A group of coworkers in conversation, demonstrating how to give honest feedback
5-second summary

  • Approach all feedback situations with empathy for the receiver. Using the My User Manual Play from Team Playbook can help create more personal connections.
  • Don’t save all your feedback for annual performance reviews. Talking about something that happened 12 months ago can seem petty.
  • Find out what kind of feedback people want: a simple yes/no, in-depth comments, etc.
  • Sometimes people don’t want feedback in certain situations. How can you tell? Just ask.
  • Learn how to “read the room.” If everyone is chiming in at the same time, your feedback may not break through the clutter.

  • Leah Pincsak and Megha Narayan are known for having run two of the happiest teams at Atlassian. Both have reputations for giving their honest opinions – and both have earned not just respect, but affection from the people who work with and for them. (I know because I worked on Megha’s team.)

    But, as both leaders admit, they arrived as great feedback-givers gradually, after stumbling – sometimes painfully – earlier in their careers. For Leah, saying what she thought didn’t always land well. Megha says it took a while for her to feel she had the permission to give feedback.   

    There’s only so many times you can sit in a meeting and hear someone say the feedback you’ve been thinking while you stay quiet.

    Megha Narayan, Former Head of Brand, Customer, and Content Marketing

    I asked each of them for advice on how to give feedback to their team members and their peers.

    Lead with empathy

    There’s a lot at play in a feedback situation – interpersonal communication, organizational power structures, and job-specific considerations, just to name a few. Plus, there’s the overarching goal of delivering a message and making sure it has been received. “There’s you, and there’s thoughts you want to share. And then there’s that person and how hard they’ve worked on something. So it’s kind of balancing the two. One is not more important than the other, necessarily,” says Megha. 

    Getting to know your teammates and learning how they like to receive feedback goes a long way in creating trusting and productive working relationships. Leah says approaching feedback with empathy takes practice. “I still don’t think I’m great at it,” she says. And some people take all feedback in a negative way. In that case, you need to carve out more time to get to know that person and understand them.”

    The real reason your team won’t give you honest feedback

    One way Leah does this is by implementing the My User Manual Play from Atlassian’s Team Playbook. The user manual is a document that shares an individual’s preferences – how they like to communicate, how they work best, and what they need from others. She has a different member of her team present their “user manual” at each biweekly team meeting. This creates an opportunity for every person to reflect on how they work best and receive feedback, and then share it with the team. 

    At Atlassian, we save our user manuals in a shared space on Confluence so anyone can refer to them later. On a personal note, I’ll add that I’ve sat in on many user-manual meetings. It’s amazing how giving each person the space to say how they prefer to work and grow can help build trust among the team. That can definitely help ease discomfort when having hard conversations later.

    Earlier in my career, my boss at a previous job pulled me aside and told me, ‘What you just said was so inappropriate.’ And I had a hard time accepting that because it was never my intention to be petty.

    Leah Pincsak, Senior Creative Director

    Context is everything

    If a colleague is presenting on a business strategy that seems problematic or is suggesting a new vendor you think is too expensive, take a pause before offering a comment – especially if your feedback wasn’t solicited.  Before jumping straight into “here’s what I’d do differently,” ask some questions and gather some information. This takes more time and effort but it forces you, as the feedback giver, to take a moment to check your ego. 

    “If you don’t understand the context of why someone is doing what they’re doing, and they aren’t looking for feedback, then you’re just giving feedback because you want to make your mark on something,” Megha points out. 

    Sometimes, Megha says, it starts with asking if a person wants the feedback at all. And if it’s a yes, she’ll ask what kind of feedback they’re looking for. Is it just alignment on direction (a “yes” or a “no”)? Or are they looking for detailed feedback? Also, do they prefer written feedback with time to digest it, or a conversation with the opportunity for a dialogue right away?

    When offering feedback about someone’s performance, Leah says, it’s important to make sure your comments don’t come off as a personal attack. You can do this by carefully considering the context before meeting with the person. She and other Atlassians use the the Situation Behavior Impact (SBI) framework for organizing the facts before providing feedback. It works like this:

    • Situation. The where and when (i.e., last two campaign cycles in February and March)
    • Behavior. The observable thing you saw (i.e., “The creative you delivered was missing key components from the brief”)
    • Impact. What happened as a result (i.e., “I felt frustrated and overwhelmed because rushing the work and review on those components meant we almost missed our deadlines”) 

    And while you could still miss some context, the SBI framework keeps the conversation focused on the work or what really happened, rather than ancillary issues.

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    Don’t wait too long

    When you give feedback also impacts whether it’s heard and taken. Both Megha and Leah agree that it’s best to deliver feedback as soon as possible. Letting feedback linger can create unnecessary and accidental connotations.   

    “I’ll be honest, in some of my own performance reviews, I’m like, ‘Are we really talking about something that happened 12 months ago?’ I try to give immediate feedback so it’s less like a mystery of why I held it back for so long,” says Leah.

    However, on-the-spot feedback is not always the best move – especially when other people are throwing in their two cents, as Megha has learned. “I’m not trying to silence myself, but I know that if I give feedback in this loud ‘lots of cooks in the kitchen’ situation, it’s going to get lost,” she says. “So I think the best approach is following up with this person right after the meeting and saying ‘I loved what you did, but there are a few things on my mind that I wanted to share with you.’ That tends to be the more effective delivery because it’s focused and there’s not a bunch of noise.” 

    It’s also best to hold off and have a private chat if your feedback is for someone whom you haven’t built a strong working relationship with yet.

    Don’t leave out the good stuff

    “One thing I try to do to counter the critical feedback I might give later, is to offer positive feedback ,” says Leah. “When you do that it’s way easier to form a layer of trust and just get on the same page. That shows you’re going to be really fair and not just overly critical.”

    Leah says what she’s not talking about here is “the sh*t sandwich” approach, or when you give praise followed by criticism followed by praise to supposedly soften the blow of the negative feedback. The sh*t sandwich has a number of flaws, the main one being that our brains are wired to remember bad experiences and memories, so the other person probably won’t remember the good stuff anyway.

    As a manager of a team of nearly 50 people, Leah often learns of situations only when something has gone wrong. Keeping tuned in to what’s going right takes some extra effort. That’s why she leads a “weekly wins” chat so that her team members can share what they’re proud of that week.

    Leah also tries to give frequent and specific shoutouts to her team. For instance, after an all-staff meeting, she went out of her way to praise the individual team members who worked on a video that the CEO played. Over Slack, she acknowledged not just the stellar work, but also the challenges they had to navigate, like managing a last-minute request from a band of stakeholders.

    Good feedback requires continuous refinement

    Above all, becoming a great feedback-giver is a learning process. “Pick your battles and pick the places where you want to give really careful, caring feedback. Pick the places where you’re going to be hands off. That is the mark of a more seasoned manager. You know the difference,” Megha says.  “Good feedback is finite, choose where you’re going to spend it.”

    How to give honest feedback that builds your work relationships