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Alex Berdyshev
Alex Berdyshev

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Performance Review: Constructive Feedback and Handling Difficult Conversations

As a technical manager, one of your most important yet tricky responsibilities is providing effective feedback to your software engineering teams.

While positive feedback can motivate and boost morale, constructive criticism is equally crucial for professional growth.

From my experience managing and reviewing engineer performance, following a few simple best practices makes a world of difference in having productive, non-confrontational conversations.

Grab Attention with Strengths

When sitting down for a performance review:

  • Open by highlighting recent wins, accomplishments, and strengths. This creates a supportive tone upfront and shows you recognize contributions.

  • For example, compliment their collaboration skills if they partner cross-functionally to drive a product launch.

As soon as you first emphasize their achievements, you prepare the employee to be more receptive to constructive improvements in the future.

Target Specific, Actionable Examples

Transition into constructive feedback by providing tangible examples tied to behaviors rather than nebulous, subjective criticisms about “bad communication” or being “resistant to feedback."

  • For instance, address instances where they dismissed colleague suggestions without consideration rather than broadly labeling them “not a team player."

  • Tie feedback to visible outcomes: “In meeting X, dismissing alternative options led us to pursue a path that set us back Y weeks on our timeline.”

This behavior-focused approach delivers more constructive and actionable guidance on areas to improve.

Frame as Growth Opportunities

Even with constructive feedback, maintain a respectful, supportive tone focusing on mutual growth versus lecturing or confrontation.

  • Frame improvement areas as opportunities to expand their skills, making it clear you want to partner in their development journey.

  • Discuss training programs, mentoring, or other growth resources available to level up their abilities.

No one enjoys being critiqued but showing you’re invested in their growth and aiming to provide support can keep the conversation productive.

Regular, thoughtful feedback, highlighting both achievements and opportunities, helps your engineers continuously enhance their skills over time. By following employee-focused best practices in your reviews, you empower improvement through open, non-confrontational dialogue.

Performance Review

Being a manager of software engineering teams for many years, I’ve seen firsthand the immense value of regular performance reviews.

Far from just a box-checking HR exercise, well-run performance reviews can transform teams and supercharge talent development.


Allow me a few minutes to elucidate the underappreciated positives of great performance reviews:

Boosting Morale and Job Satisfaction

The best engineers I know care deeply about growth and mastery of their craft.

They Light up when receiving praise and recognition for hard-won accomplishments.

Performance reviews, when handled skillfully, provide the appropriate forum for such recognition.

For example, I’ll never forget when one of my star developers, Sarah, wrapped up an enormously complex, months-long project. During her review, I made sure to call out her dedication and the huge positive impact she had on the team.

Sarah left the meeting absolutely glowing - with her morale sky-high and commitment to delivering high-quality work stronger than ever.

Performance reviews also facilitate crucial career conversations. Engineers feel empowered knowing their professional aspirations are heard and taken seriously, further boosting engagement and satisfaction.

Driving Continuous Improvement

The best performance reviews provide more than feel-good praise. Skilled managers leverage reviews to empower talent development through:

  • Specific feedback identifying strengths to build on and areas needing improvement

  • Goal setting to drive skill growth in line with personal and organizational objectives

  • Development plans with clear progress steps

Equipped with this level of guidance and support, engineers thrive.

For example, one engineer I managed — John — received feedback to work on his communication skills. He threw himself into various training and workshops, dramatically improving team collaboration down the line thanks to his enhanced ability to convey complex topics clearly.

The bottom line

Far from a dull HR box-ticking exercise, regular performance reviews designed to motivate talent and facilitate growth can work wonders.

Engineers receive the recognition they crave while gaining the direct feedback and career development opportunities needed to help them — and by extension, your whole organization — excel.

Top comments (1)

lucia-del-pino profile image
Lucia del Pino

Hey Alex,

👍 I agree that balancing positive and constructive feedback is key in performance reviews. It's great how you focus on strengths first to set a positive tone. This approach surely helps in making the feedback session more effective.

Using ONA can further improve understanding team dynamics and individual contributions, making feedback even more tailored and impactful.

🤔 Have you considered how ONA might change your approach to performance reviews?