Opinions Are Not Feedback (at Least Not as a Manager)
Sticking to the facts makes your life way easier
Back in 2019, a colleague came to me with a dilemma. I was working at Ubisoft in Paris, and my colleague was in the midst of recruiting a new teammate. Part of our recruitment process required candidates to complete a case study—and I remembered mine well. It was three hours long and of all times, someone in my apartment complex decided to have a go at playing the trumpet. (Other than the violin, I can’t fathom a worse instrument to endure for amateur hours.) I felt like Simon Cowell sitting at my computer on an otherwise beautiful day radiating with judgement about the trumpet player whose breathing sounded as reliable as a stalled car (with the occasional backfire). “Why now?” I thought.
But back to my colleague’s problem. She’d recently had her front runner complete a case study and now it was time to give them feedback—and ultimately, decide whether or not to hire them. That’s where things got tricky.
The role in question was program and events-related. So things like creating graphics and other captivating communications were critical aspects. With that in mind, the candidate was tasked with creating a PowerPoint presentation to announce a new program in a handful of slides. Key information had been provided in the case study guidelines. So it was an exercise geared toward understanding how candidates combined their creative flare with their organization and communication skills to present information in a way that was both clear and engaging.
But my colleague was stunned by how bad the presentation turned out. Though it was clear this candidate was not suited for the role, my colleague was at a loss for where to start with feedback as to why. So she turned to me to get my thoughts.
At first, I thought my colleague was pranking me. The slides were a blinding blue that looked like it’d been pulled from a ‘90s computer pallet, and the candidate had peppered the slides with cartoon ghosts that resembled old-school clip art (and bore no connection to the program they were advertising). On top of that, the text was barely legible based on an odd variety of fonts they had used. It was, as my Australian friends would say, “hectic.”
My colleague and I sat staring at her screen in silence. Eventually, we pried our eyes away from the wreckage and exhaled deeply. But aside from validating her assessment that the candidate was not fit for the role, and empathizing with her struggle with how to relay that in a kind yet honest way, I had nothing else to offer.
In the end, she worked out how to handle it with the recruiter assigned to her team. They determined since they weren’t offering the candidate the role, it was best to keep feedback minimal and mostly positive, so they could send the candidate on their way without risking any backlash. I forgot about the whole thing shortly afterwards.
But then a few months later, the memory came back like a boomerang. And I wish I’d known then what I’m about to tell you now.
“Opinions are not feedback.” At least not in the context of a manager-and-direct-report dynamic. That was my key takeaway from a workshop I did on how to give feedback as a manager a few months after the PowerPoint case study fiasco. Ubisoft was on a mission to create a “feedback culture” in which we did a better job of acknowledging positive performance and course-correcting anything less. The goal was to implement universal best practices that made it easier for everyone—especially managers—to do so. And it was through that training session, that I learned the superpower of what I now call “fact-based feedback.”
Fact-based feedback is a concept that eliminates unconstructive emotional baggage you may otherwise pile onto your messaging when providing feedback (even if you don’t mean to). That means eliminating “feedback” that begins with the following precursors:
“I don’t like…
(This list is non-exhaustive, but you get the gist.)
As a manager, learning to spot the difference between opinions and feedback makes a huge difference in how you propel your teammates forward. Here are a couple of examples.
During the training session, the instructor paired us up for a variety of role-playing exercises. (Quick side note: from a teaching standpoint, role-playing is one of the best uses of people’s time during in-person or online workshops because it allows them to practice soft skills development in a psychologically safe space).
In the first scenario, two of my colleagues role-played a manager giving feedback to a direct report on… wait for it… a hideous PowerPoint presentation. The irony, right? Naturally, I was fascinated to see how this would play out. My colleague role-playing the manager was known to be blunt so to no one’s surprise she began giving “feedback” to her “teammate” by saying point blankly, “I don’t like this.”
After letting her flounder for a few minutes as she tried to work out what else to say—all the while I was empathizing with her struggle based on my failure to help that other colleague with a similar dilemma a few months prior—the instructor eventually swooped in. After applauding everyone’s effort (which is vital during role-play scenarios as they're meant to be positive learning experiences rooted in psychological safety), the instructor unveiled the game-changing concept of fact-based feedback.
He asked the colleague who’d role-played the manager how she would assess a job well done. Her immediate response was, “First of all, presentations need to respect Ubisoft’s branding guidelines.” Ubisoft’s branding guidelines, of course.
That’s when it hit me that the colleague who had come to me a few months prior at a loss for how to offer feedback on the candidate’s poorly constructed PowerPoint could have saved herself hours of agonizing over “where to start with feedback” had she known to set her opinions aside and leverage fact-based feedback. She could have explained that our company has a distinct brand and the presentation the candidate prepared bore no resemblance to it (in an empathetic way, of course). From there, she could have pinpointed specifics. For example, she could’ve said something like:
“Thank you for taking the time to complete the assignment. We see it as a vital exercise for both us, as the company, and you, as a candidate, to assess our fit. That said, unfortunately, we don’t see a fit in this case. But we appreciate your time and effort and would be happy to provide feedback as to what we were looking for should you find it helpful.
I want to emphasize that your effort in completing the assignment did not go unnoticed. We recognize the dedication and thoughtfulness you put into the task, and it's clear that you have valuable skills and experiences. However, in our evaluation process, we must consider a variety of factors, and we have determined that our current needs and expectations don’t align as closely as we had hoped.”
Assuming the candidate opted for feedback, my colleague could have gotten specific:
“While we appreciate your creativity in making the PowerPoint unique, we had anticipated candidates would have a clearer understanding of our brand and use that knowledge to guide their presentation. As we do have strict branding guidelines, even internally. Secondly, a big part of success in this role is contingent on conveying information such as dates and logistics clearly. And we found the mixed fonts and varying formats from slide to slide created barriers to that end.”
That would be a far more grounded and respectable response than saying something like, “I don’t like X or Y” and “I feel like Z,” which is far more subjective and raises questions about the merit of the claims.
Now, the second scenario is where things got really interesting (and no, I’m not just saying that because I was involved in it). The next scenario forced us to reckon with our cultural biases and work on overcoming limiting behaviours that stemmed from them.
Canada & The US Versus France
The instructor told me before the session that he’d been training Ubisoft teams across North America and Europe and his findings were this:
“Generally speaking, people in Canada and the US are great at showing enthusiasm and acknowledging positive performance, but they tend to dance around constructive feedback in comparison to people in France. French people are far more direct, but they have their own Achilles’ heel in that they rarely offer praise or enthusiasm for a job well done.”
Based on how blunt my French colleague was in the first scenario about declaring what she didn’t like off the bat—not to mention having observed these patterns for myself in working on either side of the Atlantic—I can confirm the instructor’s general observation to be true. And if that weren’t enough, I reaffirmed it with a stereotypical performance of my own.
When it was my turn to play the manager in a scenario involving a new hire fresh out of university who was mostly performing well but needed constructive feedback on how to manage their project more effectively, I was ready to nail my fact-based feedback by drawing on our company framework. But, true to my Canadian-ingrained fear of hurting someone’s feelings—and the added risk of crushing a new graduate’s spirit—I massively overcompensated by complimenting my fake intern profusely before getting to the gist.
The instructor astutely pointed out that the more excessively I laid on the compliments, the more dramatic I was making what could otherwise be a drama-free teaching moment. So I redid the scenario. This time I said less and was more direct. I stuck to my key points around what they were doing well, followed by what I recommended they work on and how. I gave them the tools (ex. the project management framework) they needed, reminded them I was there to support them if they had any questions or blockages, and that was that. Simple and effective (without all the overthinking and overcompensating I was prone to doing in the past). Phew.
Opinions aren’t feedback—at least not in the context of delivering top-down feedback. You have to ground feedback in facts. Give it legs to stand on. And make it easy for recipients to walk it forward in the name of improvement.
I often wonder how that doomed candidate with the bad PowerPoint might have fared differently had someone had the presence of mind to offer fact-based feedback, rather than immediately hit the “game over” button on their candidacy. While you don’t want to hire someone you assess would need more than a reasonable amount of guidance and feedback from you as a manager, you also want to make sure your case study for recruitment purposes is well structured so people don’t waste their time and yours going completely off the rails.
But regardless of whether you’re dealing with a case study or a typical day at the office, facts trump opinions when it comes to managing others (and per my own hard-earned lesson, sticking to the facts makes your life way easier).
Thanks for reading and have a wonder-full week,
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