Startup Founders: Give Your Team Feedback Early And Often!

Adam Greenwald
Feb 11, 2016 · 4 min read
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As a startup founder or leader, your day is filled with responsibilities that are equally invigorating and stressful. You’ve got launch targets to meet, investors to please, applicants to interview, and a burn rate to watch. You haven’t had a weekend off in months, and your significant other is starting to forget what you look like.

When life is this hectic, you inevitably have to choose who or what gets your time, and it is but human nature for us to put off the activities that we dread doing. It’s no wonder that many startup leaders procrastinate on giving feedback to their team members.

After all, the last thing you want to do when you’re tired and stressed is to have an emotionally charged conversation with an underperforming employee who is likely as tired and as stressed as you are.

And yet, feedback really matters. Feedback, when given early and often, can make a world of difference not only to the success of your startup but also to the long-term job satisfaction of your employees.

Here are three reasons why you should give feedback early and often:

1. Leaders who give constructive, honest feedback have more engaged teams

In an oft-cited Forbes article from 2013, Joseph Folkman shared findings from a study that showed leaders who excel in providing honest feedback have direct reports who are much more engaged in their jobs.

More engaged employees are more productive, are generally happier, and stay with their employers longer — all outcomes that contribute directly to a startup’s continued success.

2. Small, frequent course corrections are better than a big U-turn

Since giving feedback can be fraught with tension, we tend to procrastinate and end up doing nothing. We convince ourselves that the undesired employee behavior we just witnessed is “really no big deal” or “just a one-time thing.” Unbeknownst to you, however, everyone on your team has been observing your inaction during this particular “one-time” incident, and they’ve jumped to the sad conclusion that such behavior is acceptable in your startup. By doing nothing, you’ve allowed your startup to acquire a new and undesired cultural norm.

You will have far fewer headaches in the long run if you instead take the time to acknowledge the undesired behavior by talking to the concerned employee right away. Be firm but kind when you explain that they’ve not met your expectations.

Don’t wait until the problem has persisted for months (or until several disgruntled team members have come to you with complaints!) before intervening.

Otherwise, your employee will be justifiably surprised that this is now a big deal when you’ve never said anything before. And in the meantime, your inaction has allowed tension to grow between team members and will have steadily eroded your team’s productivity.

3. Giving feedback is a skill and, as with any skill, you get better with practice

The first feedback conversation will always be tough, but there is no shortage of resources that offer specific frameworks for providing feedback. Study these frameworks, use them often, and you’ll find yourself feeling less stressed as you gain confidence and become more effective at giving feedback.

One such helpful framework is the D.E.S.C. Feedback Model, which suggests breaking down the feedback conversation into four discrete steps:

  • D — Description. Describe the behavior that you observed. Stick to the facts, avoid interpretations, and do not pronounce judgments on the person’s character. For example: “You had committed that you would finish deliverable X on or before Monday, but it was not done on time.” Avoid: “You are so unreliable. How could you have failed to deliver by the committed target date?”
  • E- Effect. State the effect of this behavior. For example: “Our designers were counting on getting deliverable X from you on Monday because we need to get our final product to the client by Tuesday. Now we won’t get it done in time.” This step helps the employee understand the impact of his behavior.
  • S — Solution. Propose a solution by specifying the desired behavior. For example: “If you know that you’re likely to miss a deadline, please tell me right away. Don’t try to hide the problem until it’s too late. I could have helped you with this last Thursday or Friday if I had known you were having this much trouble.”
  • C — Conclusion / Commitments. End the conversation by agreeing on how future incidents will be prevented. For example: “Going forward, I will check in with you midway so you can give me a heads up. And I will count on you to give me advance warning if it’s starting to look like we’ll slip behind schedule.”

If giving your startup employees feedback sounds like more unpleasant work thrown onto your already overflowing plate, just keep this in mind:

Doing nothing now may relieve you of some short-term stress, but you will end up having to pay a much bigger price when the problem persists and starts creating issues between your team members.

As the old adage goes, a stitch in time saves nine. Deliver the feedback early and often, and you’ll reap the benefits by having more engaged employees, reducing employee turnover, and fostering a healthier startup culture.

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