pandemic, and our new lives on Zoom. Suddenly, we’re finding ourselves managing without the benefit of that touch on the arm, that little walk around the block, that coffee chat to share some tough, but important feedback. In its place? Support. Care. Letting things slide*. And ‘don’t worry, it’s ok’ – even when we know in our hearts, this person won’t last long. Even when we know that if we end up making redundancies, they’re first in line to go.

In short, we have ruinous empathy. Everything is so horrific, the world so brutal, that giving negative feedback feels more than awkward. It feels cruel and unusual. And so, many of us have just… stopped. As my friend Cole Brown explained, ‘It's hard to feel obligated to meet goals when the world's on fire’ and I couldn’t have put it better. As a kind-hearted and empathetic manager, it’s really hard to give goal-based feedback in the current environment.

The impact of this on our organizations, seven months into COVID (and the day before the US election as I write this) is that we have lost our radical candor. Teams now contend with the ruinous empathy, the toxic meeting-after-the-meeting backchanneling, the gossip, and working around those who we know won’t deliver what we need.

At the same time, we face extraordinary economic pressures. Those teams who have seen market downturns are under pressure, but so are those who’ve seen rapid expansion as they scramble to keep up. Some plunge themselves into working all the time. The over-workers feel that somebody has to keep the lights on if others won’t. If they feel their manager won’t address the problem, this can breed bitterness, resentment, and division.

The problem, then, is that we can’t be honest anymore. It feels mean. And without the chance for face-to-face interactions, we don’t know how we could repair the relationship following feedback – especially if it’s been withheld for months. Terrified of being obnoxiously aggressive during these terrible times, we slip deeper into ruinous empathy. All the while, our teams grow gossipy, resentful, and toxic.

Reclaiming radical candor

Firstly, be clear about what you expect. Re-set goals if necessary: people can often be much more successful with more realistic expectations. This may not be the time for rapid career growth, stretch assignments, and going above and beyond. Be open with your reports and pare back what is nice to have, and then be very explicit about what the basic job description that needs to be delivered is. Cole (mentioned earlier) went further with their team, breaking down Objective and Key Results more than they normally would, and giving more, smaller steps towards goals.

This clarity will help you give feedback without feeling unreasonable, and it’ll help your reports know where you stand, and how specifically you can support them (as well as what you’re not able to offer or overlook).

If the problem here is that we are not being clear because we don’t know how to be human in this Zoom-only workplace, the solution looks like figuring out how to gel your team and repair your relationships, virtually. You know you need to give feedback and that it needs to be specific and actionable. If you feel unsure about giving feedback, Lara Hogan is the master: start here.

For many managers, it’s not that they’ve forgotten how to give good feedback that has a chance of landing. It’s that they don’t know what to do afterward, or how to reconnect. That’s ok! Here’s what I’m doing now in my all-remote team that usually meets every 6 months – and is now painfully going into month 16 without doing so.

  • Video games. Take a leaf out of AOC’s book and try out Among Us. Unlike hanging out on the umpteenth ‘fun Zoom’, this one is actually fun.
  • Casual, quick, work-based calls. Encourage your team to lean into micro-zooms, of 5-10 minutes, for small things like asking for context on a pull request, or to check an assumption when debugging.
  • Up your group chat game with dedicated #gratitude and  #self-care channels. If you use Slack, try the Hey Taco integration to share appreciation that can be redeemed for small gifts. Since relationship research shows you need to maintain a ratio of 5-7 positive interactions to every one negative, one of the best ways to give more feedback is to double down on your praise and appreciation.
  • Encourage real-world interactions over Zoom through book clubs, movie exchanges, and coffee/tea pals (where you mail coffee and tea in the post, secret Santa style). We also use Donut to schedule virtual hangouts with coffee!

While these are tips for your team, it’s important for leads and managers to participate as well. If the fear is that by being candid you’ll appear less human, the solution is to assiduously humanize yourself. And remember that clear is kind, feedback is a gift, and that radical candor is still possible, even though it may feel like nothing will ever be normal again.

*there are legitimate cases for officially lowering expectations – parents home-schooling children while working full-time comes to mind. But clearly setting out more realistic expectations where needed is not the same as just letting things slide without talking about it.