Delivering feedback with clarity and equity

I don’t think I need to lecture you on why clarity is important here in May of 2020; we’re all starved for it and are looking for it in whatever corners of our lives we can. What I want to do is call out a couple of ways that you can use an everyday manager process – providing feedback – in a way that improves clarity and helps your team operate more equitably.

Provide structured feedback

Providing corrective feedback is one of the skills that’s most important to develop as a manager, and it’s also one of the scariest for a lot of people, because it can feel like initiating conflict. It’s easy to convince ourselves that we don’t really need to tell people explicitly when they’ve done something that isn’t right or has caused problems; we may think “oh, I’m sure they know what went wrong and it won’t happen again.” We may think “I don’t have the full picture here, so I’ll just keep quiet rather than jump in where I don’t belong.” We may worry that the recipient will take the feedback personally. If we’re a member of a privileged identity group relative to the direct report, such as a white person providing feedback to a person of color, we may think “I don’t want them to think that I’m holding them to a different standard because of their race, so I won’t say anything.” Any of these thoughts can hold us back from doing the right thing.

One of the reasons corrective feedback is so scary is that we often aren’t sure how to say it in such a way that it will have the intended effect: allowing the person receiving the feedback to improve their work, while maintaining a sense of proportion about the impact of the mistake or errant approach. As author and management coach Lara Hogan puts it in her book Resilient Management, “[the] best feedback is specific, actionable, and delivered in a way that ensures the receiver can actually absorb it.” That last bit – ensuring the receiver can actually absorb it – can involve a number of different factors, including how quickly you deliver the feedback relative to the occurrence of the behavior, how emotional you feel about the behavior, the severity and scope of the behavior’s impact, and the broader context of your report’s general standing in relation to their job – if they’re new or already having trouble at work, a more minor mistake might feel like a big deal.

Having a consistent structure for delivering feedback, and providing feedback regularly, helps to avoid the pitfalls of conflict avoidance and unequitable approaches to criticism at work. I try to use a method that combines the one Hogan outlines in her book with the one outlined in Managing to Change the World by Alison Green and Jerry Hauser. By the way, this works for positive feedback too:

  • Decide on the timing for the feedback. Is it urgent enough that your colleague needs to be made aware of it immediately? If so, reach out to them via chat or email first to say “Hi, let’s talk about X, because we need to make a plan – can you meet me in a video chat at Y time?” If it doesn’t require immediate attention to fix, could it wait until your next scheduled one-on-one so that you can integrate it into a consistent pattern of providing feedback? If so, add it to your shared agenda (which you’ve got, right?) so that they know to expect the conversation.
  • Describe the behavior – stick to what you’ve seen occur, and avoid making assumptions or conjectures about why the behavior is happening. If you’re giving feedback about a pattern of behavior, have concrete examples of recent instances to refer to.
  • Share the impact of the behavior – wherever possible, tying the impact to the goals that you’ve already set with the team and the individual, if not back to the mission of your organization as a whole.
  • Request/recommendation and/or question – if there’s a specific action that you need to happen in order to rectify the issue, ask for it. Regardless, ask open-ended questions to make sure that you understand the context around what happened. Sometimes it’s appropriate to let your direct report come up with the next best action, but the question part is critical to establishing trust with them. Assume that you don’t have the full picture (you don’t!), and that there may be factors that you weren’t aware of causing the behavior or preventing the report from fulfilling the request that you’re making.

In addition to considering the best way to deliver the feedback so that the recipient is prepared to receive it, you may also need to think about how you’ll prepare to receive their response. If you’re feeling especially emotional – particularly if you’re feeling angry or frustrated – it may be worth giving yourself a bit of time to distance yourself from the immediacy of the event before discussing it with your direct report, so that you can be prepared to take their perspective into account and so that the meeting can stay focused on identifying what your report needs to produce the desired outcome, not on their fear of your feelings.

Use the feedback structure for everyone

I mentioned earlier that managers who are of privileged identity groups relative to their reports can sometimes be wary of providing feedback because of a fear of being seen as racist, sexist, etc. This fear harms both parties.

Not only does withholding feedback prevent your team from improving at its ability to achieve your mission, failing to give your underrepresented colleagues feedback that can help them grow and develop is a surefire way to keep them from achieving their growth potential and perpetuate the cycle that keeps underrepresented people out of positions of leadership and power. Withholding critical feedback sabotages their growth, and it is incumbent on you, their manager, not to do that.

Conversely, you might be a member of an underrepresented group relative to your direct report, such as a woman of color giving feedback to a white, cisgender man. In that case, you may be concerned about how to deliver the feedback in such a way as to ensure that you’ll be taken seriously. Holding to a consistent feedback structure like the one outlined above – maybe even making it a written company policy – can help you ground that feedback conversation in the impact to the organization, making it less “about you” and how seriously anyone takes you personally, and more about the team as a whole.

By keeping your feedback about the behavior, not the person, by using the same structure for corrective and positive feedback, and by making both part of a routine that everyone who reports to you can come to expect, you’ll be able to impart a little corner of clarity into your colleagues’ lives, and to do it in a way that supports equitable development across the team.

Recognizing remote overwork and burnout

A joshua tree is growing bent over sideways in the foreground of a desert landscape.

Like most managers, I’ve spent time staring down some major burnout. At one point, I was directly managing 15 people who worked shifts that covered more than 100 hours per week. I felt that in order to be a good manager, I needed to be available to everyone at all times… but that wasn’t translating the way I expected. I was working all the time, but we weren’t meeting our goals by just about any metric. I knew I needed to make some significant changes to the way the team and I operated, if we were all going to continue doing this work for much longer.

I wasn’t alone in struggling to find the right balance of what to work on, when, and how much. There are those who insist that nothing can be accomplished in less than 80 hours per week; others posit that you only get a few hours of productive time per day and it’s pointless for knowledge workers to spend more than that trying to get things done. In our current environment of shelter-in-place orders, there are even more variables at play: who has to spend their time caring for kids or other loved ones? Who is navigating personal grief? Who has to manage deep anxiety without the in-person help of their usual therapist? How, and when, does the attention required for work fight through the ambient stress of one’s household and the internet?

Often, those extolling the virtues of long hours (or, now, turning quarantine into an opportunity to build a side hustle) have viewed that time as a proxy for dedication and commitment. Dedication and commitment are, in turn, considered morally virtuous. This is a trap that mission-driven organizations are especially prone to: look at all the time I dedicated to the cause, all the sacrifices I made, often for little or no money! I must be a good person. In fact, I must be a better person than my colleague who stopped working at 5 sharp every day.

It sounds absurd when I put it that way, but many of us have felt it; it’s often easy to see when other people have fallen into the overwork trap, but it’s harder to identify from inside.

How do we know if we’re in the trap?

Think about what this looks like when you see it in your friends: In work that involves communication – whether that’s writing grants, creating marketing copy, or answering customer service questions – we can see others start to lose the cohesiveness of their thoughts when they’re overworked. We can see others tend to lose empathy when they’re tired or hungry, and how that makes it harder to connect with the people they work with, which in turn makes them less effective and can even damage their relationships. In work that requires attention to detail, we can see when someone’s pushing past the point where focus comes easily, and we anticipate how much extra work they’re about to create for themselves.

In remote environments, it becomes even more critical to be able to identify these red flags in yourself – you can’t rely on your colleagues seeing it in your face or your posture. It’s a lot easier to dismiss each other’s effort, assume ill intent, or simply ignore each other when we aren’t physically present together. Identifying the signs that we’re in the trap becomes essential to maintaining the team’s trust in the long term.

Okay, so then how do we get out?

Pulling ourselves out of the overwork trap isn’t easy. When we’ve connected the idea of our value as a person to the idea that we spend most of our waking hours “working,” reducing that working time can carry a lot of guilt. Back when I was managing that 15-person team, I had to be able to see for myself that the work I produced in fewer hours – with a focus on outcomes, not inputs – was better and more useful than what I was doing before. It wasn’t until then I was able to shake the sense that I “should” be working in a moment when I knew I wasn’t focused enough. It took me too long to recognize that by simply trying to be available all the time, I was preventing myself from giving my team my best at any time.

To get out of that pattern, I had to make it my job to ensure that they would have the resources they needed to keep things running smoothly if I shut off my phone to watch a movie or cook a nice dinner with a friend, if (in the Before Times) I went camping in the mountains for a weekend, or even took (gasp) an actual vacation. I had to come to terms with the fact that if my team struggled when they were on their own, the thing standing in their way wasn’t my lack of constant availability, but a lack of clarity in how they were supposed to be doing their jobs – and creating that clarity was my responsibility. Providing more of that clarity, in the form of documentation, clear evaluation rubrics, and structures for improvement, removed the whole system’s apparent reliance on one key node (me) and made it a much more sustainable operation in general. In future posts we’ll go deeper into what it looks like to create clarity for your team; for right now, let’s just do a quick check: are you hydrated?

Why equitable, effective, and sustainable?

If you consume enough science fiction, you’ll eventually encounter the captain of a spaceship saying one of two things: “My first responsibility is to the mission,” or “my first responsibility is to this ship and its crew.” Both are generally true.

The point of you, as a manager, is to make sure that your team is able to do the work that your organization is setting out to do. That means that your first responsibility is to the effectiveness of your work at achieving the mission. In order to accomplish the mission effectively, you need to be able to meet the needs of the ship (the team as a whole) and crew (the individuals working on the team) assigned to the mission. Prioritizing those needs in an equitable and sustainable way gives you the best possible shot at being effective toward your mission in the long term (and if you’re here, you’re probably thinking: and is the ethically right thing to do).

#SayMoreAboutThat: What does that mean, “in an equitable way?”

The words “equity” and “equality” get kicked around in a lot of different ways, so I want to take a minute and clarify what I mean when I talk about these words in this blog. (And give a quick shoutout to Nicole Sanchez, founder of Vaya Consulting, whose Culture Accelerator workshop helped me articulate this distinction. Follow her on Twitter if you don’t already.)

Equality is the assumption that everyone on a diverse team carries the same inherent value and has the same chance to participate and be heard. (More about what I mean by “diverse teams” in a future post.) With a focus on equality, everyone has the same set of resources available to them, and everyone gets the same shot at a given opportunity. Seems like we want that, right? And we do – except that the reality is that not everyone does have the same set of resources available to them. This has become especially clear in our current shelter-in-place environment, where people have radically different physical surroundings as they work.

Equitable treatment means recognizing that not everyone on a diverse team is starting from the same place, and that some team members may need a different set of resources to achieve the desired outcome or take advantage of a given opportunity.

A quick illustration of what I mean by that: Imagine you’re my first-grade teacher. You’re noticing that you’ve got one student (me) who’s a very strong reader when there’s a book in her hand, but she can’t seem to read the blackboard as easily as the kids around her, even from the front row. She needs glasses, you realize.

A teacher focused on equality would be concerned with distributing resources equally: either no one in the class gets a pair of glasses, or every kid gets the same pair of glasses with the same prescription. Both of these options feel silly, right?

An equitable solution, on the other hand, is focused on outcomes. The desired outcome, in this case, is that everyone can engage with the material on the blackboard, from the kids who can see what’s there without any assistive devices, to me and my plastic-rimmed frames with thick klutzproof lenses, to the kid with total vision impairment who needs a non-visual way to understand the lesson.

Because you’re responsible for the effectiveness of your team at achieving your org’s mission, it’s important for you to keep your focus on those equitable outcomes so that your crew is best equipped to do their jobs. As we move through this blog, we’ll explore tools and concepts that can help drive equitable outcomes for your team – and next week, we’ll talk more about why it’s important to think about those outcomes from the perspective of sustainability.

Why are we here?

Because the world needs managers of humans in mission-driven organizations to have the expertise, skills, drive, and resources they need to manage equitable, effective, sustainable teams, and to do it remotely.

looking up through a flowering tree at a blue sky

What are we doing here?

I’m starting this blog in April of 2020, as people and organizations are starting to figure out how to run their lives in the context of shelter-in-place orders, physical distancing, and radically new and rapidly shifting sets of expectations about what work, communication, and relationships look like.

The people close to me know that in The Before Times, I was working on a book about the core values that enable equitable and effective management, and enacting those values through management practices that I’ve had success with in supporting distributed (remote) teams. I’ve heard from a number of those folks that this would be a helpful resource right now, and in the interest of getting this out there in a moment where it can be most useful to people, I’m putting the book idea on hold and will be sharing parts of my draft as blog posts over the coming weeks. I’m aiming for a new post each Tuesday.

How is this different from all those other remote-work-tips blog posts?

It’s true that there’s a LOT out there right now about remote work, being productive from home, and even managing teams remotely. My goal is to take some of those practical recommendations (plus maybe even some you haven’t already seen!) and contextualize them as part of a cohesive, strategic approach to management that can be applied while working remotely or (someday) back in an office together.

What I’ll share here will be mostly aimed at folks in mission-driven organizations: nonprofits, but also for-profit businesses where there might not be all the resources you’d want, but there is a clear sense of purpose that (in normal times, at least) guides your team’s work. This is especially for those managers who, like me several years ago, find themselves in a management role that they didn’t expect and maybe didn’t feel prepared for. Most importantly, it’s for managers who want to make sure that their day-to-day practices are grounded in a set of clear values that can benefit them and their teams in the long run.

Do you really expect us to focus on management strategy at a time like this?

In writing about remote management strategy right now, I don’t mean to imply that this is the most important concern anyone is likely to have, or that it’s even necessarily realistic to expect to plan something that happens more than two hours from now. My hope is that when you’re ready to start thinking about longer-term planning, whether that’s now or weeks or months down the line, the posts I share here will help you incorporate practices that enable equitable, effective, sustainable team building that will let your organization benefit from improved staff retention, better communication, and stronger, more resilient working relationships.

So: we didn’t think we’d be here, but I’m glad you’re along for this. Welcome. Subscribe, if you like. Contact me and let me know what feels most pressing to you right now and I’ll do my best to prioritize posts that are meeting folks’ needs. I’ll see you back here on Tuesday.