Overcoming the Challenges of Giving Tough Feedback to Engineers: A Guide for Engineering Managers

by Milan Savov

14 min read

Giving and receiving feedback is one of the essential skills for an engineering team to thrive. It helps with identifying weaknesses, improving skills, and delivering quality work. Still, the art of giving and receiving feedback in engineering teams can be challenging, especially when dealing with specific and complex tasks in larger companies. 

By overcoming these challenges, engineering managers can enhance the way they give and receive feedback within their engineering team. This approach fosters a more relaxed and comfortable work environment characterized by professionalism and mutual understanding. Such a positive atmosphere not only alleviates stress and fear but also significantly contributes to the improved performance and quality of the team's output.

In this article, I'll share my knowledge of how engineering managers can effectively communicate constructive feedback, all while maintaining a healthy team dynamic. 

By the end of this post, you'll be equipped with the tools necessary to navigate the complexities of feedback in engineering teams and ultimately create a more productive, innovative, and harmonious workplace.

Common Myths and Misconceptions About Feedback

In this chapter, I'll address some of the most common myths and misconceptions I have faced with my team or clients.

Myth #1: Feedback is always negative.

Fact: Feedback needs to be given in both positive and negative situations. Positive feedback motivates the employees, while negative can help them address their weaknesses and areas for improvement. 

Myth #2: Feedback should be given immediately.

Fact: It takes time to draft constructive feedback. Still, if you know what to say, you can give it directly and in the moment, or directly and later, or indirectly, no matter now or later. Make sure you consider the recipient's personality when deciding when and how to give them feedback. 

Myth #3: Feedback is always focused on the person. 

Fact: Put the focus on a specific behavior or situation you expect to see change. Any other way can be received as a personal attack. 

Myth #4: Feedback should be given sparingly.

Fact: Regular feedback helps the employees in your engineering team to learn and grow. 

Benefits of Giving Feedback and Potential Drawbacks of Avoiding Tough Feedback

Feedback is not necessarily a critical opinion or advice on one's skills, behavior, and performance. When it's effective, it brings a lot of benefits to the engineering teams while boosting their motivation and morale. Additionally, it's critical for building and managing a winning engineering team, as it helps shape a culture of continuous improvement and collaboration.

So, when given properly, feedback brings these benefits:

  • Improved code or product quality: Engineers will identify and correct the mistakes and deliver a quality product with little to no bugs at all. 
  • Better team collaboration: Feedback helps you understand the team, let them understand you, and teach the employees how to understand each other, which can lead to improved collaboration and efficient workflow.
  • Increased employee engagement: When employees feel valued and motivated to improve their skills, they're more likely to be engaged in their work. 
  • Improved employee retention: You build a positive and supportive environment, creating an image of a great workplace. 

If you don't provide feedback promptly, your project or product might suffer. An engineer's unchecked behavior or performance can disrupt the entire workflow. Additionally, if you overlook mistakes, the team might perceive this as acceptance of poor conduct, potentially leading them to adopt similar behaviors. Timely feedback can prevent such complications and maintain high standards in your team.

While there are a number of potential drawbacks, let's mention some of them:

  • Reduced employee performance: Team members aren't completely aware of their weaknesses or areas for improvement.
  • More errors to fix: Employees who don't receive feedback are more likely to make mistakes, which can affect the overall productivity and product quality.
  • Decreased employee morale: Those who don't receive feedback, no matter if they do well or not so well, can become frustrated and disengaged. 
  • Impaired team collaboration: With no effective feedback, engineering teams may have a hard time understanding each other and adapting to the company's culture.

All these drawbacks may result in delayed project timelines, as you need more time to fix the issues. Also, the code quality may be questionable, with plenty of bugs and defects that affect the performance.

In some cases, it can lead to frustration and workplace conflicts, which additionally decreases productivity. Ultimately, all these drawbacks will prevent you from maintaining a high-performing team. However, effective feedback can play a crucial role in resolving conflicts. By addressing issues early on, it can help prevent escalation and support maintaining a high-performing team.

Main Challenges and How to Overcome Them

In this section, we'll explore the key challenges faced by engineering team leads when giving and receiving feedback. More importantly, you'll learn effective strategies to overcome these obstacles. 

As a leader, your role in managing people and delivering results is crucial, and how you handle feedback plays a significant part in this. While quick comments or messages might seem efficient, preparing and understanding the complexities involved in feedback is vital. This part of the article will guide you through this process and equip you with the necessary tools to tackle these challenges head-on and become an effective engineering manager.

Challenge #1: Fear of Offending Others

Providing feedback becomes challenging when there's a fear of negative reception and reaction. Engineering team leads often need to work on addressing sensitive topics like improvement of technical skills, code quality, or even one's performance, as it may trigger defensiveness and cause team disruption. 

But what factors may contribute to this?

  • Lack of feedback culture: You and your team aren't used to the concept of feedback. The first thing you need to do is to establish this culture and encourage engineers to be open to sharing their thoughts. 
  • Uncertainty and fear of negative reactions: Defensiveness, anger, and rejection can deter the team lead from providing feedback. Also, no reaction at all leaves everyone unsure about the effectiveness of the feedback. 
  • Damaging professional relationships: Avoiding feedback just because someone can leave or procrastinate is not effective for anyone. At work, productivity and results are a top priority. 

How to Overcome the Challenge:

  • Constructive approach: Frame feedback in a constructive manner, focusing on improvement rather than criticism. Criticism can cause aversion and negativity, and no one wants that in an engineering team. 
  • Empathetic communication: Use empathetic language to convey understanding and respect for the engineer's perspective. Empathy creates a more friendly environment for feedback, lowering the chances of misunderstanding and miscommunication.
  • Focus on the issue, not the person: Ensure feedback is about specific issues or behaviors, not personal attributes. When addressing personality, you can hurt the people you appreciate. Feedback is not for hurting - just the opposite - to resolve small issues before they grow into problems.
  • Active listening and mutual respect: By maintaining mutual respect and a supportive tone, you can ensure your employees won't receive feedback that's negative. Active listening also gives you an advantage because you acknowledge the team's concerns and worries.
  • Seek feedback on feedback: Invite the person who received feedback to give you feedback. That way, you enhance this method's effectiveness while creating a supportive and understanding environment.

Challenge #2: Lack of Time or Resources

Engineering teams often work on a tight schedule. Sometimes, they need to perform quick fixes or work on unplanned tasks for days. So, constructive feedback often falls by the wayside. The team lead doesn't want to distract the team, while engineers may not have enough focus to receive the feedback as it was meant. 

How to Overcome the Challenge:

  • Scheduled feedback sessions: Integrate regular, scheduled feedback sessions into the workflow. Make them a regular part of your team meetings, daily reflections, or one-on-one meetings. The more comfortable you all get, the easier it becomes to embrace the feedback instead of avoiding it. 
  • Leverage tools and resources: Employ feedback and collaboration tools to streamline the process. Consider using platforms like Jira for task tracking, GitHub for code review feedback, and Confluence for documentation and team collaboration. Incorporating survey tools like SurveyMonkey or Google Forms can provide insights into team dynamics. Use educational platforms like Pluralsight or Udemy for shared learning resources to enhance the team’s receptiveness to feedback and continuous learning. Discover more tools in our guide for running engineering teams.
  • Feedback training: Invest in training for managers to deliver efficient and effective feedback. After that, schedule an internal training to let the team know they're also able to give feedback to you or another coworker when needed.
  • Make it part of the regular schedule: Practice the art of feedback as part of the regular task assignment. Make it a habit so the busy schedule won't stop anyone from giving and receiving feedback.

Challenge #3: Unclear Expectations

Effective feedback is a cornerstone for both personal and professional growth. However, it can become counterproductive if it leaves the recipient feeling confused, frustrated, or demotivated. This issue often arises when an engineering team leader lacks experience in cultivating a robust feedback culture.

How to Overcome the Challenge:

  • Clear and specific recommendations: Provide specific, actionable recommendations with clear expectations. Be concise, and try to explain every detail included in your feedback.
  • Goal-oriented feedback: Align feedback with team and individual goals (like, for example, OKRs) to provide direction and purpose. Explain to the engineering team what the purpose of the feedback session is, and highlight the fact that it's about the goals and accomplishments, not personality quirks.
  • Follow-up plans: Include a follow-up plan to ensure understanding and track progress. That way, the team is more focused on improving the behavior or performance.
  • Seek clarification: Ask the feedback recipient (the whole team or individual) if they understand the feedback. Leave some space for additional questions. Schedule another session if the recipient needs more information.

Challenge #4: Personal Biases

Personal biases, preconceptions, and prejudices can impact the feedback process. At this point, no one needs distorting perceptions to influence the evaluation. Still, engineering team leads are also people with feelings, so the biases can come from personal experiences, similarities with the recipient, cultural and societal norms, and simply from individual perceptions of the person. 

How to Overcome the Challenge:

  • Self-awareness and training: Encourage self-awareness and training to recognize and mitigate personal biases. Try to deal with them before facing the team or the individual for feedback.
  • Peer review of feedback: Use peer reviews to ensure feedback is fair and unbiased. Don't rely only on your perception or the impression a person leaves on you. Try to analyze different perspectives to make the feedback useful, not hurtful.
  • Open dialogue: Foster an environment where feedback can be discussed openly, allowing for different perspectives. That way, a person won't feel judged for their acts. Just the opposite, you can motivate them to quickly resolve the issues and get back on track.

Challenge #5: Timing and Delivery of Feedback

The timing and delivery are crucial for effective feedback. Choosing the wrong moment can make the recipient feel overwhelmed and disengaged. While timely feedback is essential, it doesn't mean any time is a good time. 

How to Overcome the Challenge:

  • Assessing the right moment: Learn to assess the situation to determine the most appropriate time for feedback. The ideal time is not always the immediate moment. Sometimes, you need to leave more time for yourself, too, until you determine the right way to address the feedback.
  • Flexible delivery methods: Be adaptable in using different communication methods as per the situation and individual preferences. Don't schedule meetings for quick feedback, and don't address serious problems through direct messages on Skype or Slack.
  • Consistent feedback routine: Establish a routine that normalizes regular feedback, making it a part of the team culture. That way, you can easily spot the right timing and right delivery method.

Challenge #6: Balancing Critique with Encouragement

Effective feedback to engineers can cause a disbalance between constructive criticism and encouragement. In the tech industries, motivation and encouragement are crucial, especially if there are too many changes and challenges. Let the engineering team know that you foster a supportive and inspiring environment, even when you have the toughest feedback for them. 

How to Overcome the Challenge:

  • Positive reinforcement: Balance critiques with recognition of strengths and accomplishments. Show appreciation for a good job so the "bad" things can be more balanced, with no risk of hurting someone's feelings.
  • Future-oriented feedback: Focus on future improvements and opportunities for growth. Let the employees know that your feedback shouldn't make them feel bad. On the contrary, the goal is to give everyone an equal and fair chance to improve their performance to bring more opportunities for growth in the future. 
  • Personalize feedback: Tailor feedback to individual motivations and career goals. You can't follow drafts and templates because each individual is different and nurtures different goals and values.
  • Create a supportive environment: Don't forget that support means everything. It makes people more open to giving and receiving feedback, which lowers the risks of misunderstanding and miscommunication.

Challenge #7: Dealing with Defensive Reactions

Feedback is surely crucial for growth, but sometimes it triggers defensiveness. It often happens when giving feedback to experienced professionals and senior engineers. 

Sometimes, you can face defensive reactions that come from the sense of pride, expertise, or fear of being judged. Some of the most common defensive reactions after feedback can be:

  • Justification, as engineers may try to justify their actions with reasoning behind them.
  • Minimizing or downplaying the significance of the issue.
  • Blaming someone else and shifting responsibility to other team members. 
  • Rationalization of their behavior by mentioning external factors or circumstances.
  • Personal attacks to make themselves feel better about the feedback. 
  • Withdrawal and refusal to engage in further feedback-related discussion.

When not addressed, these defensive behaviors can create communication barriers or project disruptions. 

How to Overcome the Challenge:

  • Empathetic approach: Show understanding and empathy towards their perspective. Try to stay calm and encourage the other person to feel calm, too. Explain it's not a criticism, just an observation.
  • Stay calm and professional: Maintain a calm demeanor and avoid getting defensive in response. Even when the other person tries to start a fight, you must stay focused and discourage such behavior. 
  • Solution-focused discussion: Steer the conversation towards finding solutions and improvements. While it's crucial to address the issues, it's even more important to offer solutions. That way, you create a positive environment but also strengthen the relationships within the team.


Feedback, an integral part of the future of leadership, requires time and dedication to master, yet it is essential for the success of engineering teams. By facilitating the identification and addressing of specific weaknesses, feedback not only enhances skill development and work quality but also contributes to improving happiness in the engineering department and overall morale.

It's crucial for leaders to foster a culture where constructive feedback is a normal part of the workflow. By doing so, you'll create a safe environment for open communication, whether it's through written messages, meetings, or direct interactions between employees and managers. This approach ensures feedback is seamlessly integrated into the company's daily operations.

If you need help, you can find plenty of courses, ebooks, and resources online. It's simple, like googling how to become great at giving feedback, but I can recommend 'No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention' by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer. The book gives you an insight into how Netflix successfully worked for decades while valuing people over processes and emphasizing a culture of innovation as they nurture the culture of giving constructive feedback.

Good luck!


Q: How do you give feedback to an engineer?
To give feedback to an engineer, be specific, focus on behaviors and outcomes, not personality. Use a balanced approach, combining positive reinforcement with constructive criticism. Ensure feedback is timely and relevant to their current projects. Encourage a two-way dialogue to understand their perspective and foster mutual understanding.
Q: What is feedback in engineering management?
In engineering management, feedback is the process of providing constructive information to team members about their performance, work quality, and professional development. It's aimed at improving skills, addressing issues, and enhancing team collaboration. Effective feedback fosters a culture of continuous learning and growth within the engineering team.
Q: Why is feedback important in engineering?
Feedback in engineering is crucial for identifying areas of improvement, enhancing skills, and maintaining high-quality work. It fosters a culture of continuous learning and collaboration, leading to innovative solutions and effective problem-solving. Regular feedback also helps align team goals and strengthens overall team dynamics and project success.
Q: What are the different types of feedback in engineering?
In engineering, feedback types include constructive criticism, focusing on areas for improvement; positive reinforcement, highlighting strengths and successful outcomes; peer feedback, where colleagues provide insights; and managerial feedback, where supervisors guide professional growth. Additionally, 360-degree feedback involves input from various levels within the organization, offering a comprehensive view.
Milan Savov
Milan Savov
Founder & CEO

Milan is the Founder and CEO of SmartClick, a web and SEO Agency that offers complete website development and SEO services. As a Senior WordPress Engineer, Milan has specialized in architecting robust, scalable solutions that drive online success. With extensive knowledge in website development, and over a decade-long working experience in the field, Milan leads a dynamic team in creating custom websites and optimizing user experiences.

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