I was coaching a group of Engineering Managers recently and they all had the same problem – they had engineers who were not performing but too little was done about it. They hesitated to give direct feedback. When I asked one of them why he said he didn’t want them to be demoralised. He didn’t want to hurt their feelings.
You see a person walking on the pavement with his eyes glued to the phone… and there’s a drain ahead. Not saying anything means letting him fall into the drain.
(This actually happened to me when I was 14… instead of being glued to the phone I was engrossed in a Pokémon booster pack and fell into a drain. I have a scar on my right knee to prove it 😅)
We think we’re trying to be nice, but it is a mask for our fears and insecurities. It gives us an excuse to hold back from adding value.
What if I tell my engineer that he’s underperforming and he gets demoralised and quits?
If I try to speak up, I’m being selfish and I’m robbing others of the chance to contribute.
As the Chinese saying goes, paper cannot wrap fire. Problems surface eventually even if they are not dealt with today.
So I let the managers know what’s going to happen if they continue not to give direct, honest feedback.
When the individual engineer doesn’t perform, it affects his project.
If his project doesn’t perform, it affects the team’s OKRs.
Eventually, the problem comes back during the engineer’s performance review cycle. Which hurts his bonus and promotion.
Worst case, the engineer might get fired eventually when it’s too late.
So I asked the three managers: would you prefer to hear critical feedback about you immediately, or for your bosses to say nothing and continue letting your performance slide? All of them wanted honest feedback without hesitation.
Most people I know genuinely want to help. You aren’t being unkind or hoarding the limelight.
You are sharing your knowledge, your perspectives, your observations that will not otherwise see the light of the day.
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