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Alex Hinrichs: Giving Feedback; How To Be Honest Without Being Hurtful

Be sure to thank your teammate for listening and being coachable. I say something like, “Thank you for being so coachable. Being such an open listener makes it much easier for me to give you continuous feedback.” This message always lands well, reduces friction, and makes future conversations less emotionally draining. As a part of […]

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Be sure to thank your teammate for listening and being coachable. I say something like, “Thank you for being so coachable. Being such an open listener makes it much easier for me to give you continuous feedback.” This message always lands well, reduces friction, and makes future conversations less emotionally draining.

As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Alex Hinrichs.

Alex managed large scale software projects for 22 years at Microsoft. These included breakthrough innovations such as the HoloLens augmented reality headset and the multi-billion-dollar Windows Server operating system. He experienced the intense pressure of leading teams through tough technical challenges and grueling schedules, with everyone coming out the other side wanting to do it again.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

My first “real job” was with Microsoft in 1996. I thought I’d stay for five years, learn a lot, make some friends, and then start a company with them. It ends up that I loved Microsoft. Great opportunities inside the company kept coming, and Microsoft was my home for 22 years. While I had many roles, my primary responsibility always revolved around Project and Release Managing the development of very large software products. Windows Server, Windows Phone, and the HoloLens AR headset were the most prominent. While these software projects were very different in terms of usage, at their core, they were all the same. Huge systems of people working towards a shared goal while balancing intense time/feature/quality requirements. Now in my second act, I’m sharing my lessons learned with other software teams — specifically, the Oculus VR team at Facebook.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Few people have had the opportunity to build large operating systems that run on millions (and billions) of machines. I’ve been at the center of developing three of them. I’ve made plenty of mistakes and along the way, learned what works and what doesn’t. I’ve been able to share my learnings with other teams through my consulting work and writing at AlexHinrichs.com. The core principle that drives my thinking is that software is built by people. And the only way to be successful is to create a system where people can connect, problem solve, build trust, and want to work hard every single day, month, and year.

In the software industry, people move between companies fairly fluidly, so you never know whom you’re going to see again. During my first week on the Oculus halls at Facebook, I must have run into a dozen people I worked with at Microsoft. Invariably, there were high fives and hugs, and I was genuinely excited to see some old friends. When I think about it now, that means as much to me as almost anything. After all the stress and struggles of shipping high-end software, we were thrilled to see each other and eager to work together again.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

When we were developing Windows Phone, we had a major milestone (I think it was our Release Candidate), and we weren’t going to make it. We hadn’t finished the key features, and we weren’t hitting our quality bar. This news was going to be deflating to the team because even with all of our hard work, it simply wasn’t good enough. Our leader (Terry Myerson) came to me and said, “You have to deliver the bad news.” Unfortunately, I knew what this meant. I would have to stand on stage at a 1000+ person team meeting, give the message, take the arrow — all while wearing a clown suit. To make matters worse, the team meeting was in a giant outdoor circus tent, AND I had to ride into the tent on a pony. Terry was dressed at William Wallace and rode in first on a tall white stallion. I was set to ride in second, but while everyone was cheering Terry, my pony went nuts and was trying to buck me off. I jumped off the pony, they brought me the calm white horse, and I rode into the tent to a chorus of laughs. I hopped on stage to deliver the bad news. Not only was Terry already there, but so was Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. I told everyone the bad news, they groaned, and then the crowd demanded that we dance… so we did. Afterward, Steve Ballmer came up to me and said, “Alex? Is that you under all that makeup?” Yes, Steve. Yes, it is.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Besides showing up on day one wearing a tie? To a west-coast tech company where everyone is in t-shirts and flip flops? In my first month at Microsoft, we had a bunch of new-hire training. I was a Program Manager, which meant I was the interface between marketing and the code writers. As a new person, I had no idea what that really meant, so I went to a training session held by a highly respected Director of Program Management named Melinda. She gave a great talk with tons of practical advice and encouragement, and during her presentation, she mentioned she was from Dallas. Afterward, I was the only person to go talk to her. I mentioned I was from Houston. I asked a couple of questions and thanked her for her advice. Walking back to our building, some of the other new Program Managers said, “We saw you talking to her. What is she like?” I was bewildered and said, “Umm… she seemed great. Same as she did during the talk. Why do you ask?” They said, “That was Melinda French!”. Again, I was clueless. “Who is Melinda French?” They looked at me like I was crazy. “She’s Bill Gates’ WIFE!”

The lesson here is to see everyone as just another person. No matter their title or status — big or small — everyone is someone who is trying their best to do their job. Had I known that it was Bill Gates’ wife, would I have been afraid to talk to her? Maybe. I’ll never know. But after 20+ years, I do know that you need to be fearless and willing to talk to anyone.

What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

A lot of burnout occurs when people don’t feel supported by their leadership. As a leader, you need to have the mindset of, “I am here to serve my team.” When you think and operate that way, your team feels it. They know you’re in their corner, you’re helping them, and they get a sense of psychological safety. This leads to resilience when the going gets tough — and it always gets tough.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I think leadership is three things: direction, clarity, and support.
Direction: it’s your job to articulate a clear and inspiring “north star” and repeat that message over and over. A north star inspires your team, your partners, and your customers. It helps people prioritize and focus, and when you get there, you have something to celebrate.

Clarity: In all endeavors, there are times where things are ambiguous, or people are conflicted about what to do. As a leader, you must cut through the fog and clearly communicate goals and non-goals. This is very difficult to do well, and usually requires a lot of discussion and iteration with other leaders and key stakeholders. The investment in time and energy is worth it because clarity enables the team to execute with confidence. They know they are working on the right thing, at the right time, and that their efforts align with leadership.

Support: Leaders support their teams by providing resources, removing barriers, making un-blocking decisions, creating partnerships, giving air cover, and myriad other ways. The critical element is to have the mindset that “as a leader, I’m here to support and serve my team.”

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I had the good fortune to work closely with Bill Laing. He was the Vice President of Windows Server, which was preceded by a long career at DEC and the CTO role at AltaVista (a big dog of early search engines). Bill had two quotes that continue to resonate with me. “Things are never as bad… or as good as you think they are going to be.” And, “When things get heated around me, I try to slow everything down.”

When you have a high stakes meeting, you have the underlying fear of “What if it goes wrong?” The fear can inhibit your ability to perform and be a self-fulfilling prophecy. So, you need to reduce that fear. Bill’s first quote has always helped me overcome the fear because he’s right. When it goes badly, it’s never quite as bad as you imagined. Your anxiety is reduced by simply knowing that no matter what, it won’t be that bad.

If you’re in a meeting that’s going badly and people are getting emotional, it’s time to put Bill’s second quote to work and slow down. Slow down your breathing, your talking, your movements, your emotions. Everything. By slowing down, you can cut through the chaos and make calm salient points and hopefully get things back on track. I must admit that this one is the hardest for me as I tend to run a little hot, but by following Bill’s advice, I’m much much better than in my younger days.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers about your experience with managing a team and giving feedback?

I always had two modes of managing a team. First, the team that was in my formal reporting structure. This typically involved one or two layers of management, up to 60 people, and an annual review process with high stakes compensation decisions. Second, was the extended cross-organizational team which delivered code to the software project. These were typically hundreds of engineers whom I had to influence without direct performance review authority. I had to give constant feedback to both my organization and the extended organization because I was held accountable for delivering the entire product.

This might seem intuitive but it will be constructive to spell it out. Can you share with us a few reasons why giving honest and direct feedback is essential to being an effective leader?

People are hungry for constructive feedback. They crave coaching because they want to get better at their jobs. Sometimes, I think leaders are hesitant to give direct feedback because it can be emotionally draining.

For the vast majority of organizations, their number one asset is their people. The best way for the organization to grow is to grow the talent stacks of their people. Therefore, every leader has a responsibility to help their team grow, and growth involves telling people what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong. When leaders do not give feedback, they are committing management malpractice.

In mapping back to my definition of leadership (direction, clarity, support), giving direct feedback falls under the banner of “clarity” and “support”.

One of the trickiest parts of managing a team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. Can you please share with us five suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee? Kindly share a story or example for each.

There are two major modes of feedback: spot feedback and performance feedback. Spot feedback is often related to performance feedback, but it’s very tactical. Performance feedback is geared towards long-term growth and career goals and tends to involve more extended conversations that require preparation.

Spot feedback needs to be direct, specific, and timely. For example, it’s useless to tell someone, “I don’t like the way you handle meetings.” Helpful feedback looks like, “In this morning’s project meeting, you didn’t come prepared with a crisp agenda, which led to an unfocused conversation. For the next meeting, can you send out an agenda beforehand? If you’d like assistance in putting it together, I’m happy to help.”

You should give spot feedback as soon as possible and in private. When given quickly, both you and the receiver’s memories are fresh, so there’s less likelihood of them saying, “I don’t remember it that way.” Also, by being timely, they are not worried that you’ve been sitting or stewing on the feedback. And lastly, the faster you give the feedback, the faster they can correct it. Providing the feedback privately puts them in a position to listen to what you’re saying. Plus, by speaking in private, you’re showing respect in not trying to embarrass them. So, for the example above, the very best time to give that feedback is when the two are you are walking back to the office from the meeting. It’s both timely and private.

For performance feedback, schedule the conversation so that both of you can prepare and use the structure of “keep-stop-start”. Keep doing this set of things. Stop doing this other set of things. And start doing this new set of things. By opening with “keep”, you’re acknowledging the work and characteristics that are positive. Often, a teammate is not aware that you are aware of their positive work and attributes. As with spot feedback, be specific. A concrete example of good work or behavior is very powerful. By intentionally pointing out their positives, you’re not only reinforcing their good performance but also demonstrating that you’re paying close attention and are in a strong position to give coaching.

The “stop” portion is mostly corrective. It’s a list of actions or behaviors that are detrimental and need to be curtailed. If there is going to be friction or defensiveness, it will be during the “stop” section of the conversation. Again, have very specific examples to illustrate your points. If these bad behaviors are overshadowing the “keep” behaviors and inhibiting advancement, now is the time to say so.

The “start” section is where you can help the person grow. List specific actions that you want them to start doing. It’s best to give examples of others who do the activity well so they can emulate them.

Be sure to thank your teammate for listening and being coachable. I say something like, “Thank you for being so coachable. Being such an open listener makes it much easier for me to give you continuous feedback.” This message always lands well, reduces friction, and makes future conversations less emotionally draining.

Can you address how to give constructive feedback over email? If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote.

How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

Email feedback is super tough to get right, and the challenge is in representing the proper tone. When you want to make a gentle adjustment, you want it to come across as gentle. And when you want to be firm, then it needs to come across as firm. The hard answer is that there’s no magic bullet. You have to take the time to write with a cushion of tone around each point.

Let’s say you want to make the gentle point of “Your follow-up is inconsistent.” You need to wrap it in language that reduces the chance of misinterpretation. “I appreciate how long your to-do list is, and I know that you’re grinding through it as efficiently as possible. You are typically fantastic at following up immediately on action items. I noticed last week that a couple of items fell through the cracks — you didn’t call Fred and didn’t send Sue the report as promised. I’m sure they just slipped your mind. It can happen to me as well. I know you’re going to have a great week next week.”

The above takes much longer to write than to say. But if email is your main or only avenue, and you want to minimize misunderstandings, then take the time to write with intentional tone.

In your experience, is there a best time to give feedback or critique? Should it be immediately after an incident? Should it be at a different time? Should it be at set intervals? Can you explain what you mean?

Both. As I mentioned earlier, tactical feedback is most effective when it’s immediate, specific, and in private. It’s good form to let your teammates know that you function this way. You can say, “It’s my style to give fast and direct feedback. At first, this may be uncomfortable and feel like I’m poking at you with a lot of nits, but please know that it’s in the spirit of helping you reach your potential.” When I’ve said this, I’ve had reactions ranging from “Umm… Okay.” (with a scared look), to “Great! Hit me with it!”

For more formal performance feedback, it should be at scheduled intervals. At Microsoft, this was semi-annually (at first), and then annually — which is the absolute longest it should ever go between formal feedback sessions. The best interval is a quarterly check-in (and I must admit that I wasn’t great at adhering to the quarterly schedule). I think it’s a given that a manager should have a weekly one-on-one with each direct report, and those meetings are opportunities to give feedback as well.

How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?

When asked about leadership, I listed direction, clarity, and support. Providing support is really at the core of being a great boss, and I should probably list it first. When you support your team, you build trust, and trust is the lubricant that enables a team to run at its peak.

When I was Director of Program Management for Windows Server, I had a great boss. Iain McDonald. He is very experienced, savvy, a great connector, and he supports his teams to the maximum. He also has a huge and colorful personality, which makes him a press favorite. When it came time to promote Windows Server 2008, our PR team, of course, reached out to Iain for interviews. He told them that they should talk to me since I was the guy driving the release. For me, this was such a great show of support and confidence. Not only did he forgo major press opportunities, but he also trusted me to handle these high stakes interviews. And he did it to give me experience, exposure, and help grow my career. I’ve never forgotten that, and I feel great loyalty to Iain to this day.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Be direct. Be firm. But don’t be a jerk. Instead, be kind.

There are always five different ways to make your point, so choose one that is considerate and assumes best intentions. It may take a little longer. You may not feel like being supportive at that exact moment. But do it anyway. In the long run, it’s how you build a team and culture that lasts.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I don’t need more time. What I need is a deadline.” — Duke Ellington

I’ve spent most of my professional life running projects. And every goodproject is filled with deadlines. Without deadlines, it’s hard to set expectations, create accountability, and generate urgency. So always have a deadline. Ideally, the person doing the work is the one creating the deadline. When the work owner creates a deadline and states that deadline in public, then the likelihood of them finishing on time goes up 5X. And if no one has a deadline, then make one up out of thin air. If it’s way off, then people will push back and use that made-up-date as an anchor point to create a better date. Voila! You have a deadline!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I frequently publish articles about leadership and management on my website AlexHinrichs.com and post regularly on LinkedIn. A few thousand people read me every week, and I really enjoy reading their comments and providing something they value.

Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.

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