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Giving employee feedback in tech

Published: July 21, 2022

When it comes to the developer experience, how you give feedback is as important as the metrics you’re delivering.

Editor’s note: This article was co-written with Cat Hicks, VP of Research Insights for Pluralsight Flow.


Regardless of how you slice, dice, or break down the concepts of team health and the holistic approach to your technologists’ experiences, there’s no denying that success is directly tied to performance. There’s been a great deal of research (by the Pluralsight Flow team and countless others) on what successful performance metrics look like, but giving feedback about those metrics to your teams, ideal candidates, or colleagues is an ongoing challenge.

Research has found that some of our conventional feedback language around achievement and performance can accidentally send messages that discourage long-term learning and psychological safety. How we communicate matters.

Certain terms, such as “rock star” and “genius,” can feel discouraging to those who may not learn at the same pace or have the same learning opportunities. This is especially true in careers seen as less welcoming to all types of people, such as STEM fields. In a large-scale research project across 78 countries, researchers found that we associate words like “brilliance” with gendered stereotypes. These associations have real-world implications: When you use these words in job ads, fewer women apply to these roles. 


Why what we say matters

Providing effective feedback to your employees or coworkers is difficult. As mentioned, some words have connotations we may not have considered, even if we mean well when using them. The majority of conversations revolving around feedback fail to produce change. In many situations, they can discourage learning rather than encourage it because we fail to use the most valuable types of feedback: process feedback, providing space for reflection, and collaboratively diagnosing problems.

Simple changes to the feedback language we use can have a massive impact on how supported people feel. While there may not be a single rule you should follow in every feedback situation, following these research-based best practices will improve your communication.


Giving effective employee feedback

Of Mice and Men taught us that even the best-laid plans often go awry, and this rings true for feedback communication as well. You start off with the best intentions, but if you don’t pay attention to what you say, the result can be detrimental to your employee and overall team productivity. Changing the feedback language around performance can be a useful tool to promote better outcomes and foster a more supportive culture. 

Use action-focused language to talk about performance

The belief that we are born with a certain level of ability, and that an ability does not change, is known as a fixed mindset. Having a fixed mindset about ability can deter learning and dampen creativity and motivation. The alternative is a growth mindset—the belief that effort matters in building new skills. 

Encouraging a growth mindset correlates with higher levels of psychological safety and improved collaboration and innovation. You can align your feedback with a growth mindset by recognizing the actions and practices that drive improved outcomes. Consider using phrases like “loves to learn” instead of “genius.” Describe the experiences and activities that drive the ability rather than using vague words like “expert.”


Elevate mistakes as learning opportunities 

Notice and emphasize how people learn over time, not just how people perform in one-off projects. Making mistakes is a critical part of learning. But when people believe mistakes are a sign that they lack the skills for their work, even high performers become discouraged and lose resiliency.

Mistakes happen at every level, from junior developers to senior members of your teams.Take into account how people respond to mistakes—employees will respond differently. Research shows that expert software engineers are more likely than beginners to systematically use errors as a way to find a solution. However, this differs from person to person, which means leaders should always focus on encouraging a curious attitude towards mistakes. 

Avoid treating mistakes as proof of inability. Use language that highlights how skills change over time. Share stories about personal growth from mistakes and the unexpected insights that resulted from those experiences.


Use “effort praise” to encourage motivation and avoid unintentional gatekeeping 

Avoid using language that implies only a certain type of person is capable of a certain kind of work. Negative messages about ability can sneak into praise without realizing it. When we say someone’s a “natural,” we may think we’re being complimentary, but it can cause coworkers to wonder why they aren’t considered the same and result in imposter syndrome for the employee. 

Research has found that “ability praise” can dampen motivation and create performance anxiety, while “effort praise” helps people feel motivated and see progress. As an alternative to saying someone is a “type of” person, consider validating underappreciated evidence of skills and potential.

  • Do this: “Way to make that project happen in such a short timeframe. You must have worked really hard.”

  • Avoid this: “Way to make that project happen in such a short timeframe. You’re a genius.”

Emphasize effort instead of identities. Point out how skills might be transferable to other areas and acknowledge the role of collaboration between different areas of work.

Team health and performance feedback

While it may seem like a small change to adjust how you provide performance feedback, it can have massive results on overall team health and performance. Mindfulness in communication drives increased self-worth and a stronger sense of belonging in employees, which increases collaboration. Team members feel more confident providing feedback to others as they work together on projects and daily tasks.

Culture is built through collaboration. The better your team collaborates, the more efficient your product delivery cycle. 

When you look at the big picture—just like tracking the code for a new feature from concept to production—you’ll see how improving language around performance holistically drives overall team health.