Effective Feedback, Affecting Behaviour

Feedback if a powerful tool for building a good working relationship with the members of your project team, if it’s done right.

As a Project Manager, I’m close to the day-to-day work the team are undertaking, which means I’m in a good position to give feedback. It’s for that reason I’m regularly asked to provide comments for annual reviews. While this may be useful for someone’s career progression, I’m actually less concerned with the team’s promotions and pay awards and more interested in their effectiveness delivering the project. So, the feedback I’m talking about today isn’t the stuff for appraisals, it’s direct communication between the PM and the team member, focussing on a specific point of their behaviour, or working practice, relating to the project.

Something to consider – your team members may feel your opinion isn’t as important as their functional managers’. Which means they may not be receptive to your comments in the beginning. Also, most line managers don’t offer feedback in this way so the team members probably expect to receive it only at appraisal time, in writing! If that’s the case, being confronted unexpectedly with an offer of verbal feedback may catch them off guard. Still, it remains true that feedback given easily and regularly is an effective way to steer people in the right direction and build strong relationships. A highly competent team will be more capable of working independently, meeting deadlines, and delivering quality. In turn, that reduces the risk of the project being implemented late and over budget.

Providing feedback effectively is a valuable skill for a Project Manager to master, then. It’s a skill because many people don’t feel comfortable doing it and if it’s executed clumsily it may be ineffective and perhaps undermine your reputation as a competent leader.

If you’re starting out with a new team, or you’re new to the organisation, you have the advantage of setting expectations from the outset. If your team is already established it may feel awkward to provide feedback at first, but persevere and they’ll accept this is the way you work (now) and you’ll soon become comfortable doing it.

It’s important to provide feedback regularly, succinctly and with ease. Remember, this isn’t criticism, it’s information designed to positively reinforce good behaviours, or encourage recognition and adjustment of undesirable ones. It should be short, specific and clear:

“When you come to me unprompted about a new risk you’ve identified it helps me manage the project effectively and keep us on track. Thanks, I appreciate it.”

Simple as that. No discussion required. Similarly:

“When you turn up late for my meetings it’s difficult to get through a tight agenda. I’d appreciate it if you could make it to the next meeting on time. Thanks.”

Each of these comments, positive or negative, is aimed at directing future behaviour. It shouldn’t be a reprimand or just a pat on the back. That’s why keeping the point simple and delivering it in an easy, non-confrontational way is crucial to its effectiveness.

There’s one other important aspect of providing feedback effectively – ask the person if you can give it to them. This is important for functional managers as well but even more so Project Managers who aren’t ‘the boss’. If the person you’re talking to isn’t going to be receptive there’s no point providing your feedback at that time. They may be on their way to another meeting and don’t want to be late. Or perhaps they’re concentrating on a difficult task and won’t appreciate the interruption. They may just be in a bad mood! If you ask, “Hey, can I give you some feedback?” and they seem reluctant (or just say ‘no’) then just tell them “That’s ok, I’ll catch you later when you’re not busy”. You can’t force feedback on someone and still expect it to have the desired effect. Your willingness to wait for a better opportunity shows respect. You may get refusals more frequently in the beginning if people feel defensive and take the opportunity to avoid a perceived confrontation. When your feedback habit is established they’ll know you’re quite likely to be offering something positive and they’ll become more relaxed about the whole thing.

The toughest part of delivering feedback is dealing with that initial reaction and overcoming the self-consciousness you may feel until you gain confidence. Provided you stick by the rules for giving effective feedback, that’ll happen quite quickly. It just takes a little practise.

If you’ve tried the feedback model, please do let us know about your experience with it.



Initiation: Your Introduction to Project Management Theory

Technology is simple. People are complicated.

This is a project management blog but it’s not intended as a replacement for the PMBOK or any other similar resource. Neither is it particularly suitable as training material. If you’re looking for insight into obtaining a qualification then you’ll find other places more useful. Here we’ll take a slightly different perspective. Rather than discussing the mechanics of projects I want to focus on our most important resource – the people that deliver the projects. In particular, effective management of those people. Translating good management practices into project management terms.

To get the most out of the blog you’ll need a comfortable familiarity with project management concepts and at least a couple of years experience under your belt. If you have that already then you’ll probably have discovered some of the real-world challenges to project delivery and realised they’re often not technical or procedural. You’ll also have an idea of the limitations of the corporate environment you’re in, many of which you can’t change.

Different companies will have variations on the theme of project management. They may have their own methodologies adapted from PRINCE2, for example. They’ll certainly have their own corporate culture, organisational structure and other factors that, in combination, deviate from the textbook representation of project management.

A weak matrix management organisation can be a significant problem. The PM will have the responsibility for delivering the project but not the direct management of the team or control over who’s on it. The people working on your project will be accountable to the functional manager within their department or technical discipline, not you. Those departmental managers are typically focussed in running their own area, not delivering projects. After all, that’s the Project Manager’s problem!
With little empowerment, a PM faces an uphill struggle to get the best from the team. This adds risk to the project, something we’re trying to avoid. I’ve seen many PMs ignore this problem of accountability (or lack thereof). They underestimate the benefits of leading a team, not just administrating it. Often the results are delays, additional cost and stress. If your team isn’t accountable to you then they’re not your team, unless you find a way to provide effective leadership and get them on-side.

So what’s the disadvantaged PM to do? With no direct influence over those working on their project, soft skills become crucial tools. Leadership skills can make the difference between a successful project and one that strays over time and over budget. Respect is earned, and you need it.

A few years ago I came across the Manager Tools podcast. This long-running, weekly show is packed with sound advice from Mike Auzenne and Mike Horstman, two highly experienced managers dedicated to the cause of effective management. Their podcast is focussed on managing people, not projects. Even so, many of these management skills and techniques can be applied or adapted by the humble PM. We are still managers and dealing with people effectively is arguably our most vital capability.
I’ve plundered the Manager Tools and other resources, filtered them through the lens of my own project management experience, and defined the concepts here in a new context.

And speaking of context, my own training and qualification comes from the PMI. I’m a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) and I’ve been putting it into practice since 2006. Because of my familiarity with the PMI, my references will often relate to that organisation’s description of project management. That’s not to say there’s any less value in PRINCE2 or even just hard-earned experience, it’s just what I’m most familiar with.