Management for Scientists: Giving Feedback

By Joanne Kamens

This is the third in a 5 part series on Management for scientists.

No one is excited about performance appraisals.

Feedback is help and it should result in authentic assistance for the recipient to become more effective and successful. Giving timely and useful feedback is an absolutely required aspect of being a successful manager. Great bosses tell people where they stand clearly and routinely. They are clear with each employee about what they do well and where they need to improve, and they’re also clear about how the person is doing overall. Employees hate to wonder what you think of their work.

 Check out Joanne's Reddit AMA


Guidelines for giving feedback

  • Use formal and informal mechanisms for feedback (more on this below).
  • Make sure to give positive feedback when it is merited. Surprisingly, some people find this hard so get used to it by making it a concrete goal to say “thank you, job well done” to one of your employees every day.
  • Prepare for a feedback session by writing down specific examples and notes so you can get back to the issues if the conversation gets off track or becomes emotional.
  • Don’t let things fester, give feedback as close to an event as possible. If you wait too long, a small correction can become an unnecessarily big issue for you and for the employee.
  • Make sure to focus on the action, not the person - intent is usually good.
  • Don’t pretend something went well when it didn’t… but don’t “punish” someone for a past infraction. Feedback will only have a positive outcome if the employee sees that real change is possible in your eyes so their confidence is restored. A good manager does not hold grudges.
  • Never use email to deliver corrective feedback. A manager must be able to respond to the employee’s level of discomfort appropriately to get the message across.

Listen to our podcast interview with Harvard Medical School researcher Connie Cepko to learn about her management style.

Formalizing the feedback session

Giving regular, informal feedback is a very effective way to bring about change in behaviors and habits in a nonthreatening way. However, I have also found that scientists seem to find it easier to give feedback in formal sessions using a specific list of questions after a task or period of work. Using this standard format not only enables you to discuss a person's performance or what has been learned, it helps to plan effective next steps. For a formalized feedback session, answer the questions below together and discuss openly. Both parties get used to using this format and it becomes even more effective over time if you take it seriously. 

Person who will receive feedback does a self-assessment (of the task or period of work):

  • What 3 things would you say worked out best?
  • What 3 things worked least well?

Manager provides feedback (may be the same as self-assessment or different):

  • Here are the 3 things I would say worked out best. 
  • Here are the 3 things that worked least well.

Find out the Effect of the Feedback:

  • How does this feedback compare with your own perception?
  • Tell me your interpretation of my feedback to you.

What are We Learning:

  • What would have happened if _________? What would have been a better outcome?
  • What help did you need? What help did you solicit? When did you first see you needed help?
  • What kept you from getting the help you needed?
  • What could I (manager) have done differently?

What Can You Learn Going Forward:

  • If you could plan this all over, what would your plan be?
  • If you could do the thing all over, what would you do differently?

Beware of indirect language

You must be honest about performance problems. While giving corrective feedback isn’t pleasant, it’s far worse for employees if you don’t care enough to tell them about areas they need to improve in. If a manager has concerns about an employee and the employee doesn’t know it, the problem is as much with the manager as with the employee. This is especially true if the problems are large enough that the employee should be aware that they are at risk of being fired and should be looking for a new position.

One of the most common mistakes I see is managers who hint at or use indirect language to talk about real performance issues. Watch this little video to learn more about indirect language from Steven Pinker. As a manager you must be able to state your observations truthfully and in clear terms. It isn’t necessary to be cruel, but is necessary to be direct and clear. There is place in human discourse for indirect language, but it is not the way to go when giving feedback. The employee is not helped if the feedback session is over and they still don’t know how you actually feel about their performance. Giving honest and helpful feedback gets easier with practice so you must build it into your routines.

This is the third in a 5 part series on Management for Scientists. Subscribe to the Addgene Blog to follow the entire series as it is published.

For more reading try The Discipline of Teams by Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith or the book on which this article is based.

 Subscribe to career advice posts from Addgene Download Addgene's Management for Scientists eBook


Topics: Science Careers, Management for Scientists

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