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How to Give Constructive Feedback to Developers? 8 Tips

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27/10/2022 |

9 min read

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The ability to provide constructive feedback to employees is one of the most obvious indicators of good leadership. It not only allows your team to succeed and reach shared objectives, but it also allows your employees to advance professionally. 

So, when and how should you give constructive feedback? And how can you be sure that your feedback is used well?

 

Table of contents:

  1. What exactly is constructive feedback?
  2. How to provide constructive feedback to developers?
  3. Conclusion

What exactly is constructive feedback?

Feedback could be compared to observation. We observe an action and then describe our reaction (usually) to the action's performer. The tone of feedback can be either positive or negative, but in order to be truly effective, it should also contain a hint of criticism. Be cautious, as this should not be interpreted as bringing out all the negatives. The critical approach focuses on informing objective facts and proposing a clear way to improve the process (“action”).

Which is, in fact, an essence of constructive feedback. 

It not only delivers our feedback on team member performance but also contributes to their development by providing tailored ways to develop lacking skills. Think of it similarly to a home renovation project: you can't upgrade your building unless you modernize all of the installations, add insulation, and possibly replace windows with more energy-efficient ones. The overall construction is obviously good, but all of those small improvements can deliver a much higher quality: whether it's lower heating bills or - in the case of an employee - better self-organization, team-building skills, or attention to detail.

As you can see, constructive feedback can easily promote employee development. However, when used incorrectly, it can also discourage them, causing demotivation, lower morale, conflict, and eventually leading to job change. And that is the exact opposite of what you want to achieve with it. Especially in the highly competitive developer market, where people usually stick to projects for the sake of money (which can easily be overbid), interesting scope (which can also be replaced), and strong teams with open communication.

Employee feedback can be shared during a variety of formal or semi-formal meetings. However, some of the most powerful constructive feedback happens spontaneously while the information is still fresh.

How to provide constructive feedback to developers? 

Be regular

Even the most accurate observations can lose their impact when the context is long forgotten. That is why you should not wait until the end of the month to comment on a developer's efficiency, but instead, make feedback a regular part of your meetings. Especially if it's for a specific project.

The sooner you share it, the sooner a person can improve their behavior. That means you'll both be on the same page when it comes to expectations, and when something more significant comes up in terms of performance, you'll be better prepared to deliver the necessary feedback, and they'll be better prepared to receive it. This also relieves the developer of an additional mental burden, as 'reviewing sessions' will no longer be viewed as a painful responsibility, but rather as a friendly space to exchange ideas and observations.

Remember: If the situation has elicited strong emotions, it is best to wait until all parties have calmed down.

Be specific, and show that you do care

As you already know, feedback always separates a person from their actions. It is not a place for personal attacks, which are highly unprofessional and will damage your relationships within the organization. However, being constructive entails going above and beyond, as we should deliver the opinion with a dash of small-improvement advice. 

Don't leave any room for a different conclusion than the one you're aiming for. Use your own experience (or do some research) on the observed flaw to create a ready-to-use solution to make the developer's life easier. To make it more usable, provide real-world examples of how to implement it or thoroughly describe it so that your advice can be put into action.

Be prepared, but open to discussion

When discussing one's actions, do not rely on memory or emotions. Prepare a list of two to three issues you want to fix and back them up with specific examples of "bad practices" performed by the developer. Make it clear what you intend to say.  Explain why you’re focusing on them and how can team members work on it and make sure you’ve heard their perspective on the situation(s). Also, never attribute intent to their actions before speaking with them.

Become a team member

As previously stated, feedback should be provided whenever possible. To gain a thorough understanding of how each developer in your team is performing, you should be aware of the current workload (and ongoing conflicts!), be familiar with your team's main personality traits, and participate in workday discussions to gain a more complete picture of their actual performance and behavior. While doing so, try to give the impression that you are fair and reasonable - so your feedback won't be treated as ‘misjudged’ or ‘personality-based’. Plus, it could be backed up by observations made by the rest of the team.

Remember: if you fail to establish an open and trusting relationship, you will most likely fail to achieve your goal.

Become a listener

For the majority of managers, this is one of the most frightening points. Some people dislike being commented on because they perceive every attempt at improvement as a personal attack. Even in the most obvious situations, this defensive mechanism may be activated, while the 'guilty' part attempts to justify their poor performance by making excuses. It is critical in such cases to listen to their concerns, remain calm, and present an unbiased view of the development area. Then, sit down together and try to devise a plan to close the performance gap.

And be willing to admit when you're wrong! You may not be aware of all the facts, or someone else may shed new light on your observations. If the discussion demonstrated that your viewpoint was not biased, have the courage to apologize.

Balance good and bad news

Encourage team members to celebrate both small and large victories so that they know you are the manager who notices both the good and the bad. This desire to be rewarded could also be used to demonstrate that you truly share a balanced viewpoint, regardless of whether your feedback is ultimately positive or negative.

As a general rule, start with true, positive observations and work your way down to areas that need improvement. But be careful not to colorize your observations in any way so that the person being discussed is misled into thinking they're doing better than they are in real life. Show the problems as they are and propose a few possible solutions to make the problem easier to manage. And, if someone is performing exceptionally well, congratulate them on specific actions performed, and don't forget to offer areas for improvement - so the person doesn't feel like they've reached a ceiling.

Meet to talk

Constructive feedback is all about making an extra effort to build long-lasting relationships. Don't be lazy and forget to share even the most detailed review via email, Slack, Teams, Messenger, or even phone. All of those channels are great for exchanging business-related information, but they exclude nonverbal communication types such as facial expressions, vocal tone, body language, and emotional inflection (be it: sarcasm). 

When you're not speaking in person, it's easy to read negativity into a neutral statement or dismiss the importance of a serious issue. Face-to-face conversations are also more dynamic because both parties have the opportunity to ask questions and delve deeper into the issues at hand.  If you work remotely, schedule a quick sync to let your colleague know that, while you appreciate their work ethic, you believe there is room for improvement in one area.

Conclude

Begin planning to improve the performance weakness and explain how you'll help your employee. Talk about what you want in the next review cycle. Give a summary that includes performance strengths, even if the conversation was heated.

How do you provide respectful constructive feedback?

When providing constructive feedback to a colleague, the most important thing to remember is to be subtle. Always explain why you are providing feedback so that the person understands how the behavior affects the company. Make specific recommendations based on real-life examples of actual situations. Respect the developer by listening to their point of view and confronting them with the observed actions rather than your interpretation. Finish the meeting by offering to help.

But, first and foremost, keep in mind that communicating with the machine differs from communicating with the person working on it. When it comes to providing context in digital communication, the world of coding revolves around using simple, precise commands, which, when combined with distributed, remote teams, has created havoc.

It is always best to use a few simple tricks to encourage discussions and convey more emotions when using such a form of communication:

  • Instead of pointing at the mistake directly, suggest a better solution in form of a question. This gives the developer the authority to either accept the suggestion or refuse it and brainstorm for the best solution.
  • Highlight your contribution by stating that the observation is made in relation to your perspective, experience, or knowledge. If you are proven to be incorrect, admit it.
  • Every observation you make should be turned into a learning opportunity. Instead of focusing on errors, provide ready-to-use solutions.
  • Avoid using judgemental language, irony, or sarcasm, and always focus your comment on the action rather than the person performing it. If you don't get the team's sense of humor, try to remain neutral but optimistic.

Giving valuable feedback can be challenging, particularly when communicating constructive criticism. As a business owner, it is best to share your observations with the team manager directly so that he can translate your words into a solid foundation for the development team's growth.

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