Give Feedback Directly

August 19, 2007 | Author: PM Hut | Filed under: Communications Management

Give Feedback Directly
By Johanna Rothman

In my project management class a few weeks ago, I did an activity on feedback. In my experience, many project managers are also functional managers, so they need to give feedback. And, in highly collaborative teams, the person called “manager” isn’t the only one to give and receive feedback.

One team got stuck. One team-member worked with someone with bad breath. As he explained it, “You could tell 10 minutes after this guy was in the room that he’d been there.” This one person’s bad breath was preventing the whole team from working together. In fact, some people asked to be moved off the project. This is a serious problem.

They’d thought of these techniques:

  • Send him an anonymous email to some site that deals with bad breath.
  • Leave Listerine on his desk.

I asked if they couldn’t think of some direct approach to feedback. “Oh, no, I couldn’t do that; it would hurt his feelings,” was the answer. I don’t buy it, and explained my reaction. If someone left me an anonymous email or a mouthwash, I would either assume it wasn’t for me, or that it was a joke. I’m dense enough that I would not link it to my breath. And even if I did assume it was for me, I would be hurt that no one felt that I was a reasonable enough person to have a conversation about it.

Anonymous feedback techniques are not specific. Does the person have bad breath all the time or only after eating a lunch with lots of garlic? The person needs to know.

Here’s the suggestion I made to my student. Make an appointment for a private conversation. Explain that you (the person in my class) has noticed the other person’s bad breath on several (and name them) occasions. And, other people notice the odor enough so that they have asked to not work on the same project with this person. Once the two people agreed on the data, they could move into problem-solving mode. (“Would you like help solving this problem?”)

Note that this follows Esther’s four steps listed in Feedback Traps:

  • Start by creating an opening.
  • Describe the behavior or result without using labels, or evaluations.
  • State the impact using language. No one can argue you out of what you feel.
  • Make a request.

I don’t know the state of this feedback, but it’s clear to me that indirect feedback doesn’t work. Clear and direct feedback does work.

Johanna Rothman consults, speaks, and writes on managing high-technology product development. Johanna is the author of Manage It!’Your Guide to Modern Pragmatic Project Management’. She is the coauthor of the pragmatic Behind Closed Doors, Secrets of Great Management, and author of the highly acclaimed Hiring the Best Knowledge Workers, Techies & Nerds: The Secrets and Science of Hiring Technical People. And, Johanna is a host and session leader at the Amplifying Your Effectiveness (AYE) conference ( You can see Johanna’s other writings at

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