Feedback on Feedback

My previous post on feedback outlined a powerful but tricky method for building strong ties with your project team. It’s tricky because you’re working without the automatic empowerment that a line manager enjoys. I’d hazard that it’s even trickier if you’ve grown up on the more reserved side of the Atlantic. Still, in order to effect change, you have to be the change. And an experienced Project Manager is no stranger to a challenging situation!

If you haven’t read the other post (Effective Feedback, Affecting Behavior) then I recommend you do that before reading on. In summary, though, the technique goes like this:

1) Make sure you ask the person if it’s OK to give them some feedback. You need them to be receptive or there’s no point. (“May I give you some feedback?”)
2) Describe the behaviour you’re providing feedback on. (“When you do…”)
3) Describe the consequence. (“Here’s what happens…”)
4) Ask for new behaviour if you’re looking for a change (“Can you please change that?” “How might you do this differently in the future?”) or encourage good behaviour that should be repeated.  Don’t demand or dictate the change. Make it their choice and you’ll get more commitment. Be sure to show appreciation by providing positive feedback if you see improvement.

It’s inevitable that you’ll get a reaction when applying this approach, particularly in the beginning when people aren’t used to it. Unfortunately, there’s often a negative connotation about feedback. That’s something we can change, though. Here are a few possible scenarios and what to do about them.

“I have plenty to do already.” “I don’t have time to do that differently.”

This could be a challenge to your authority, which is difficult territory for many Project Managers. It may imply the person receiving your feedback doesn’t want to change or it could mean they need to manage their time more efficiently. It could also be that they’re overcommitted as a shared resource. Getting what you want doesn’t mean forgoing understanding of their situation.

If you’ve judged that the person responding to your feedback is simply resisting then you have to find a way to remind them that being part of your project team sometimes means having to be a team player. There may be times when they can’t do things how they would like or are used to. Clearly, this leans heavily on your diplomacy skills but avoid trying to assert the authority you don’t have (or even do have) and definitely don’t let the other person get under your skin.

“Other Project Managers don’t do that.”

Probably true but irrelevant. Everyone does things differently. It’s unlikely you’re breaking any protocols just by giving feedback and you have to manage the way you believe is most effective. As always, be understanding but ask them if they’ll commit to this new way of doing things. Ultimately, people need to take responsibility for their behaviour.

“I don’t want to.”

This one is definitely a challenge. If you’re applying the feedback model to everyone, including those more senior to you, then this may well happen. As always, don’t rise to the rebuttal. Remember, we need receptiveness from the other person. It may be wisest to revisit the issue another time. If the behaviour isn’t changing, revisit the consequences and ask again what the person can do. If they aren’t able to provide an answer but seem to be considering your comments, give them some more time. Eventually, if it’s something that really does need to change, make some suggestions to give direction. If all else fails, you may have to resort to speaking to their line manager if it’s important enough. Lastly, if the antagonist is senior to you, it may be that you just don’t win this one. Life isn’t perfect.

“I’ll think about it.” “That’s a good idea – let me think about it.”

Don’t be caught out – this isn’t an acceptable response. You’re not asking them to think about it, you’re asking them to change. If thinking time is a reasonable request, make sure you get a commitment for an update. But be cautious that this isn’t an evasion tactic.

When they say they’re going to do something but don’t.

While this situation can be frustrating, remember that feedback should be a simple, low-key event. It’s never a criticism. Don’t show frustration. Remain dispassionate but attentive. Focus on the behaviour, not the person. The model discussed here still applies.

“When I ask you to do ‘X’ and you say you will but then you don’t, here’s what happens: Not only does ‘X’ happen but there is an additional consequence – I wonder if you’re not going to do what you say you will in other situations?”

If you’re given multiple, different reasons for unchanging behaviour, stand firm but be pleasant. Point out that patterns are what you see and you draw conclusions from them, whatever the reasons you’re given.


Feedback is a series of subtle, small, consistent comments. The more comfortable you are, and the more quickly and easily you can give feedback, the more effective it becomes. Master the simplicity of it and people will soon get used to the way you work. Any awkwardness or trepidation will disappear at that point. Just make sure to keep it light.