How specific feedback can accelerate your team’s career growth

Learn how to craft specific feedback to help your team's career growth.

How specific feedback can accelerate your team’s career growth

Understanding specific feedback

Specific, actionable feedback is essential for improved team performance and productivity. Seemingly well-intentioned feedback such as “you could take more initiative” or “you have so much potential – you could do better” are vague. They don’t provide enough direction and leave the recipient wondering what exactly they need to do to improve.

At its heart, specific feedback is an empowering form of guidance. It helps align manager and team member expectations and reduces the likelihood of team members second-guessing themselves. 

Why specific feedback is so challenging to provide   

In my years leading and developing software teams, I’ve noticed that it’s common for new and inexperienced managers to struggle with providing specific feedback to their team members.

Managers shouldn’t feel bad about this; effective feedback is a skill that needs practice to develop. Most people dislike conflict, so vague comments can feel like a safe tactic when you aren’t confident in providing direct and detailed feedback.

Managers themselves often need clarification on the skills, behaviours and contributions they should be evaluating their team members on. This situation is widespread in organisations that lack engineering career frameworks that objectively define the contributions employees should have at a given level. (Solving this problem is one of the key reasons why I co-founded Kaleida!)

Vague feedback and gender bias

Providing specific feedback can help level the playing field for all employees. Research shows a discrepancy in the level of specificity in the feedback given to men and women. According to a study published in the Harvard Business Review, women receive vague feedback from their managers 57% of the time, compared to 43% for men. 

Women are more likely to receive feedback on personal attributes, such as behaviours and communication styles, and are less likely to be given feedback linked to concrete business outcomes. On the other hand, men are more likely to receive a clearer picture of their skills and achievements and are given more specific direction on what they need to do to get promoted. 

Bar chart showing that men receive 43% of vague feedback compared to 57% of women, and 60% of feedback linked to business outcomes compared to 40% of the time for women.]

The ‘subtle setback’ of vague feedback has far-reaching implications for the respective career trajectories of men and women in the tech industry. Without a clear idea of specific areas they need to improve, female software engineers may find their career growth hampered compared to their male counterparts. The compounding effect is the ‘broken rung’ phenomenon that sees fewer women in tech leadership roles and more women leaving the industry. 

With that in mind, organisations can support the career progression of all employees by striving to provide detailed, actionable and equitable feedback. 

How to turn vague feedback into valuable feedback

Focus on the performance, not the person

Let’s workshop an example of a vague, unhelpful statement and turn it into a much more specific and constructive one. 

“You’re not technical enough.”

Applying the ‘technical’ or ‘non-technical’ label to people implies some sort of immutable trait. This type of labelling can lead to a fixed mindset, the opposite of the growth mindset we should encourage in teams.

(As an aside, there’s another reason I dislike the ‘you’re not technical enough’ label; it is inherently steeped in gender bias and more often applied to female software engineers to prove their technical ability. Men, on the other hand, are often assumed to have technical aptitude until proven otherwise.)

If team members have room to grow in their technical skills, help them identify the gaps with specific examples and steps. 

Let’s say a team member creates large PRs that fail to compile properly. Rather than dismissing their coding skills or them as being not technical enough, provide detailed guidance, such as:

“It would be beneficial if you break down your PRs into more manageable sizes and provide more comprehensive test plans so they are more efficient to review.
Before we meet next week, let’s create a checklist of things you need to do before opening a PR.”  

Specific feedback provides clear directions for team members to work on and makes identifying the resources needed to support them easier. They may benefit from being assigned to a project where they can gain more experience in a particular area, take an online course to brush up on coding principles or shadow a more experienced developer on the team. 

Avoid absolutes

Avoid absolute phrases like “you always…” or “you never…”  These statements don’t promote open dialogue and are more likely to cause team members to feel defensive and shut down. 

By saying that someone always or never does something, managers are more likely to ignore when the team member does something that contradicts this perception. This behaviour feeds into confirmation bias and exacerbates the ‘horns effect’ bias.

Instead, replace absolute phrases with factual and situation-specific feedback. Let’s say one of your team members has challenges meeting deadlines and often spends time creating extra unscoped elements that slow the development process down.

Rather than saying:

“You’re always late with your work. You need to be less of a perfectionist and stop overengineering your solutions.”


“I wanted to discuss some patterns in your work that we need to address. On our last project, the timelines slipped by three weeks. I noticed that you introduced a set of additional query capabilities into the GraphQL layer that wasn’t part of the original scope.

While I value your focus on quality and your forward-thinking approach, let’s agree on raising any potential enhancements you are thinking of during our sprint planning so we can validate their necessity and timing against our resources.”

Rather than broadly generalising or blaming the team member’s personality, this statement:

  • points to a specific incident
  • highlights why it is an issue
  • discusses its impact on the team; 
  • suggests how to address the problem going forward. 

Additionally, I like that it assumes good intent behind the team member’s actions, making it easier to have a constructive conversation. 

Be specific, even with positive reinforcement 

It’s common for team members to receive feedback that they’re doing a good job. That’s fantastic feedback, of course - who doesn’t want to be told they’re doing well? But if that’s where the feedback ends, it won’t help the team member grow.

Recognise the individual’s unique contributions and highlight what exactly they are doing well so they know what actions they should continue with. 

Compare the following two statements:

“You’re doing a great job. Keep doing what you’re doing!” 


“I’ve been impressed with your performance this quarter. You were able to translate the UX designs into a responsive and accessible interface for the data visualisation project.

The sales team have given me great feedback that the custom widget you developed solved a lot of customer pain points.

I know you mentioned that you’d like more experience with interservice communication, so I’d like to put you forward to take the lead on next month’s upcoming CRM integration project.”

Which one would your team member prefer to receive?

The second statement provides much richer and more actionable information. It helps clarify what the team member did well, what positive impact they had on the project, and puts concrete steps in place to continue developing their skills to align with their career goals. 

Cultivating a culture of specific and constructive feedback

How can managers ensure they regularly provide detailed feedback in one-to-ones and performance reviews? Here are some principles to keep in mind:

1. Use a career framework

Ensure that team members are clear on their job roles and responsibilities. It’s easier for feedback to be specific when you and your team members are aligned on the level they should be performing at.

Career frameworks can help define what achievements look like and provide a clear roadmap for professional development. A career growth framework like Kaleida is explicitly tailored to software engineers and offers consistent, industry-benchmarked success criteria.

Screenshot of Kaleida platform showing a description of what a software engineering skill (in this case, coding) looks like at different levels.

Kaleida’s career growth platform benchmarks your team against a set of technical and core skills fundamental to success for software engineering teams. The framework has rich industry examples to guide team members in recording their contributions. 

Learn more: read our article on The Power of Career Growth Frameworks.

2. Provide timely feedback

A culture of immediate, ‘just in time’ feedback keeps performance discussions current and a regular part of the employee’s development. Timely feedback is more likely to be specific since it relates to an immediate achievement or action. Any appreciation feels more genuine. Conversely, a quicker course correction can occur if an area of growth is identified. You’ll build a stronger relationship with your team members because they’ll feel you’ve invested in their growth and development. 

3. Make use of evidence

Use clear examples and specific data points to illustrate the issue. Regularly refer to project deliverables, code quality and other documented contributions when discussing team member performance. By anchoring feedback in concrete examples and achievements, you can eliminate ambiguity and reduce the chance of personal bias creeping into the feedback.

4. Encourage two-way dialogue

If you’ve noticed team conflict or poor performance, ask your team member open-ended questions to understand their perspective. Don’t jump to conclusions before seeking context for why they may have done things a certain way. You can calibrate your feedback to ensure it’s balanced and considers the employee’s circumstances. 

5. Be solutions-focused

Don’t just identify a gap and leave it at that. Offer practical suggestions that can close the gap. This may include resources such as training, project assignments, support for pursuing certification, peer learning or mentorship opportunities.

A screenshot of Kaleida's Team Dashboard showing a heatmap of different skills for team members. Skills include 'delivery, coding, craft, devops, security, coaching, community, recruiting and wellbeing.

Using tools like Kaleida’s team dashboard can aggregate strengths and skills gaps and provide invaluable insights into team-wide issues that would be difficult to discern when only considering employees one by one. 

Kaleida’s Team Dashboard view uses a heatmap to identify team strengths and gaps visually. In the example above, we can see that security is the weakest area across the team. Team leaders can use this data to design programs that benefit the whole team, from group training on secure code practices to peer mentoring initiatives with members from other teams with solid security skills.   

6. Co-create a development plan

Make an agreement with your team member to define measurable and time-bound career goals. Agree on how to measure that goal, set timelines and schedule regular check-ins to review progress and provide ongoing support.

Screenshot of Kaleida's career growth plan -showing different growth areas, and an interface that lets people add actions, measures and due dates for the actions to be completed.

Kaleida’s Career Growth Plan feature makes it easy for managers and team members to set concrete, time-bound and measurable career goals. Unlike static documents that get dusted off periodically, Kaleida’s Career Growth Plan is a living roadmap that can be enhanced and adapted as the employee grows.   

Specific feedback is a superpower

Specific feedback is a priceless gift to the recipient, and the art of crafting specific feedback is a managerial superpower. By moving beyond vague feedback to clear, actionable feedback, managers can engage and motivate their team much more effectively.

When paired with a robust career framework, data-backed career conversations, and career growth plans that keep individuals accountable, specific feedback can drive employees’ continuous growth and supercharge the success of your organisation.

Kaleida is the complete tech leaders' toolkit to help managers invest in the career development of their teams. Get in touch with us today if you want to be a more effective engineering leader.