I didn’t start my career in leadership as a good manager. In fact, early on, I’m pretty sure that I was a really bad manager. I micromanaged and never had consistent one-on-ones. My team didn’t know if I was criticizing them or if I was just joking, and I rarely gave praise.
Looking back, I was unhappy and felt in way over my head. Since then, I’ve put a lot of work into learning how to be a better manager. Giving and receiving feedback well is my most essential (and potentially hard-won) skill.
Here are my five rules for giving feedback that I wish I had known when I started my journey as a manager.
Avoid the sh*t sandwich
We’ve all been handed a sh*t sandwich at some point in our careers. You can spot it from a mile away: praise, then criticism, then praise again. But let’s face it, no one wants to eat that, no matter how you disguise it. It’s a tired formula.
You should always give praise and constructive feedback in the moment, so your direct reports can respond in real time. Open communication has been shown to build trust and reduce stress. Your team will appreciate the authenticity, and you’ll build relationships much quicker.
Be honest about what you really want
Good guidance starts with clear goals. Goals are the road map for individual growth and the most helpful lens for channeling specific feedback.
I like to start every one-on-one by talking about progress against team and individual goals. We don’t save those talks for semi-annual performance reviews. My team knows that every time we meet, we’ll be talking about how their recent accomplishments stack up to greater objectives.
Here’s my next-level management advice—give people the power to make their own plans. You provide the goals, and ask them to propose a list of specific, actionable tactics for achieving those goals. Your job as a manager is to ask how you can support them and to help them define metrics for success. Giving team members the power to lead the way will keep them as engaged in the process as you are.
Give credit and take responsibility
This is one of my guiding management principles. I’ve seen managers reluctant to open the doors for praise at work because they’re afraid of creating egomaniacal monsters. Unfortunately, that leaves teams and peers flailing in the wind. This is a disservice to everyone, the company included.
When things go well, give praise. Hand it out in person and publicly, either in group meetings or on company channels. Research shows that expressing gratitude increases happiness and improves relationships. Happy team members are more productive, so don’t hold back.
On the flip side, take responsibility when things go poorly. Just recently, I came down on a team member because, in my mind, she wasn’t meeting expectations for her role. I gave her a chance to tell me her side of the story, and I very quickly realized this one was on me. I hadn’t clearly communicated expectations of her role. She didn’t have the resources she needed to do her job well. I also found out that she had been getting conflicting direction from another team member. By listening to her perspective and admitting my own shortcomings, I was able to course-correct to help her thrive.
I once had a manager who met with me only sporadically and spontaneously. He pulled me into his office every few months for an ad-hoc one-on-one, usually to complain about something he thought I was doing wrong. He taught me important lessons about how I did not want to manage.
In a startup environment where change can be the only constant, consistent feedback gives the team a welcome dose of comfort and safety. Have a one-on-one at least once every other week and keep it focused on consistent goals. Bonus: annual or biannual reviews won’t have surprises and will be way less stressful.
Allow your team to make mistakes
As a young goalkeeper on the Washington State soccer team, I made an error that led to a tournament loss. I was devastated. My coach said: “If there were no mistakes, soccer would be a really boring game.” He gave me permission to embrace failure, which allowed me to continue to take risks. My team has room to make mistakes so we can learn from them. After all, mistakes are inevitable. As a manager, it’s my job to ensure that my team sees it as a way to grow.