Turn critical feedback into growth opportunities

Facebook's Julie Zhuo wrote the book—literally—on the making of a manager. Her key insight: Feedback is crucial

Shortly after she turned 25, Julie Zhuo became a manager for the first time. This was at Facebook, where she started as the social network’s very first intern 13 years ago, and where she still works as vice president of design.

Zhuo admits that in her earliest days of leadership, she had no idea what she was doing. “When teams grow rapidly, there’s a lot of opportunities for leadership,” she says. “But it’s not usually the thing that [startups] are focused on because we’re figuring out what we can do to keep things running.”

As Zhuo grew as a manager, uncertainty followed. So she took matters into her own hands, recording her musings on her blog, The Year of the Looking Glass, which she began as an act of self-reflection. It struck a chord—week after week, her most popular articles were on the topic of being a first-time leader.

In her new book, The Making of a Manager, Zhuo crafted the field guide she wished she had had after that first promotion nearly a decade ago.

Initially, one of the managerial responsibilities Zhuo most struggled with was giving feedback—especially critical feedback, given that many of her new reports were once her direct peers. But constructive criticism, while challenging to give and receive, is a gift. Zhuo is so devoted to feedback, in fact, that a whole chapter of her book (Chapter 5: “The Art of Feedback”) is based on it.

At a recent event at WeWork 315 W 36th St in New York City, Zhuo spoke about how employers can give more caring and productive feedback that leads to positive action. Below, Zhuo discusses four steps managers can take to maximize their critical feedback—even if it is really, really critical.

Julie Zhuo was prompted to write The Making of a Manager after becoming a first-time manager at 25 and feeling unconfident in her leadership skills. Photographs by Lori Gutman

Step 1: Establish a baseline of trust with your reports. Well before a situation arises, make it clear to your team that you’re their coach and their ally. In the first three months of your tenure, carve out standing one-on-one meeting time to get to probing questions like, What do you really care about? In three years, assume you had your dream job—what does it look like? What are the things you’re scared of or nervous about? By establishing an honest relationship right off the bat, you can set the tone for potentially more difficult conversations in the future.

“Sometimes it takes a little time to develop the trust,” Zhuo says. “But it starts by asking those questions to truly try to understand someone and have them understand you, too, because you’re not going to get that much honesty and vulnerability if they’re not getting any of that in return. It is a two-way street, and I think the first three months is really about building that relationship.”

In her current role (she leads the team responsible for the design of the Facebook app), Zhuo blocks out one day a week for one-on-one sit-downs. These discussions shouldn’t be viewed as meetings for managers to get status updates, she says, but rather focused on the report (who, by the way, should walk away from the conversation thinking it was a great use of their time).

Step 2: Remind yourself why this matters. “I’ve read thousands of reviews people have written about their managers over the years, and I can assure you that, by far, the No. 1 ask is, ‘I wish my manager would give me more feedback,’” says Zhuo. However, feedback only counts if it makes things better, so the onus is on you as a manager to develop a practice that’s going to benefit both of you.

“People don’t like to be surprised,” she says. “A lot of our doubt might come from that lack of alignment between how other people see us and how we want to be seen. Just knowing the truth is a lot more grounding than having someone wonder all the time.”

Outside of one-on-ones, commit to what Zhuo calls “task-specific feedback,” or objective comments meant to help people do specific activities better. Our behavior changes when someone acknowledges that we’re doing something well; psychologically, encouragement prompts us to stretch ourselves even more. Give task-specific feedback to all your reports, and give it often.

“I’ve read thousands of reviews people have written about their managers over the years, and I can assure you that, by far, the No. 1 ask is, ‘I wish my manager would give me more feedback,'” says Zhuo.

Step 3: Tell it straight. So the moment has come—it’s time for you to confront an issue with one of your reports. No matter the circumstance, avoid “compliment sandwiches,” or starting and ending your feedback with praise with the criticism wedged somewhere in the middle.

“Say the news as plainly as possible so there are no misinterpretations,” says Zhuo. “It’s just harder for someone to understand what the actual message is. If you want to tell someone something you know is going to be disappointing to them, just tell it directly to them. It is a sign of respect.”

Zhuo offers the following template: “When you <XYZ>, I felt <concerned/disappointed/upset> because <ABC>. I wanted to bring this up with you to understand your perspective and see what we can do work through it.” If you’ve done the first two steps, your reports will see you as their partner, not a bully. “It’s important for us to recognize why, sometimes, we should put ourselves in that uncomfortable position. It’s meant to help somebody else,” she says.

Step 4: Remain curious about the other perspective. To prevent your feedback from coming across as an accusation, engage in your report’s response and encourage a discussion. Zhuo says it’s always helpful to end your criticism with a check-in, like, “Does that resonate with you?” If your report says yes, that’s great—they’re acknowledging it, and you’re already on the same page. But if they say no, that’s OK, too, because you’re not delivering a verdict, rendering their points moot.

“Now they have a chance to tell you how they feel—why they have a different perspective or why you might be the one who’s misinterpreting right and wrong,” she says. Start with the phrase, “I want to understand your perspective and I want to see what we can do to work together,” and go from there. “You want them to know you’re doing this because you care about them.”

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