Give Corrective Feedback Privately, Then Summarize Publicly

“If you have the question, chances are someone else in the group has it, too. Be brave: get the answer to your question with a by-product of serving others.”

It’s amazing how much this direction has impacted my career. I really took it to heart. I speak up and ask questions without fear because I know there are others just like me. This wisdom stretches beyond just questions, however. In groups, there are a lot of overlapping thoughts, situations and values: that’s what makes group-work work.

When there is a struggling team member, they’re probably not alone. If one programmer is struggling with something, chances are at least one other is having - or very soon will have - that problem, too.

As teams grow, it can get tiring to repeat the same feedback and have the same corrective or disappointing conversations with each member. If you’re lucky, you’ll remember who you’ve had which conversation with. If you’re like me, though, you’ll start to repeat yourself. Or worse, you may have expectations based on a conversation that you’ve never had.

I’ve been trying an experiment with my teams. By exercising a radical form of transparency, I have both positive and negative conversations about individual employee’s performance in a group setting. I had two goals. First, to develop a stronger team bond through open communication and a shared struggle. And, second, to stop duplicate conversations and wasted time.

As time went on, I’ve noticed that there seemed to be a lot more negative conversations than positive. Then, there were jokes about “shaming” which I believe is an indication that my mechanism was backfiring. Luckily, I think I’ve identified this in time. However, what can I do? I still have the same “problems,” but this experiment doesn’t seem to have worked.

Have Corrective Feedback Conversations Privately

A manager or leader should still share good news and praise publicly. It’s good to show and share positive recognition. Perhaps this might even develop a peer competitive motivation dynamic. But, what about the negative conversations, the ones where we have to teach, correct or even discipline?

Corrective and negative conversations should happen in private. Pull the team member aside and have a conversation about the situation. Clearly articulate the origin of your concern using specific examples. When things are done in a group, we might tend to generalize as to not to single out a member too often. You might hear “we need to pick up the pace” when you’re functioning like this. Instead, the conversation should include statements like “you’ve missed your due date by 2 weeks on project A.” Since this is private, you can be specific.

Set specific expectations. There’s no need to be vague anymore. You know what needs to happen, state it. This part is important as we move through this process. The team member must understand all parts of the feedback. If there is any confusion, you must work through it.

Ask to Summarize Publicly

After you’ve worked through the specifics with the individual, ask to summarize the conversation publicly. This takes some planning. You can’t just repeat everything you’ve just said. And, if your team doesn’t trust you, you’ll have to build that trust up. They might be afraid you’re just getting ready to shame them.

One way to get this buy in is to develop the public message while speaking with the team member. Tell them how and what you’re going to share specifically.

Do you need to share? It makes it easier if you’ve had more than one of these conversations. After all, if you only have one conversation and then you think you need to blast out all of this information to the team, you’re doing it wrong. When this feeling comes up, its based on your frustration. You want to get it off your chest. Resist this urge - only treat it like its a mass problem if it really is.

After the second similar conversation, you could publicly share a conversation with similar phrasing like this: “I’ve worked with a few of you regarding due dates. It’s imperative that we stay on task as a team If you feel you’re slipping, please proactively reach out to me.”

This style of communication does a few things. First, it demonstrates to the team members who have had this conversation with you that they’re not alone. They know others have a shared experience and they are all in this together, all trying to be better.

Next, it gets the message out there publicly. The team needs to “pick it up” - it was vague enough, but the individuals who needed specific direction have already gotten it. This is another boost and reminder. Others who were unaware of this current challenge now can be considered informed.

Finally, it opens up the possibility of having a conversation should another team member feel they’re in the same situation. You might not have identified it yet, but they have. This shows that you’re open to have this conversation with them privately so they won’t have to deal with feeling embarrassed admitting any faults publicly.

So, What Do I Do?

No matter if you have a more transparent and communicative team, or one that is private and withdrawn, you can follow these steps.

Identify the person and the problem. Speak privately to the person with specific concerns and expectations. Later, after you’ve verified it is a multi-person issue, confirm with the team members that you’d like to share a summarized version of the conversations. Finally, share the concerns and solutions without publicly naming specific people.

Thanks / End Notes

Just like coding, managing people is a skill you have to continually work on and sharpen. This is a real issue I’ve been struggling with lately, so I unloaded on James about it. He pointed me in this direction as one of the possible solutions to my problem - I just refined it and wrote it down.

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