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Lessons from a unicorn: How to give (brilliant) feedback

Avoid the shit sandwich when giving feedback says Printful's chief people officer Santa Rožkalna

By Amy Lewin

Santa Rožkalna is chief people officer at Riga-based unicorn Printful. She’s been in HR for over a decade, and has learnt a thing or two about giving (and receiving) feedback. She explained to Startup Life why, when and how you should give it.

Apply the same feedback loops that you have in your product development to your people

We have a lot of young managers in their first management role, so we’re all learning together. Our work is very much project-based, loop-based processes, so it’s quick and easy to give feedback after one project phase has ended. We try to apply the same approach to the people in our organisation.

Give feedback quickly

Don’t collect it up in one big pile. Make it specific, and share it immediately — especially if it’s related to behaviour that impacts a few people. If I saw someone being rude to a colleague, I would Slack them immediately and say, “That really didn’t look good to me”. It’s important to say that that’s how you perceived the situation. If I was sharing feedback on a particular job, I might save that for a one-to-one because I want to be more prepared and give examples.

Make feedback factual — and two-way

Don’t focus on the individual but on the result. Feedback shouldn’t be personal. Give examples, be very particular and precise. Add a touch of humanity; ask, “Hey, are you struggling?” Get that individual’s perspective — ask them how they found a task or situation — maybe there’s something that you as a manager don’t see. That conversation shouldn’t be a one-woman show.

Avoid the shit sandwich

Some people like mixing feedback: good bad good. I don’t like that approach — it wipes away the importance of the message. We’re all adults. The sandwich feedback formula should be replaced with a 50:50 approach: give one bit of positive feedback; next time give one bit of negative feedback.

Pick the right medium for the message

Slack is acceptable if it’s a short message — “Hey, this was really good” plus a cool meme or GIF. People appreciate that a lot. On Slack, it’s easy to be very visual and involve others too. The theory goes that when you want to praise someone, do that in front of other people, and when you want to criticise, do it in private. A one-to-one, eye-to-eye kind of conversation. If you’re going to give critical feedback, have a video or voice conversation. Don’t share it in a group chat.

Promote a strong internal coaching culture

Our HR team members are trained as coaches, and managers can apply to get a coaching session with an HR colleague. The most popular sessions are around how to better manage people.

Give feedback to your boss too

My life philosophy is, what’s the worst that could happen? If you are really scared about giving feedback to your boss, then you probably deserve to work at a better company. It’s up to the employee as well as the employer to create the work environment they want to see. If I was a boss and not hearing any feedback I would feel concerned.

On the subject of… Giving feedback

🎨 The art of giving negative feedback to your boss. It’s not easy to tell your superiors they’re doing a bad job but there are some ways to make it easier (that don’t involve needing a drink before hand).

🎨 Dealing with defensive employees. If your team member thinks they’re being attacked personally, the opportunity for a meaningful discussion will be lost. Here are ways to feedback constructively.

📅 Feedback frequently. If you’ve been reading this newsletter for a while, you’ll know I’m a fan of Kim Scott’s Radical Candor methodology. Here’s how she created quick and regular feedback loops for a more open and honest workplace culture.

📝 Give yourself feedback. Before asking others to tell you what you’re not quite getting right, ask yourself.

📈 Feedback improves performance. If you’re looking to delve deeper into the importance of feedback on teams and performance, this paper is for you.

Amy Lewin is Sifted’s editor. She tweets from @amyrlewin

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