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— 6 minute read

Retaining and Developing the Best through Evaluative Feedback

In the fast-paced startup world the mantra is most often: more, better, faster. And while that statement is a bit tongue-in-cheek, it is often not far from the truth and in some cases for good reason. With the great many factors fighting against business (specifically startup) success, it’s no wonder that insightful, evaluative feedback is very often one of the first things cut out in the constant search for more time. This has been my experience at many fast paced companies, but I believe critical feedback is one of the most crucial aspects of retaining and developing the best talent in any industry.

At InVision we seek to hire and develop the absolute best, and while I have worked other places that have stated that as a mission, InVision is the first place which I have worked that has embraced the values necessary to achieve it.

The Best (Engineers or otherwise) want to know specifically where they are doing well, where they need to continue to press into, and where they need to improve to grow. In most companies this type of feedback typically only occurs when someone is doing poorly and needs to improve to stay employed, or in some cases not at all. Due to the negative focus inherent in this methodology (whether explicitly or implicitly chosen) this type of environment does not cultivate a culture that the best are drawn to.

Tips for retaining and developing the Best

Whether you are in an organization which already executes on evaluative feedback and looking to get better, or are in a company that never seems to find the time; Below are some tips which can help you to shape your culture to attract, retain and develop the best:

Don’t wait for the organization to start

This may seem obvious, but many times I’ve seen people waiting for someone else to give them permission, or criteria, or a timeline, or… The point is, make a way. If your organization doesn’t have any timeline or expectation set for giving feedback, schedule an informal 1-on-1 with a teammate. If you’re in an environment that won’t seem to give you the time to do it, give him/her a heads up that you would like to share some feedback, and then take them out to coffee or lunch. The point is, in a fast paced environment, you just have to make some space for giving feedback.

Leverage shared values

Not everyone will agree with the feedback that you give regardless of how you are viewed, to minimize differences in expectations it’s best to start with shared values. If your organization or department has stated values that you feel that you can relate to specific actions, then it’s best to start with those. At InVision we have shared values which describe the heuristics of Exceptional Engineers. This is a list of 7 values which help to guide our actions. Everyone in our department is aware of these, and as a manager I leverage these values as a guide to help give specific feedback to my team. Since everyone in our department is aware of these values it makes evaluations fair and clear. It’s fair because we are all being judged based on the same defined criteria and it’s clear because it is stated in black and white rather than some vague or ever changing criteria in someones head.

When clear criteria are established it creates an environment where evaluations are more about understanding the engineers experience, goals and perceiving where their activities over the past several weeks have helped them to converge and expand upon these values. This is much more useful feedback than a vague “You’re doing great!” or “You need to step it up.”, and because you are leveraging clearly stated values, it takes much of the uncertainty out of the conversation. If your organization doesn’t yet have clearly established shared values which you can leverage, start reviewing blogs on leadership and management and socializing them amongst your team. I find this to be a huge trust building activity and a great spring-board to evaluative feedback, in any case I can almost guarantee it will spark some great discussions.

Make it specific

When sharing feedback, make it specific. Vague feedback, much like unclear expectations continues to leave the receiver in a state of uncertainty. To give specific feedback requires more attention as a manager. It means that you have to be constantly thinking about your values and watching for actions and behaviors which exemplify those, and call them out. In my experience it’s best to address these positive and negative actions and behaviors as close to the time of enacting as possible. This requires that you have the trust of those that you lead (and that you show some tact), but when applied properly it allows you to reinforce those behaviors while they are still fresh in the mind. I find that when you give timely reinforcement like this, it’s like giving the somewhat opaque values mental coat hooks to hang those behaviors and frame future ones off of. In addition to calling these behaviors out close to the action, keep a document with them for your next feedback session. This will help you to reinforce the values and behaviors as you give specific feedback some time after the action has occurred. When it’s reinforcing positive behaviors it also serves as an opportunity to recognize and celebrate the growth of your team member since the last evaluation.

Incorporate self evaluation

A great tool is asking your team mate to self evaluate based on your shared values before you share. This is often a very revealing exercise to whether the individual is self aware, and in most cases allows them to introduce areas of weakness in a safe way. By allowing them the opportunity to self evaluate, they become collaborators in the process adding to the trust and feeling of fairness in the evaluation. Also, since many engineers are hyper critical of themselves it gives you the opportunity to point them to their strengths and celebrate areas of growth, all while making the areas of opportunity easier to bring up.

Make it happen

In the startup life there are ebbs and flows, but more often than not we are all one alert or call away from another fire. No one is going to make this happen for you, so you have to make it happen. If you work in an organization like ours which supports this type of critical feedback it makes it much easier, but even still there is always the pull of the pressing activity over ones such as this which take longer but which bear significant fruit. So keep at it!

Don’t allow the short-term positive impact, or the social discomfort of a feedback session keep you from doing it consistently. Make it a recurring meeting every 4-6 weeks and set the expectation with your team so they know it’s coming. When it’s happening frequently, it takes most of the nerves out of it, and in-time it can turn out to be one of the most rewarding and enjoyable parts of the job. Breach the awkwardness and make evaluative feedback happen to add to the culture of retaining and developing the best!

Jeremy is an Engineering Manager at InVision.

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