Hi everone, long time direct and first time manager here. 

I recently listened to the "There is no why in feedback" cast and was relieved when I found out the why they were referring to was not the why I thought it was. Their explanation of how intent was not required or particularly important in discussing feedback made sense to me and isn't the point of this post.

What I wanted to know though is how appropriate it is when discussing feedback for directs to ask why the behaviour or outcome being discussed is important.

I ask because in the past I have gotten negative respones from managers when I asked them to explain why particular behaviours or outcomes they wanted were important. It got to the point of me actually being reprimanded at one point for this, and was told I should "trust that our processes are there for a good reason instead of questioning them." This certainly made me stop asking (though it also made me less confident in the organisation). I am at a new organisation now and just started managing. My general impulse is to want to explain why we do things the way we do because I think understanding the importance of specific behaviours/outcomes encourages staff to value them and to raise ideas for improvement. 


jrb3's picture
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... yet it's not part of the *feedback*.  Get the agreement to do better, then follow up with any (preferably short) conversations to understand the purpose.

In that *clearly separate* conversation, I often use "so I can do this and similar stuff better, fill me in on what I'm missing ..." -- then some phrase to get to the heart of what I anticipate would make my behavior better next time.

  • how does this fit into the larger work-flow
  • what value is most important here for me to express
  • why doing it in this way, rather than this other way which I think is an improvement because ...
  • why is this on my plate, instead of on David's -- I think it fits there better because ...

Emphasis in this conversation is "fill me in on what I'm missing".

Chris Zeller's picture
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Hi chaserv,


This sounds like the middleman test to me: what your direct reports want from you is probably the same thing that you want from your boss.

And I'm right there with you in the "context matters" camp. I agree that linking day-to-day activities to the higher-level mission and ongoing initiatives is generally a good thing to do. For many people, it helps build and shore up the fundamental trust that everything else is built upon.

That said, it does have the potential to derail and prolong an instance in which you're giving feedback. And that's ineffective.


Therefore, I think that the solution is to fold the context that you're looking to address into the "impact" portion (Step 3) of the feedback model.

You can do that by engaging in a little pre-work/parallel work: framing out and publicly posting the key initiatives/goals/metrics/norms/expectations/behaviors/etc. that are important for your organization or your team. It doesn't matter if they come down from the top or if they're part of the bottom-up norms that the team develops.


Let's say that the quarterly initiatives are:

1. Improve the % of repeat customers from 12% to 16%

2. Reduce response time for level 1 trouble tickets from 48 hours to 24 hours

3. Achieve 98% audit compliance

Having established the "important" stuff in a team meeting and reinforced it in O3s and other interactions, you can link the feedback that you give to one of those important things:

How it Might Sound

"Hey Joe, can I give you some feedback? When you tell the customer that the mistake is '100% on them,' it makes the conversation adversarial and reduces the chances that they'll buy a second time. Can you do that differently next time?"


"Hey Janet, can I give you some feedback? When you stayed late to finish out Sam's shift after they went home sick yesterday, we were able to keep all of the trouble tickets from rolling over to today. Thanks for the extra effort; keep it up."


You wind up delivering succint feedback on behavior that is directly aimed at what is known to be relevant and important to the team and the organization without going off on an explanatory tangent.

Don't Forget

Also, realize that not everyone is going to care as much about the context piece of things. And as long as the feedback is well-received and the behavior is effective, it really doesn't matter. You'll discover who's who as you conduct O3s and learn more about your people.


chaserv's picture

Appreciate the responses. In particular is was helpful hearing

*Why can be helpful, but it is not the feedback: Seperating the two in my mind makes a lot of sense. I could imagine getting bogged down in a long conversation about the value of a process which could distract from simple clear feedback. I'll keep that in mind. Having the conversation seperately probably also helps avoid me coming off as defending doing the wrong thing.

*Not everyone is going to care as much: I really hadn't thought about this but it is true. I think I seem to focus more on that while plenty of my directs are happy to follow processes without too much reflection on whether they actually matter. Questioning often only happens from people when it is something they would rather not do. 

*The middleman test: I had not heard about the concept before but I like it. This came up recently when I was reviewing annual work goals (org policy) with each of my directs and realised I didn't have any goals set up with my manager. Raising this in a thoughtful way ended up being pretty helpful.