Publications >
Management

How to give better feedback to your engineers: Balanced Feedback

David Kyle Choe
January 23, 2021

The Art of Giving Balanced Feedback: applying business leadership lessons to engineering management: Randall Stutman (The Essence of Leadership)

Acclaimed leadership coach and consultant Randall Stutman was recently featured on the well-known "The Tim Ferris Podcast" where he covered a broad range of leadership and management topics. Although most of his acclaim and thoughts are centered around the business, we could not help but connect the dots to the world of engineering management.

One of the most fascinating ideas he introduced was Balanced Feedback. As you well know, feedback is a touchy subject no matter the context or discipline, but especially for engineering teams. Because there is never one right answer, engineering feedback can often feel subjective or come across as nothing more than a preference to the person receiving the feedback.

Although there are many established feedback frameworks: BIFF, STAR, SBI, etc., Stutman's approach stands out in its radical simplicity. Instead of memorizing, socializing, and implementing an acronym, the Balanced Feedback requires a simple filter and most importantly, a change in behavior:

Balanced Feedback requires a person to give both positive and negative feedback in an equally vivid, elaborate, and detailed manner.

The art of giving balanced feedback requires understanding of the following principles:

  • The Negativity Effect: people are more likely to focus and remember negative feedback and overall has a bigger impact than postive
  • Because of the negativity effect, managers often attempt to soften the blow by starting with positive feedback but it is not sufficient (Compliment Sandwich as it's often called).

We've created a common place scenario among engineering teams to help illustrate the Balanced Feedback framework.

The Compliment Sandwich: Example of what typically happens

Situation: Paul and John are having their monthly check-in. There was a major feature shipment and some roadblocks along the way.

Paul, the engineering manager:

"Hey, John. I've been overall very impressed with your progress and work this month. That being said, I think there are some opportunities for growth. I think you can work on your speed. I've noticed that you're lagging behind some of your teammates. I noticed especially in our second sprint that you were running extremely slowly...

I did not want to hinder progress by bringing it up then, but it's something to work through. I think another thing for you to think about is how you communicate with the team. I've heard from a few people that you can be a bit non-communicative and hard to reach. Specifically, they said that you take a couple hours to respond on Slack and they ultimately have to text you or call you to get your attention....

That can become a problem if not addressed early. Let's work on that. Another thing I've noticed is that you've taken quite a bit of PTO, 7 days this month to be exact. I know we have unlimited PTO, but I fear you're not getting the opportunities you deserve because you're just not as available. Also, I would love it if you could be more energetic in meetings – that'll do a lot for your colleagues. But great work!"

____

If we take a moment to dig into this feedback, we can see that the first and last sentence are the only areas of positive feedback. That being said, they are positive but completely unhelpful. They do not tell John what was impressive about his progress or how to further dig into growing potential strength areas. The negative feedback however, was very detailed, vivid, and elaborate citing specific examples, time frames, and memories. This makes it such that the negative feedback is much more likely to be remembered and have a disproportionate feedback. It also makes the first positive statement ineffective, potentially rendering future instances of that language ineffective as well.

Here's how Paul would utilize the Balanced Feedback Framework to change his feedback to John.

The Balance Feedback Approach: A behavioral shift and filter use

Situation: Paul and John are having their monthly check-in. There was a major feature shipment and some roadblocks along the way.

Paul, the engineering manager:

"Hey, John. I've been overall very impressed with your progress and work this month.

  1. Your comments and feedback on the teams' PRs has really added to the quality of the code. The attention to detail and the context you provided really helped everyone tremendously.
  2. The way that you demonstrated leadership by mentoring Sean and helping him through his issues was really impressive. That type of leadership is what will really help you move forward here and will also grow trust among the team.
  3. Thank you for contributing to the company blog. According to the marketing team, it was a hit. Brought it a ton of new readers, and seemed to really hit a nerve. Your writing style and perspective is really unique and refreshing. If you'd like more of those kinds of writing opportunities, please let me know, and I'll make sure they come your way.

That being said, I think there are some opportunities for growth.

  1. I think you can work on your speed. I've noticed that you're lagging behind some of your teammates. I noticed especially in our second sprint that you were running extremely slowly. I did not want to hinder progress by bringing it up then, but it's something to work through.
  2. I think another thing for you to think about is how you communicate with the team. I've heard from a few people that you can be a bit non-communicative and hard to reach. Specifically, they said that you take a couple hours to respond on Slack and they ultimately have to text you or call you to get your attention. That can become a problem if not addressed early. Let's work on that.
  3. Another thing I've noticed is that you've taken quite a bit of PTO, 7 days this month to be exact. I know we have unlimited PTO, but I fear you're not getting the opportunities you deserve because you're just not as available.

If we dig into this feedback, we can see that the positive and negative feedback are equal in terms of number as well as depth and quality. This type of feedback requires a lot more intention and preparation from the manager. Instead of noticing the areas of opportunity/growth, managers have to equally notice the positive and standout areas.

Although feedback can be a touchy subject, we know the positive impact it can have to a person's professional and personal growth when done right. Please let us know how the Balanced Feedback framework affects your management and team members!

Reserve your account today to track engineering progress from one place.

✅ 30-day Free Trial
✅ Cancel Anytime

RELATED ARTICLES

Boost your reporting experience with Staat. Try it for free.

Get early access ->
✅  30-day free trial
✅  Cancel anytime
Staat is the easiest way to stay updated on what’s going on with your engineering team. Get contextualized, meaningful updates from your everyday tools. All in one simple, beautiful view.

Follow us on TwitterFollow us on Linkedin

OUR WEEKLY RECAP

Join "Asap"

Receive one story a week.
One lesson at a time.
Welcome - you've been added to our community. 🙂
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.