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Giving Feedback Remotely Is Hard (But It Doesn't Have to Be That Hard)

Giving feedback remotely doesn't have to be that hard. You just need to think differently.

By Gustavo Razzetti

February 16, 2022

7 Tips for Giving Effective Feedback to Remote Teams

Delivering constructive feedback is hard for both givers and receivers. Doing it remotely is even more nerve-wracking. In my research, I uncovered that feedback has suffered in a hybrid workplace –  some leaders practice it less often or see technology as a barrier.

Many managers I interviewed acknowledge they are avoiding tough conversations. From connection glitches and the discomfort of looking at a camera to being unable to read the context or body language, executives would rather wait to give feedback face-to-face.

However, giving feedback remotely doesn't have to be that hard. It requires thinking differently. Virtual feedback can actually leverage the discomfort of being in-person (yes, that was uncomfortable, too).  

As Ivan Houston, Technical Capabilities Manager at Liberty IT, told me: "The upside is that when you are having a confidential conversation it's more private remotely. Whether at the office, when people saw someone meeting with me, in my office behind closed doors, they immediately assumed something wrong was going on."

After almost two years in a hybrid setting, the executive and his team have become more comfortable addressing feedback remotely. Even for tough issues.

Giving feedback in a hybrid environment is not only necessary but can also be very effective. Here are some ideas to get you started. There are no rules but principles to rethink your approach.

1. Assume positive intent

Always operate from the idea that a person meant well or gave their best – no matter what they said or did. It will save you a lot of headaches. Most importantly, feedback won't work for either the giver or receiver without a basic foundation of trust.  

"I assume confusion over conspiracies," one of my clients shared how he approaches his team. "I don't believe anyone wakes up thinking how to boycott people or make things complicated. Especially for new employees who are trying to figure things out."

We naturally have a double standard when it comes to the actions of others. We blame circumstances for our own mistakes but individuals for theirs. Social psychologists call this bias the Fundamental Attribution Error. It's the tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are – we attribute errors to character or personality.

Before judging people, assume positive intent. Look at the behavior the person is displaying and stay neutral about the intention. Ask questions. Focus on understanding the situational factors behind behavior rather than judging the person.

2. Manage Conflict in the Open

In a remote environment, signals are harder to read. You have to pay special attention and sense how teams members are doing. Most importantly, you want to address minor issues before they become a conflict.

One of GitLab's core values is (radical) transparency – it helps improve relationships, operations, and the business. As Jessica Reeder, senior all-remote campaign manager at GitLab, told me: "How we manage conflict is embedded in a non-judgmental culture. Our values are idealistic yet rooted in concrete outcomes. Disagreement is okay; not getting along is welcomed. But you must address conflict constructively."

Everything at GitLab is public by default, including conflict. Employees are encouraged to be direct and transparent with each other: "We try to channel our inner Ben Horowitz by being both straightforward and kind." Feedback is always about the work and not your person. However, that doesn't mean it will be easy.

Most remote-first companies are adopting the idea of managing conflict in the open. Employees are expected to share feedback with others, respectfully disagree, and commit to finding solutions together. At Slack, leaders model openness; they encourage addressing issues in public channels.

NY Times best-selling author, Dr. Tasha Eurich, believes that the way you manage conflict depends on your company culture. Some are ready to practice radical candor; others need support to get there.

Codify your approach to conflict – what should be addressed in the open and what should not. Sharing positive feedback should be practiced in the open. This helps team members feel that their work is valued reinforces positive behavior. However, more sensitive topics will require 1:1 conversations.

As Reeder explains, "Work-related, ideas, tactics issues are managed directly, openly, and right away. More sensitive topics – ideological, personal, or huge strategic differences – are managed in private."

Leaders tend to struggle with difficult conversations in any environment – virtual or not. But many have found it easier to deal with conflict contained to a computer while at the safety at their home. Some experts believe a phone call is better because it removes visual cues that could lead to distraction or misinterpretations. Others believe video calls are crucial to address conflict, as body posture and non-verbal cues communicate more than words.

The most important thing is to set up clear rules of engagement.

As Eszter Debreczeni, CEO at Esthra, wrote, "Give the choice how to receive it. If turning off the camera makes me feel safer once listening, and I would express this need: this would be a clear case for me as a leader being okay with it."

3. Take a Break

Working asynchronously creates a much calmer work environment. When people are not expected to respond immediately or outside of work hours, they can think before writing and come back with more thoughtful responses.

Apply the 5-Second Rule to make people feel safe and give them space to reflect before they react. When I'm facilitating a workshop, I slowly count up to five after asking a question. Silence is uncomfortable, especially in a virtual setting. However, when we avoid the need to fill the void, we make space for others to reflect and talk at their own time.  

If you're having a feedback session, pause after asking a question. Don't surrender to the pressure to fill the silence with more noise. Slowly count up to five. Let people reflect before they answer.

Creating a pause allows the closing of one conversation item before moving to the next. As Sarah LC Smith, Head of Culture at Hundred, told me: "The real key - practice, practice, practice. Not just in giving feedback, but also in receiving it. 'Thank you for the feedback' pause, breathe, process. Can you share more? Pause, breathe, and process. How can we work together to improve this?"

Sometimes, you might need to take an actual break to avoid things getting out of control.

As Carin Taylor, the chief diversity officer for Workday, reflected on a conflict with a colleague over a series of virtual conversations: "One of the things that became really important was to give each other a pause and adjust, process, think about what was going on." Taking a break helped Carin feel refreshed, providing both colleagues with a fresh start.

Taking a break turns giving and receiving feedback into a calmer experience.

4. Just Listen

Feedback comes in many shapes and forms. Sometimes, the best help you can offer is your silence. Just listen.

When providing feedback, managers fall into the source of truth fallacy. They see people as a problem to be fixed and want to tell them how to improve. However, we can learn more from our own experience than from someone else's advice. Processing past events help us reflect on what we can do better next time.

Have a non-advice feedback meeting. Invite your colleague to talk about a recent issue. Ask them, "How are you today?" and let them talk freely. Just be there, listen, and make space to discuss people's fears and feelings.

As a follow-up question, you can ask, "What worked? What didn't work? And why?" Most importantly, "What will you do differently next time?"

Don't assume that feedback always requires providing a solution. Sometimes, people just want to be listened to. Create a space for reflection, not advice. Let your team find the solution.

Agile coach Cesar Mori Fuentes recommends: "Focus on the problem and not on the person. Use powerful questions so people evaluate themselves and can identify what they need to improve. If you want to be heard, the first thing you have to do is listen."

5. Establish a Buddy System

Accountability partnerships or success duos help build strong interpersonal relationships and strengthen culture. A team is as strong as the sum of all those relationships.

Multiple organizations such as Buffer, Microsoft, or GitLab use onboarding buddies to provide a better experience to new hires. The buddy system defines a go-to person for operational issues, from tech set up to more strategic ones such as familiarization with the company culture.

However, the benefits of having a buddy shouldn't end there. At Liberty IT, the buddy system goes beyond welcoming new employees and helping them set up their equipment – they become the go-to person. Partnerships are designed, matching two people together that will make sense for both.

"Many people don't have experience coaching others, so we train them. We help them feel comfortable, clarify expectations for buddies, and support them throughout the process," Ivan Houston told me. "There are no stupid questions. But if you have a stupid question, come to me."

A buddy becomes the go-to person for beyond understanding how things work and the company culture. It becomes a trusting relationship for people to get help and support – from looking for advice or coaching to someone who can listen or hold them accountable.

6. Set Regular 1-on-1s

Having regular conversations to see how people are doing, discuss progress, and address barriers is critical for remote team members. Not only should managers hold regular 1-on-1s with team members, but peers should also too.

1-on-1s should focus less on tracking progress or monitoring people and more on ensuring people are okay and set up for success.

Have a set of open-ended questions to spark a two-way conversation – follow the flow, not your questionnaire. Here are some examples of questions:

• How's life outside of work?

• What's one thing you're excited about? What's one thing you're worried about?

• What's obstacles are getting in your way? How can I help?

• Share a recent win and a mistake. What have you learned from both?

• Who's doing a great job and why?

• Am I providing enough clarity and direction?

• Where would you like me involved more? Where would you like me to be involved less?

• How do you find working with your colleagues? What can we do to improve our team culture?

Establish a regular cadence for 1-on-1s and protect that time. Rescheduling this type of conversation because of urgent issues sends the wrong message.

Make 1-on-1s optional, too. If one person doesn't want to meet one week, it's okay to opt-out. However, if they cancel them 2-3 times in a row, it could be a sign that something's wrong. Once again, assume positive intent and find out.

7. Integrate Asynchronous and Synchronous Feedback

Research by Mortensen and Hinds shows that casual, unplanned communication dramatically reduces conflict when you're not in the exact location. Regular, small doses of feedback can help tackle issues before they escalate. That's why integrating both asynchronous and synchronous feedback practices is vital.

Synchronous feedback happens live, in real-time. It's the most traditional approach format. When companies were forced to work remotely, they started using virtual tools but still continue to practice feedback in real-time.

Asynchronous feedback provides more opportunities for team members to improve behavior without having to get together. Everyone can experience it in their own time and it also encourages people to practice it more often.

Synchronous feedback is better for bonding, personal issues, and sensitive conversations (e.g., discussing performance issues, career path/promotion, etc.).

Asynchronous works well for simple, less sensitive topics but also to get more thoughtful responses.

For example, when presenting a design or new proposal (synchronously), everyone feels the need to jump in and provide their impressions right away. Asynchronous feedback, on the other hand, provides time to think, be more specific, and avoid groupthink. It encourages people to be more thoughtful and intentional.

Discuss with your team the benefits of both asynchronous and synchronous feedback – establish clear rules on how to use each.

My new book Remote, Not Distant is out - Get your copy if you want to thrive in a hybrid workplace

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