How to handle negative surprise feedback?

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Anonymous User at Taro Community2 months ago

I've been working as a Sr Fullstack Engineer for 2 years at a Series B startup. I've never received negative feedback, actually, I thought everything was fine until last week. My manager told me that I need to improve my Problem-Solving skills and ask better questions, she kind of implies that I'm a candidate for starting a PiP.

I agree that I struggled in the last 2 months (they switched me to a new project where I'm the only engineer and my manager only has 20% of her time for me), it's been super challenging but I'm trying to make it work. That means that I'm putting in more hours than I should frequently, and I'm starting to feel demotivated and depressed.

Honestly, this feedback took me by surprise, as no one told me anything about my performance during the last two months, I thought that even when I was struggling, they were fine with it because it's a new project and I'm basically on my own and no one is there that I can reach out to for help.

  • I have ~6 years of experience and I come from a non-traditional background.
  • Her feedback is vague, she says that I need to improve my backend skills, but she hasn't told me exactly what's lacking. "backend" is a big word.
  • My manager told me that I should think about how to get better and that is on me to come up with an improvement plan. This feels wrong to me, isn't that her job as a manager? how can I create a plan for myself when I don't know what she wants to see from me?

How can I better navigate this? Should I start looking for a new job? I like my job and it would be sad to leave.

What do you think?

thanks.

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(2 comments)
  • Profile picture
    Tech Lead/Manager at Meta, Pinterest, Kosei
    2 months ago

    Sorry to hear you were surprised by the negative feedback, that never feels good 😭

    The good news: you're not on a PIP and you have a 2 year history at the company. So you definitely have not been written off. The best thing you can do now is show that you're receptive to the feedback and act on it.

    I talk about being a "feedback sponge" for a portion of this video (starting at 0:54): https://youtu.be/Rzl3_5hcnwI?t=54. Summary here:

    • Write down the feedback. This lets you reflect on what you heard, and also shows you're serious about it (assuming you have some shared doc with your manager). More on a shared 1:1 doc here.
    • Address the concern quickly. Better to over correct rather than under correct.
    • Follow up. After a few weeks, proactively bring up the concern that was surfaced, and ask what else you could be doing.
    • Finally, this is more on the topic of prevention, but going forward, I'd ask very pointed questions about how you're doing. Don't just ask "How am I doing?", ask questions like "I feel like I was slow to ramp up on this project. Do you agree, and what could I do better?" (More here)
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    Tech Lead, Manager at Google
    2 months ago

    First, take a deep breath! Once This is largely positive news, especially if you goals are to grow. But I understand that it never feels good to receive feedback, no matter how well intentioned (I myself feel the same way). Ones we don't see coming can be especially helpful, because it might help us identify our own blindspots.

    My main advice to you is to dig deeper into this piece of feedback. I agree w/ you that her feedback is vague (or a least, your understanding of it is). Best pieces of feedback are specific - they sound like "In this situation, you did x and y, and that result in this suboptimal result, and if you thought about A and did B instead it would've had this positive impact", etc. I would try to figure out answers to the following questions with your manager or your peers, in no particular order:

    • Is this a developmental feedback or a performance feedback? (developmental = you are doing fine but you can optionally do even better; performance feedback = you are not doing fine and continuing this trend will result you in a PIP). You said she suggested the latter, but I would make certain which one of these it is.
    • What specific actions, behaviors, or context made her feel like you need to improve on problem solving and asking better questions? The more specifically you can understand this the better. What is that you didn't ask enough questions at a specific junction of the project or meeting? Or is it you asked the wrong questions?
    • Is the problem a one-time thing, or is it a pattern? Perhaps, she's been thinking to tell you this for sometime, but couldn't find a good reason? This will help you understand the magnitude of problem.
    • Is this feedback coming from her or is she a conduit for someone else's feedback? If this is her feedback, you could for example ask peers in similar context to see whether they share her assessment.

    Ultimately, for you to take actions and actually grow, you need to understand where the problem is and it's not clear to me that your manager or you have discussed this in detail.

    A couple of tangential thoughts on what you shared with us:

    ...that is on me to come up with an improvement plan. This feels wrong to me, isn't that her job as a manager?

    ...And it's also the employee's job to own their own career growth. Look, your manager can help you grow and coach you up, but this is at least a 50-50 relationship where both parties need to uphold their end of the bargain. I think if you don't do it, your manager will eventually come up with a plan; you just might not like that plan. I know I would rather follow my own plan if given the choice.

    Lastly, I would ask you to be empathetic to your manager - it's very hard to give feedback well, and it doesn't sound this one went well. But it's much, much better getting a piece of feedback earlier when you still can do something about it rather than late, say after a project is completed. So maybe at least give her credit for that?

    That means that I'm putting in more hours than I should frequently, and I'm starting to feel demotivated and depressed.

    What are your personal motivations for taking on this project in the first place? And maybe, just maybe, this project isn't a good fit for you, and given you've done well (?) in the team for the last two years, you just need to find a new project? Maybe a vacation would help with a reset? In any case, don't underestimate the effect of not taking care of your motivation, energy, and mental health can have on your work and personal life.

    Thanks for sharing your situation with us - I think this is a common situation we will all run into at some point in our careers!

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