When Feedback Loops Disappear in Management

Early on in my engineering management (EM) career, I went around asking other, more experienced EMs for advice. They were happy to oblige, giving me way more than I could have absorbed at the time, while leaving enough unsaid so that I’d still make – and hopefully learn from – beginner mistakes. Some lessons are apparently best experienced first-hand1.

One piece of friendly advice that has resonated with me is the insight that feedback loops disappear for managers. While individual contributors (IC) – i.e., people who actually do the work – can show and reflect on the labors of their production, the “product” of management is largely a reflection of the effectiveness of the team: something that’s hard to measure and even harder to attribute. A job well-done may be largely invisible, or at least from the outside, unremarkable.

I suspect it may be why some folks try to micromanage their way back to the front lines, or at least find some tiny facet of their reports’ work they can directly influence.

The cynical takeaway is that managers are largely absolved of direct accountability. Although there’s some notion that a team’s lead is ultimately responsible for its success, even defining such criteria for success is an evolving and hairy task. With few direct indicators, providing useful feedback becomes hard outside of extraneous conditions; if things are mostly running smoothly, there’s no easy way to determine whether things are truly well or are in dire need of improvement2.

Step back to take a longer view though, and there may be larger signs of good management. I really like this story about how a manager is pleasantly surprised at how his work did have an effect, years down the line, that caused him to be celebrated by a former report’s parents. Away from the immediacy of daily decisions and communication, a manager’s body of work – through the team’s tenor and culture and accomplishments and failures – builds over time, its impact proportional to the imprint on the teams’ memories and characters. Making an impression, positive or otherwise, is itself a piece of valuable feedback, albeit much-delayed3.

A while ago, I saw leadership as the ability to maintain followers across projects, teams, organizations, jobs, industries: good leaders have people that love to work for and with them in whatever they pursue. The immediate feedback loop may be buried under levels of indirection and ambiguity, but the much larger loop, spanning across years and careers, is much more impactful.

  1. Not that there was some conspiratorial scheme to apply lessons to new managers. The set of challenges seems to be slightly different for every EM undergoing the transition anyway.

  2. The other tricky bit is figuring out whether these improvements are worth their cost of implementation. E.g., measuring effectiveness via metrics ought to be encouraged, until they take too much time to define and are wielded as political weaponry in roadmap discussions.

  3. The implication here is that feedback is most useful when it can be delivered in a timely fashion.

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