As a software engineering manager, it's crucial to master specific managerial skills to foster team growth and ensure project success. One such skill is the ability to provide constructive feedback to your team, particularly when it's negative.

Learning from Radical Candor by Kim Scott, it's clear that balancing empathy and directness is essential. Too much of either can lead to misunderstandings, hurt feelings, or lost opportunities for improvement. Properly handled feedback fosters professional growth, ensures the health of project timelines, and nurtures positive team dynamics.

Based on my years in software management, I've devised a structured approach to offering negative feedback. Here's a step-by-step guide:

Name Your Intentions and Feelings

The essential part of giving negative feedback is that you identify your intentions and feelings. This is very important because if this isn’t established immediately, the feedback you give your developer can be misconstrued as a personal attack.

Mention to your developer that the feedback you're giving is intended to help them learn and that you care about their wellbeing and growth within the team and the company. If you want to see your engineers write some kick-ass code and help out their teammates with code reviews, this is a critical step. The feedback needs to come from a place of compassion and genuine interest in seeing them excel. If the feedback is systematized and cultivated to be part of the feedback-giving culture, then it’s more likely your engineer will accept it and make the necessary changes.

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Discuss Why the Feedback Is Negative

The second part is to say why the feedback you're giving is negative. What did the developer do that could have had dire consequences for the project or company? An engineering manager must identify the risks of said behavior or mistakes and the costs it could incur. For example, if your engineers don’t review the code and several bugs are found, then this could affect your work, your client relationships, and as a result, your bottom line! You want good practices to spread throughout the team and your engineers to be essential contributors to the technology you’re building.

Give Your Developer a Chance to Speak

After giving negative feedback, now would be a good moment to let your engineer address the situation. This is important because you don’t want the conversation to be boss-dominated and one-way. There needs to be a discussion, but a discussion within the structure. Also, you can find out how your engineer accepts the feedback. Does it cause a knee-jerk reaction? Do they blame the epic screw-up on a teammate?

The kind of reaction you want is for your developer to accept the feedback and process it in a way that shows maturity and a readiness to accept the consequences.

Propose to Help Your Developer

Things are challenging right now, especially in the IT world. If the way you give negative feedback is entirely out of line, guess what? Your engineer leaves at the next opportunity.

That’s why coaching should be closely tied to giving feedback. This does not mean that you do the work for them, but you also don’t want to be a ruthless enforcer who wants accountability and nothing more.

You need to put in the effort to create growth opportunities. It would be in your and your developers’ best interests. That way they learn from their mistakes, the mistake isn’t repeated, and you save money or gain peace of mind.

End the Conversation

When all the essential parts have been said, and your developer accepts the feedback (or attempts to change your mind), finish the conversation.

Make sure everyone’s on the same page and the action plan is clearly understood. This way, your developer knows that you’re serious and that you’ll refer back to the conversation and the solution to check if progress has been made.

So, that’s my advice to new engineering managers about giving negative feedback. I hope this is helpful. If you’re looking for more tips and advice about dev team performance and wellbeing, be sure to check back later or subscribe to our YouTube channel.

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